• 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:

  • 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: