• 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:

  • The mums in my front garden are beginning to reveal a splash of their deep rusts and golds as they bud and bloom this fall. I must admit I’ve never been a fan of autumn with its insistence on cooler temperatures and promise of the bone chill of winter, but the message of these faithful blossoms has not been lost on me each year.

    Those perennial plants nestle low and quiet at times. They weather storms, adverse temperatures, insect and fowl intrusions, dormancy and pruning. And through it all they are made strong and hearty, blooming always at their appointed time.

    I believe the most miraculous detail of a perennial’s beauty is that these plants survive year after year, many times to bloom louder and brighter with each successive season.

    So how do we, as grief-struck human beings, become perennials with the hope of surviving our loss in the years to come, becoming stronger and heartier with each changing season?

    I’ve found through my own grief experience and through the experiences of those with whom I have walked during their grief journey that like the enduring flowering plants, we must face and withstand the storms and pruning of our grief.

    At first blush, the emotional bedlam thrust upon us following a loss seems as if it will last forever as we strive to make sense of not only the death of our loved one, but how to survive in this life without them in it. We may be faced with many different challenges from financial or employment changes to friends or loved ones who will push for resolution of our grief and even health issues.

    But if we allow the grief process to proceed at its rightful pace, a pace as unique to each of us as our own fingerprint, our lives will begin to take root again as we discover who we are becoming in this new normal we create for ourselves. For me, that required a fair bit of investigation into what grief really entails and how I meant to embrace it, some trial and error, much pain and some rather crazy moments.

    I have learned that most of us are afraid of grief and the work to be done to move toward healing. But in my experience it is not the grief that we work so hard to deny or avoid, but rather the pain that we experience because of our grief. Grief — our feelings about our loss — is simply that, feelings. The work we must do to release the pain requires a healthy expression of those feelings in a manner that works for each of us individually.

    Like the sun and rain poured out for the life of those plants, grief is a tool to help us work through our pain toward healing and new life.

    Shortly after my husband, Trent, died in a car accident, I found myself struggling with having to make life-changing decisions about finances, my two young daughters’ future education, living arrangements, etc., — alone. The deep sadness and frustration I felt were powerful emotions and there were many times I had to put on my gardening gloves and dig deep in the soil of my soul to survive. Grief is messy, but when the work is done the possibility of life’s beauty and joy blooms anew.

    Grief expert David Kessler says, “Grief is a wonderful tool that has been given to us to help us work through the pain.” He points out that working through the feelings and trials of grief can bring healing. “So as you feel those feeling, in time, that’s how you will work through your grief in a healthy way, not trying to make it quicker or slowing the process down, but just allowing the process to happen.”

    Like those hearty perennials that naturally allow their dormant and growing seasons to unfold as nature intended, we face the extreme heat, harsh cold and storms brought about by the challenges of grief. And like them, as the seasons change, relying on God, our heavenly gardener, and support from some reliable friends and family members, we will be able to bloom in our appointed time, with different colors than we had displayed before the loss to be sure, but colors nonetheless.

    Posted on October 22, 2013, to:

  • When the subjects of grief and loss come up for discussion, we typically focus on the intense span of time following the death and funeral. We speak of our heartache and confusion, the roller coaster ride of emotions that pervade our days and nights, and how we might navigate the dark and lonely seas ahead. But what of those who have weathered the storms of early grief and sailed to a more peaceful shore?

    In my experience with loss, grief never truly ends. Sometimes it rears its powerful head when we least expect it, even years after a death loss. But, thankfully, its frequency and duration soften over time as we do the difficult grief work that healing hearts require.

    And then the day arrives to each of us in our own time, usually unannounced, when we realize that we have developed a new sense of ourselves — living without our loved one, perhaps tenderly at first … but living none-the-less.

    So what comes next? When we “take off our robe of mourning and misery …” (Baruch 5:1) we open ourselves to discovering what “new robe of splendor” will soon fit us best.

    It was three years after my husband Trent died in a car accident that I awoke to the trill of a bird song. Mind you those birds had not stopped their twittering along the way, but their life song fell on deaf ears as I sat wrapped in a heavy blanket of grief for a time.

    That day marked my new awareness of self. I saw for the first time that I had settled into life as a single mom, adjusted to making life’s decisions without my spouse. My daily experiences had become less clouded by my pain and some joy, though different than before, was making a slow but steady reappearance in my life. It was then that I contemplated what good would come from the ashes of my grief.

    I have learned that reaching out to others in the throes of grief with compassion and understanding can bring great comfort and healing for all involved. For me, working with the bereaved, one person or group at a time, is a gift wrapped in my own grief experience. I learn so much from each individual and the bond that grows out of the healing is strong and steadfast.

    Just the other day, a friend, four years out from the death of her husband, relayed to me that she would be joining a newly established grief support group at her parish. She had participated earlier in a group I facilitated and after two years there had rejoined life in earnest. Now she says she feels called to be a witness to others who are in deep grief, offering not only her friendship, but her compassion and wisdom. I suspect she will be a treasured asset to the new group and find purpose and meaning for herself as well.

    Finding meaning in life after the death of a loved one is an essential part of healing and can take so many forms — working with the bereaved is only one. I have seen those who mourn a lost loved one take up meaningful activities from the simple to the complex. One family established an annual 5K run to honor their deceased patriarch. The proceeds of the exciting annual community event are donated to their loved one’s favorite charity. Each year as the family members gather to organize the ever-expanding run, healing grace shines light on all the participants.

    A widow I met had always had an interest in floral arranging but never found the time to pursue it in her youth. Following her husband’s death, after a few painful years of questioning her worth and purpose, she chose to volunteer at a local florist. The joy she now feels using her innate artistic talent and love of flowers brings new life to her days knowing that her bright bouquets bring pleasure and meaning to others. And she was eventually hired by the shop owner and has established delightful friendships with her co-workers who she calls family.

    We must remember to be gentle with ourselves as we move closer to that peaceful shore, after fighting the raging seas of grief. Taking the time to investigate what will bring meaning to our lives is an important step in reaching a future filled with hope and joy.

    Posted on September 18, 2013, to: