• As I was traveling to my destination this morning, minding the road’s familiar twists and turns, navigating the occasional pothole, I was taken with the notion that grief is much like a journey down a road well traveled. After the loss of someone dear, we may find ourselves on an unfamiliar though well traveled highway, with grief as our traveling companion. We may even find ourselves a bit lost at times along the way.

    There may be days when the sun shines warmly on our faces, and others when the glare blinds our eyes. A storm may erupt when we least expect it, but we navigate the slippery road of grief nonetheless. Many times we simply wish to stop and stare longingly into the rearview mirror at our past, becoming engulfed in the memories of what once was.

    But like driving a car, though, we must glance occasionally into the rearview mirror to see where we have been; we simply cannot fix our eyes there and move forward safely. Of course we must remember the past. It is the foundation of our present life. Our past, with its challenges and joys, and all that transpired in between, has made each of us who we are today. But we can’t live there. However, we can use our memories as a springboard to a hopeful future.

    I visited with a gentleman who was receiving visitors at his deceased wife’s showing recently. He shared sweet stories of his life with his beloved — how they met, their growth as a couple and even their retirement plans — and spoke of how blessed he had been for over 34 years to have loved this dynamic woman who had lost her battle with cancer. He spoke of the journey they shared as her health declined following a reoccurrence of the 15-year-old disease.

    “I feel like I was blessed with twice as much time as what some others get with this disease,” he said, confiding that research reports a six-year reoccurrence rate for a high percentage of patients in remission. “I will always miss her, but I know things will be alright eventually,” he concluded.

    This gentle man had looked to his past and even through the lens of grief felt only love and gratitude for what he had. With hope fueled by faith he turned to his future and rested in knowing that life would go on eventually — a different life, but one built on the past he held dear. There was no urgency in his voice for this new life. He simply was sifting through his memories as he mourned his loss.

    I have heard some say those who grieve must let go of their past memories. But how is that possible when they are truly the stuff that we are made of? Others have said the memories bring such pain that they won’t look to the past. But how can we have hope for our future without healing our past?

    I have learned that remembering our deceased loved one and all that they meant to us can be painful at first. There is a very real loneliness to those memories as we ache for their very presence in our lives. But there is healing there as well. As time marches on we have the choice to work through our grief and move forward or remain in the pain and live in the past.

    Griefshare.org, a bereavement website, recently offered, “Our hope lies before us, not in the memories of our past. Life’s path leads us forward and our decisions must be made based on our present and future needs not on our past memories.” Doing the hard work of mourning means looking to the past for a time and allowing ourselves to move through those painful feelings that are stirred by our longings — and then, in time, moving forward to create a new life, all the while holding our precious memories dear. Our future, you see, stands on the shoulders of our past.

    This road we travel with grief at our side is a well-traveled road. Many sojourners have traversed this path before us finding their way to hope. In that hope there is the promise to each of us that we are not alone — never alone. In the pain of loss — our seeming constant companion — when we may find ourselves lost and weary, the support and wisdom of others who are familiar with this sometimes-agonizing road can sustain us.

    As we journey into the future, we may find that as we work through our pain we learn to slow down and appreciate life’s landscapes in a different way. We may even reach out to others who have merged onto this chaotic highway with a loss of their own. Our compassion and grace grow as the road of healing opens before us.

    So, though the rearview mirror is useful at times on our journey down the road of grief and loss, it is only for short and healing glances into the past rather than long fixed stares. Our grief work will drive us forward to the crossroads and when we are ready, we will move into the future with hope in our hearts.

    Posted on August 19, 2014, to:

  • We each have a light inside of us that is kept aflame by the joy we find in our relationships, our hopes and our faith. But when a loved one dies our light may fade a bit, overcome by the darkness of grief.

    We may find ourselves in a state of shock or disbelief that our loved one is really gone following the death. As time passes a deepened sense of sadness or perhaps even depression over the loss of relationship and hope for the future may set in. Life doesn’t hold the flavor it once did when we enjoyed the presence of our loved one.

    Albert Schweitzer once said, “Sometimes our light goes out, but is blown back into flame by another human being.” I couldn’t agree more.

    I have found that during this time of mourning when we meet our souls face to face, the confusion and pain of loss may become overwhelming at times. We may feel very alone in our grief. So it’s during these times that we must reach out and not only ask for, but accept the support and loving care of others.

    When we reach out, which is no small task for those in grief, we can find there are so many types of support that can help us rekindle our light of life. Some are blessed with support from within their own family. I was heart warmed recently to learn from a friend whose sister was dying of cancer that she had been the constant companion of her young adult niece as they tended her mom.

    At the visitation following her sister’s death, my friend told me a little of the journey the two had been on, “I’ve tried to be there for her throughout this ordeal. I hope she’s not getting sick of me,” she said, to which her niece replied, “Oh gosh, I don’t know what I would have done without you. You have been my rock through all of this!”

    As we spoke further they confirmed their mutual desire to remain close and share their grief in the months and even years ahead. My friend understands that this shared support must be ongoing to be effective on this journey they have only just begun.

    Others in grief may rely on a trusted friend or two, especially if family members are not living in close proximity. When my husband Trent died suddenly in a car accident, my family did the best they could to support me from long distance. But I was struggling alone. So I found solace in the care of my dearest friend who offered her friendship even in the wee hours of the morning.

    I can still recall so vividly the day I was struck anew by a deep sadness over all that I had lost with Trent’s death. As a torrent of tears burst forth from the pain in my heart and I prayed for consolation my doorbell rang. There stood my friend — the answer to my prayer. As we drank tea together and she sat witness to my grief, I was uplifted by the sharing of her strength.

    Another manner of support comes in the form of a group setting. In our fast-paced culture today grief groups have become a well-respected and plausible means of seeking and receiving support. Because our loved ones live at a distance and friends must get back to their normal lives shortly after a death, a support group can become a safe and healing harbor. Not only can members tell their story of pain and sadness and know they will be heard, but with an intimate understanding of their journey, other members can offer consolation and a sense of camaraderie. Friendships are born in which the light dimmed by grief is flamed back into existence, albeit in a new and different way.

    I have been gratified to witness the companionship of many of the widows in several support groups blossom into treasured long-term friendships. Several still meet socially in groups, while others travel and dine out in pairs. They rekindle each other’s lights when needed as they move courageously into the future.

    I have learned that there are many who wish to bring us consolation in our darkest moments of grief. These are the ones that blow our light back into flame — the flame of life. I believe Schweitzer’s sentiment begs acknowledgement of our collective humanity. We are never truly alone. We can reach out and accept support when needed and perhaps even offer it in return someday.

    Schweitzer concludes his wise thought, “Each of us owes deepest thanks to those who have rekindled this light.”

    Take a moment now to remember with gratitude those who have lovingly rekindled your light.

    Posted on July 22, 2014, to:

  • I recently read a quote that has changed the way I think of mercy and the healing power of forgiveness. “I forgive you for not being the person I want you to be.” Take a moment and reread the quote. Amazing, isn’t it?

    Okay. But what, you ask, does forgiveness have to do with grief and loss? For many it is an essential component in the process of moving toward healing. I well remember the extra layer of pain unforgiveness can cause one who mourns.

    After 24 years of working through my own grief after the untimely death of my husband, Trent, and subsequently working with hundreds of others as they walk their unique path of mourning, I have long since come to peace about the tragic events of the day Trent was killed. I can honestly say I never placed blame on the driver of the truck in question but I have realized over time that I had to forgive someone for the tragic death of my husband and the subsequent pain and confusion that my family endured.

    When the notion of forgiveness first came to me all those years ago, I wondered why it had become a concern. Eventually after much introspection and prayer I realized that although I logically accepted Trent’s death as an accident, I held myself responsible.

    If I had only talked him for a second longer, perhaps offering one last kiss before he drove off on that fateful morning, he would not have been at the spot where the accident took place when that gravel-loaded truck sped through. The guilt I felt was irrational I know, but very real at the time. The years have smoothed the edges of my memory and I can now see that I could not have changed what was, no matter how I desired it. And I learned that all the “what if?” questions and self induced guilt served no purpose other than to keep me stuck in my grief. So, I forgave myself for not being the person I wanted myself to be at that time.

    My friend Kate still mourns the sudden loss of her beloved adult daughter Bernice. It was a traumatic death and Kate is mired in the muddy bog of blame. As she described the surprising behavior of Bernice’s young husband who has sold or given away all of his wife’s belongings after only a few short months and distanced himself from her family, we talked of forgiveness.

    “I want him to understand that we’re not judging him or placing any blame. But it hurts me to see how he is erasing all traces of my daughter from his life,” Kate lamented, clearly distressed by his confusing behavior — behavior that she had no control over. My thoughts immediately turned to the forgiveness quote by which I try to live these days and I felt compelled to share it with her.

    “Maybe you can forgive him for not being the person you want him to be in his grief,” I said.
    “Hmm,” she mused, “I never thought of it that way. Maybe it’s just too hard for him. Maybe he really is grieving, but just in a different way than we are.” We talked about the importance of forgiveness and mercy in loss and in life and agreed to pray for peace in this situation.

    A few weeks went by when I met with Kate again. As the conversation turned to her daughter and Kate’s deep grief over her loss, she smiled and repeated the forgiveness quote. “That,” she said, “has made such a difference in the way I think of Bernice’s husband. It still hurts that he doesn’t come around anymore, but I am finding some peace in knowing that he is who he is and all I can do is forgive him.”

    We know, of course, that forgiveness is not the only component to healthy mourning — but it is a step toward healing. Some deal with anger toward the medical personnel who are perceived to have failed at the task of healing their loved one. Others blame family members or friends for doing or saying (or not doing or saying) things that were not to their liking as they dealt with a loved one’s illness or faced a sudden death. Some, like me, blame themselves, while still others blame their loved one for dying and leaving them alone. Death places heavy demands on the order of life and can sometimes turn that order into chaos and confusion. It’s there in the chaos that we sometimes feel the need to blame.

    But forgiveness is not about forgetting a hurtful situation or releasing the person (who may or may not even be aware their behavior has offended) from their responsibility — but rather it’s about our hurting hearts and letting go. Forgiveness recognizes that what is, simply is, and releases the hurt. And that can set our aching hearts free.

    Posted on June 29, 2014, to:

  • It has long been known that many times well-meaning but unwitting supporters of those in mourning have offered some rather rough and unpalatable clichés in their attempt to console. We’ve all heard (and perhaps even offered at one time ourselves) heartfelt, albeit naïve, condolences such as “God must have needed him/her,” or “Aren’t you glad he/she is in heaven now?”

    I well remember a time when those words rocked me to my core. Following the untimely death of my husband, Trent, my painfully bold response was, “I am glad he’s in heaven, but I’d much rather him be here beside me where he belongs.” (May I publicly apologize to anyone I offended in those very raw and confusing days.)

    Of course, our greatest desire is to know our loved one is face to face with our Maker in heaven. However, losing the physical presence of someone we held dear can be a mind-numbing affair. How do we cope?

    Cognitively, we know that in loss our beloved is gone. But in our grief we must turn inward to our hearts and learn that nothing we have loved can ever be lost. We take those we have loved into our very being and carry them with us forever.

    We move slowly in our grief from the physical relationship that we enjoyed with our loved one to one of a spiritual nature — from here to there.

    I have learned that over time we learn to adjust our lives slowly around the gap the death of our loved one creates. We begin to fill the space with what is left yet to live and, of course, the memory of what we still hold dear — our loved one.

    It was well over a year that my internal clock adjusted to the fact that Trent was not going to walk through our door at 6 p.m. and call out his cheerful daily greeting. I knew when I finally stopped looking toward the door at dinnertime that I was moving toward healing.

    Missing the physical presence of our loved one can sometimes be immobilizing with its aching loneliness. Moving through those early days without just one more chance to work, rest, play, dance, talk, laugh and cry with our loved one becomes a matter of simple survival.

    But out of the ashes God creates gems. If we do the hard work of mourning — that is, listening to our hearts, minds and bodies when they speak and responding with gentle kindness and care — we can move from here to there, giving new form to the relationship we cherished with our loved one. We learn to think of our loved one in a different way.

    Some may respond by saying, “I don’t want a spiritual relationship, but rather my old physical one.” I couldn’t agree more. However, because death is the ultimate leveler, we simply have but one choice — to move with our grief into healing and live with the joy of memory.

    On our journey of grief we learn that we can continue to love that which is no longer physically in our lives. We learn that even though we can’t see or touch someone they are still alive in our hearts. The fond memories of those lives well lived can bring great joy to healing hearts.

    I have wondered though of our death avoidant culture and its need for the bereaved to move on with life as quickly as possible. “Leave what’s past in the past” it seems to shout. I believe that we can never forget our past, even if we wanted to. And why must we?

    Part of the healing movement of healthy mourning is creating a new normal life step by step in which we carry our loved ones with us. Our hearts will tell us when it’s time to make changes in our lives that will move us from here to there. It was a slow process for me to decide what belongings of Trent’s to share with others as well as when to do it. I was able to recognize as I let go of those tangible things of his, that my relationship with him was shifting and that it was okay.

    The memory of Trent’s presence in my life became part of who I am as I followed my path of grief. I was not forgetting my past but keeping what was important to me close to my heart as I moved into the future.

    Now almost 24 years later I see the good God has worked in me and in those I have walked with on their grief journey. Moving from here to there has been a challenging task, but well worth the effort. Our loved ones are just a whisper away in our healing hearts.

    Posted on May 20, 2014, to:

  • I am heartened, as I grow older to witness an increase in community support for those who suffer great loss. It brings to mind the days of old when friends, neighbors and loved ones would encircle those in mourning and support them with not only gifts of food, house cleaning and assistance with funeral preparation, but their simple presence in times of need.

    My 25-year-old daughter and I recently stood in a long line in a local funeral home to express our sympathy to friends of hers who had lost a child. “This is hard,” she whispered tearfully. “I don’t know what to do.” How many of us have at least thought those very words?

    A quiet conversation ensued following her emotional comment in which we both agreed there was no right or only way to support a loved one in grief, though for us platitudes and advice were strictly forbidden. Each individual must find his or her own way through the heartache and pain of grief. We are simply there to walk beside them, reassuring them that they are not alone.

    My wise young daughter, who chose to be a gentle, quiet presence for her friends that day offering them her hugs and tears, agreed that the community support of which she was a part was an important factor in the healing process.

    We all have been witness to examples of how community can come to the aid of their grief-stricken members with national and international media coverage of the compassionate support offered in recent years following such tragic events as 9/11, shootings such as at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut and even following natural disaster events such as Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines. Communities stunned by these horrific events rose collectively from the ashes to step forward in support of those victimized by their losses. The ceremonies, services and legislative changes bring me great hope for the direction in which our culture journeys, as I witness the compassionate outpouring of love for the bereaved.

    But on a more personal level, what can we do for our own community members or loved ones in mourning? Identifying those compassionate responses from national and international events offers us a palate from which to paint our own style of support. I have learned that if I listen and watch for cues as to what is needed by the bereaved I can then offer my support. Being present is a gift we can all offer.

    Funerals, I think, level the playing ground for most. Even those with the toughest exteriors find their way to expressing their deepest emotions when supporting the bereaved. One gentleman I know, whose beloved wife had died after a long battle with cancer, was embraced by many friends at her packed funeral Mass. “I love you,” he was told over and over. The grief-stricken widower recalled how deeply meaningful that emotional support was to him and to his healing.

    “Just the outpouring of love from the people is what made it okay. There was a lot of love going though the place that day,” he said of the community support at his wife’s funeral ceremony. “It just hit me at the funeral … I am surrounded by some very good people,” he added.

    Those good people were by his side as he ministered to his wife as she lay dying. They were there as he said his goodbyes. They were there to help him bury his beloved with rich and meaningful ceremony and song. And many will remain by his side as he learns to navigate his grief and discover how to live his life without his wife.

    A beautiful Catholic hymn written in the ‘70s by Richard Gillard titled, “The Servant Song,” speaks to the grace of community support in the lines: “We are pilgrims on a journey, we are travelers on the road; We are here to help each other walk the mile and bear the load. … I will weep when you are weeping; When you laugh I’ll laugh with you. I will share your joy and sorrow till we’ve seen this journey through.”

    As pilgrims on the journey, helping each other bear the load, we can acknowledge, as my daughter so honestly did, and even lament the fact that supporting someone in deep grief is troubling and not a little difficult. But we must rise up and weep — and laugh — with them as they move toward healing. It takes a community of hearts to support those who must walk the long and weary road of grief.

    Posted on April 22, 2014, to: