• I recently read an informative quote on a website designed to bring God’s healing grace to the bereaved through grief education. It read, “Saying good-bye is not a one-time action. It is a process with many different steps, difficult steps. It’s okay if you don’t feel ready for this now. Understand that saying good-bye occurs gradually over time.” This profound statement delivers key elements that can help guide us all on our journey through grief.

    The notion that saying good-bye is a difficult multi-step process that occurs over time can help those mourning the loss of a loved one face and understand the emotional turmoil that can arise as they learn to integrate the loss into their lives. We don’t simply say good-bye at the bedside of a dying loved one or later at the funeral. There are many good-byes that occur gradually over time.

    I recall with clarity the sequence of events following my husband Trent’s death 24 years ago. Saying good-bye to his body at the end of his funeral was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do. Following his burial, it was presumed that I would simply resume life and get on with things. And as it was I was determined to keep everything including what belonged to him exactly as it was the day he left for work and never came home again. The thought of any more change at that time brought a fear of the future that was near paralyzing to me.

    But as my life progressed, as it tends to do, and I engaged in the difficult work of mourning my loss and developing a new normal for my little family, I found that my perception of things changed with time. In the early days I would never have considered giving Trent’s clothes, books or trinkets to anyone other than my immediate family. With them I knew his things would be cherished and safe.

    But I found in the subsequent months and years, when I was ready, that it brought me joy, albeit bittersweet, to say good-bye to many of his things, knowing that they would be enjoyed by others. That was a very difficult but monumental step for me to take, but a necessary one on my personal grief journey. Letting go of those linking objects allowed me the room to create new life and I came to believe he would have appreciated that. Saying good-bye to that tangible evidence of Trent’s life was an important part of my healing.

    Those in mourning must not only say good-bye to those tangible things that are held so dear but also to the future that they had planned and the very self-identity that was enjoyed within the specific relationship with a loved one.

    Saying good-bye to what might have been at the next anniversary, birthday or holiday event can be devastating at first. But as time progresses and we take the next step on our healing journey, there will be a time when peace will trickle in and replace much of the heartache. Then the future will open to new possibilities in which the memory of our loved one will hold a special place.

    Following Trent’s death I was no longer considered a wife, but a widow. My identity had been wrapped in that delightful post and as time moved forward following his death I was forced to say good-bye over and over to the part of my social life that consisted of couples’ events and wifely privilege. As difficult as that was, I have found, in my own time, joy again in my life as single mom.

    With that said I have learned through my own experience and that of those I’ve walked with in their grief, that timing is everything in saying good-bye. There may be those in our lives who will encourage a quickening of grief and an urgency to say good-bye. My own sainted mother encouraged me the very day we buried my beloved to clean his closet out and erase all evidence of Trent’s life in my home. Though my burdened heart was bruised and broken, I knew that it was not time yet for me to say good-bye. I knew eventually when the time was right.

    We as grief-stricken individuals must take the time to be in our grief and move at our own pace. We must follow our hearts as we learn to say the many good-byes that are part of the path through grief, one difficult step at a time. Only then will we truly begin to heal.

    Posted on March 11, 2014, to:

  • I met a woman who traveled for three years following her husband’s untimely death following a heart attack. She worked as a traveling nurse in areas from the East Coast to the West, living in studios or one-bedroom apartments while her house sat empty back home. She found a new slice of life that actually had a bit of joy in it as she met new people and experienced new landscapes all across the country. Her grief was not part of this nomadic life.

    Then her oldest daughter gave birth to her first grandchild and her strongest desire was to settle back home to be near this new life. It was then that her grief over her husband’s death rose up in a fierce way, having been suppressed for three years.

    “When I moved home, I was so excited. Then it hit me. Joe was no longer here in our house. I relived his death over and over,” she said. “It was so painful and I was so lonely. It was almost crippling. I finally realized this was the grief I had been avoiding for the past three years.”

    There are times along the grief journey particularly in the beginning when the pain is raw, when being busy is a healthy thing to do. Those are times when we take purposeful breaks from the heaviness of grief, or must set about accomplishing life’s ever-present tasks.

    However, being excessively busy with no time to mourn in personally appropriate ways can hinder the healing process and must be monitored closely. It’s important for us to understand the need to face our feelings and respond to them in healthy ways.

    I found in my own experience following the death of my husband Trent and the subsequent deaths of my mom and my young nephew, Adam, that though it feels like trial and error when one first acknowledges the hard work to be done to reconcile a loss into life as it is now, it is really just a matter of following your heart.

    As I struggled to reconcile to my new role as single mother after Trent was killed, I found myself overwhelmingly busy with the comings and goings of my two young daughters’ lives. And of course that was my desire. However, it wasn’t long before I found myself crashing in the evening after the girls were in bed. Fortunately, a very wise woman counseled me to find time to get out at least once a week, “even if you just get a babysitter and sit in your backyard,” she joked.

    I eventually saw wisdom in her encouragement and slowly over time I found a balance between the continuous onslaught of life events and my own need to mourn my loss.

    With my own experience in mind, I encouraged my friend those years ago to examine her reason for traveling. As she became educated about the universality of grief, through her support group meetings and seminars and books, she came to understand that grief work is heart work. She looked back on her busy-ness and realized that though at first it was necessary for her to travel just to survive, later it became a consorted effort not to feel the pain of her loss.

    My friend eventually came to terms with her grief and started at the beginning with the healing process, albeit three years after the loss. She, too has now struck a balance between being busy or distracted and slowing down to acknowledge the myriad feelings that come with mourning the loss of a loved one.

    Distractions are commonplace in our fast-paced American culture and we are bombarded with the encouragement to “get over it quickly” and “move on” from our grief. But those of us who have lost dear ones know that there is no quick fix to mourning a loss. It is a process that we must take time to work through as our hearts lead us.

    Perhaps as our journeys proceed and we learn what we must do to heal, we will choose our commitments, activities and behavior a little more wisely. We will take the time we need to acknowledge our loss, sit with our grief and feel all that comes to us, and seek the support we need to respond to those feelings, even in the busy-ness of life. And as we do the work of grief, over time, our broken hearts will begin to heal and we will be present to all that life has to offer — distractions and all. I suspect that is what our loved ones would want for us.

    Posted on February 11, 2014, to:

  • Now that the holidays are behind us, many are breathing a sigh of relief, grateful for the time spent with family and friends and all the preparation and events that made this season so special. Most are grateful to pack up the Christmas decorations and get back to “normal.”

    But there are some who struggle with the end of the season that kept them so busy — struggle with getting back to normal. Those who are in deep mourning for a lost loved one know of what I speak.

    The loneliness of losing a loved one is a burden any time of the year, but for some it is especially cumbersome during and after the Christmas season. I remember well, that first Christmas after my husband Trent died in a car accident. Every event was a sheer act of will for me as I trudged numbly through the traditional Advent preparations and Christmas events he and I would have enjoyed together.

    Don’t get me wrong. My life overflowed with caring, generous people who stepped out of their way to include me in the festivities of the season. But in the exhausting pain of my early grief, I had little energy to respond.

    The loneliness that pervaded my life that first Christmas swept me to a place of darkness where I was sure I would simply exist forever. The only light I saw was the youthful joy my two young daughters maintained even in their loss.

    So in that light — for them — I decorated a tree, not quite as elaborate as in years past, but standing nonetheless as a reminder of peace and beauty, baked cookies to share with family and friends and then to place on the hearth on Christmas Eve for Good St. Nick, wrapped gifts that were distributed at family gatherings and, of course, on Christmas morn, and tried my best to be joyful as well.

    The busy-ness of the season kept my grief at bay some of the time, though the ache I felt for Trent grew with each gathering. And when Jan. 2 finally arrived I breathed a sigh of relief that I had survived my first Christmas season without my beloved spouse.

    Unfortunately for me then, and many others who grieve, I suspect, the relief of the “back to normal” routine that one usually experiences after the activities are over and the decorations are boxed in anticipation of another season did not return — as much as I tried to coax it.

    Without the hustle bustle of the Christmas season, the loneliness encircled me once again in a shroud of darkness that brought me an intrusive physical ache. And as the new year unfolded my only hope was in God’s promise of healing.

    Best selling author Richard Paul Evans exposed my very life in his 1997 novel “The Letter,” when he penned, “I feel lost. No. To be lost is to not know where one is — and I am all too sure. I am alone. My heart, my love, has been torn from me and I am consumed by the pain of it. … I don’t know where my road now leads but I fear the shadowlands that lie ahead. But it is not the darkness of the path I fear. Just the loneliness of the trail.”

    It is sometimes a dark and lonely trail that those who mourn must walk when life outside resumes its normalcy, especially after the holidays, no matter the type of loss. But hope is hidden in that loneliness for all of us. God is present in the empty, fertile space of the new year, even when the ache vies to overcome us. His grace will sanctify our grief as we work through it toward healing. But we must do that necessary work!

    I’ve learned over the years that grief work is essential to discovering how our lives have been changed by the death of our loved ones and how we will create a “new normal” that will honor them. The work of grief is not time bound and is certainly difficult with its emotional chaos and uncertainty. But it is a transitional process — and will not last forever. In the process we must maintain our hope that God’s plan for our future is one of healing and peace.

    Posted on January 14, 2014, to:

  • Mourning the loss of a loved one can be a dizzying process in its own rite. Then add to the mix the demands of the holiday season and you may have a recipe for heart-wrenching sorrow. Support during our most difficult times is essential to the healing process of grief. But many of us have found that the holidays, or any special anniversary day, can be daunting even with the best of support.

    Consolation comes in many forms. Some find it with a close friend or coworker. Others join a grief support group or church group. Still others find solace speaking with a counselor or member of the clergy. Most of us, I think, expect to find support in the midst of family. Many of us are blessed with family members who will stay the course with us as we navigate the stormy waters of grief. Many times though, rather than feeling supported by family, we may feel misunderstood, admonished or even abandoned by those closest to us.

    I have learned that family members of a deceased loved one sometimes find it difficult to support one another in their grief. It’s not that they don’t want to be gentle and compassionate with each other, but their own feelings of confusion and pain typically render them more introspective than helpful.

    You see, each family member enjoys a unique relationship with their loved one complete with all the joy and foibles that come with that personal kinship. Each member has a need to mourn the loss of their particular relationship and a heightened need to be understood in their grief. But at the same time their understanding toward others’ pain is sometimes diminished.

    Understanding others in their pain means recognizing and accepting the unique circumstances and style set forth by each individual as they walk their path of grief. Grief over losing a spouse is different than grieving the loss of a child or parent. What works for the healing of one may not be the best advice for another. Mourning styles between genders is especially notable, but that’s for another column.

    This past spring a friend of mine died after a very short and painful battle with cancer. Hers is a close-knit family that gathers religiously every week for Sunday dinner. Her family supports the work of each other, vacations together and shares much of life’s journey together. When she died they were collectively bereft.

    As the months have moved on however, individually these good people have come to witness the differences in each of their grief journeys. They each mourn in their own way. One daughter has found a healing venue in journaling, penning her deepest thoughts and feelings as a way of acknowledging her grief. Another finds comfort in sharing her grief verbally, but is frustrated with family members who sometimes cannot be present to her in her pain. Their father discovered his renewed need for companionship and is dating, much to the surprise and discomfort of his offspring.

    The frustration these family members feel with each other is not uncommon. And though they wish to be united in their grief over the loss of their loved one, they must walk their own path. I believe an important part of that path is learning to respect not only our own journey and all that it entails, but also the road others take in their search for healing.

    Walking our own path sounds a bit lonely I admit. We each are responsible for working through our own grief in our own time and with our own style. No one else can heal our hearts for us. However, that is where the solitude ends. None of us is ever truly alone in our grief. God offers His divine consolation through His grace in the very people around us.

    Finding a safe person or group in which to seek support is paramount on our sojourn of grief. It is with those safe others that we process our thoughts and feelings and come to a resolution about them. It is with them that we can feel safe to try on new life from the ashes of our loss. And that is healing!

    So if our family members are immersed in their own grieving and unable to support us, it may benefit all if we seek our safe place to grieve outside our immediate family. Join a support group of folks with a similar loss. Or seek out a trusted friend or counselor to share the burden of grief. As we learn to respect our journey and the journey of others’ as well, along the way we may discover that our own understanding and compassion is deepened and that support may come packaged in people we would not have expected.

    Posted on December 17, 2013, to:

  • The coming of autumn brings with it a quickening of the rhythm of life with its promise of the special days ahead. November offers All Saints’ and All Souls’ days when many gather to remember their deceased loved ones through ceremony, grief workshops and Masses of Remembrance. Though sometimes painful, those gatherings can bring a semblance of consolation to those who grieve.

    But as the days grow shorter, the whisper of the upcoming holidays with their implied festivities and glittery invitation to joy begins to beg for the attention of those with broken hearts. What do we, the anxious grief-struck, do to survive the holidays when our deceased loved one’s chair sits empty?

    Whether we are newly bereaved or have weathered a few holidays without our loved one, there are some tidbits of truth that can help us put our grief in perspective, especially as a special holiday, birthday or anniversary approaches.

    I remember well, that first Christmas my girls and I spent without their father. Trent had died in a car accident in September of that year and I was still reeling from the shock. As the season approached and I was again witness to the sights and sounds of the commercialization of Christmas, I asked myself how in the world I would ever make it through in one piece.

    There were people in my life then that nudged me to remember that life must go on and I must get over “it” for the sake of my girls. There were those who did not understand how life had changed so dramatically with the death of my husband and were put off by my reluctance to join in the festivities. And, mercifully, there were those who gently taught me that, with support and a little hope, following my heart would get me through even the worst of times.

    Each of us is the expert of his or her own grief journey. Though we bereaved walk the universal path of grief, we each step to our own timing. Listening graciously to the suggestions of others can help us formulate how we chose to grieve, but I have learned that discovering what my own heart tells me usually leads me down the right path.

    Discovering my own style of grieving, especially during the holidays, I found that following regular holiday traditions can be painful without our loved one. I believe we can modify or eliminate any activity for a time or even establish a new tradition to help us through. We are not required to attend any function with which we are uncomfortable. But we must be mindful not to isolate ourselves during this special time with family and friends. Our hearts will help us chose what’s best for us.

    That first Christmas, I chose to decorate as in years past but with less flair, and attend  most of the family gatherings replete with gifts and baked goods. Though it held little joy for me, my girls reveled in the “normalcy” of it. And that renewed my hope for our lives in the future. But I know others who chose to travel over the holidays in hopes of creating a new and meaningful tradition in honor of their loved one.

    Of course, those of us who have experienced a loss know that grief is messy. Its chaos comes unpredictably and with no order. We move in and out of our emotions as the need takes us. So during the holidays we can prepare ourselves with the awareness of the possibility of rising and falling feelings and how we will respond to them. I have found that an action plan can assist us in our self care. I learned to excuse myself from any activity when feeling overwhelmed. When I felt more settled I simply returned and carried on. I embrace the importance of making time to shed those persistent tears and gather myself in those situations.

    In anticipation of the stress of the holidays or when the rollercoaster of emotions get the most of us, it’s okay to seek support. Confide in a compassionate friend or family member, who will listen without judgment, or join a support group. Many churches offer closed-ended grief support groups through the holidays and there are ongoing grief support groups through churches, hospitals, hospices and private counselors.

    With that said, I have also discovered that it’s okay to allow ourselves to have a little fun as well. Our loved ones would desire that for us as we remember them with special care.

    I have learned that it doesn’t really matter how long our loved one has been gone. There will always be days, especially the glittering holidays that cause our grief to rise to the surface in renewed ways. It’s during those times that we must be extra gentle with ourselves and allow those feelings to be worked through with hope for healing. It will be only then that we can look back and see that we have indeed survived the holidays and maybe even found a little joy.

    Posted on November 12, 2013, to: