• 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:

  • 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: