• 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:

  • Facing grief is never an easy task, whether it concerns a recent loss or one that occurred years in the past. The need seems to come and go on a whim and many times brings with it a staggering pain that causes many of us to recoil in despair. Though, especially early after a loss, avoidance is a natural response to that pain, we all must one day sit with our grief and do the hard work it calls for in hopes of finding joy in the future.

    In my work with the bereaved I have witnessed many of the ways the human psyche vies with the heart to stave off the inevitable work of grief. Some folks throw themselves into their work as a means of feeling “normal” again after a significant loss. Others sequester themselves, choosing not to talk about their loss with anyone. Some shop excessively to relieve the anguish, while others travel, hoping to outrun their agonizing memories.

    None of these activities is damaging when done in moderation. In reality they each have a specific purpose — to help us take in and work through our grief in doses — over time. I believe our human hearts, created to give and receive love, would stop beating altogether if we were to take in a significant loss all at once.

    However, knowing it’s okay to avert our grief for a time, we also know there is a time to embrace the pain, work through it and move to the other side. Our hearts will know when it’s time, but we must pay close attention for that internal whisper — a deafening challenge in the best of circumstances.

    I know a woman whose husband of 63 years died two years ago. Her family is concerned that as she continues to isolate herself at home, refusing any help with her grief, that she is slowly dying herself. Her anxious son laments, “Yesterday we got on the subject of grief counseling and she said, ‘If I go and talk about it, it makes it real. And if I don’t go, then it didn’t happen and I don’t have to think about it.’”

    Unfortunately the reality is her loss is real and her unexpressed grief is causing much distress for her and her family. Her son understands that the need to face the reality of loss with a healthy expression of grief over time, which may include sharing it with a trusted friend or a support group, opens our hearts to hope.

    I recently experienced a similar situation with my sister, Betty, whose 22-year-old son, Adam, died six years ago of leukemia. She had been putting off cleaning out his bedroom, though she and her husband had been updating the rest of their home for several months. She knew in her heart it was time to go through his things, but was avoiding the reality of her grief for fear of the returning pain.

    I was surprised when, a few weeks after I offered to accompany her into his room, she sent me this email: “I finished with Adam’s room. It really looks nice. Believe it or not, when I got it done, some of the ‘Adam stuff’ went away.”

    She relayed to me that she felt this was a solo endeavor and chose a day when she had plenty of alone time to face this difficult task. She worked through his room systematically, allowing herself to stop and cry several times as she sifted through his belongings, until she had had enough. After taking a needed break she resumed her task with renewed strength and anticipation. She worked on her son’s room — and her heart — over the course of several days in this manner and found an unanticipated but deeply appreciated peace when she had finished.

    In short order, we spoke of this milestone on her journey through grief. My sister admitted that she understood the memories would always be there and it would be better for her to face the task of grieving as it came, but she said, “In a way it makes me feel it is over and he won’t be around anymore.”

    “Change has a way of making us feel guilty or sad or mad because we think that if we change then what was, will no longer be. The truth is when we change, the past comes with us and makes us better,” I offered.

    “You’re right about change, but it is just doing it that causes such grief,” she replied.

    “The grief that’s caused by ‘doing it’ is just you facing what’s inside you, you know,” I said softly, adding, “I’m proud of you. It takes a lot of courage to do what you did. So many folks avoid their grief and suffer so. Then when they finally face it, it turns out not to be as bad as they anticipated — and then they are relieved.”

    Facing grief is always challenging, but the peace and joy to be found afterward brings meaning to the struggle. There truly is a time for everything under heaven.

    Posted on August 20, 2013, to:

  • The day had finally come to tackle what I considered a monumental task that had been on my to-do list for about five years — convert my old home videos to DVD format. It wasn’t really that difficult, but only time consuming, as the tape was required to play while it was being converted. What a gift that turned out to be as my two daughters, my sister and I watched our past unfold before us.

    How fun and a bit nostalgic it was to watch the girls in their youth and their beloved grandparents tease and chuckle at birthday parties, hear the lilt in the voices of folks who helped form who we are today and enjoy the treasured sight of those who have gone before us.

    My sister Betty and I had a rare moment alone that night and our conversation turned to our lost loved ones that we had watched on tape that day. Our parents had died three years apart over two decades ago, with grandparents gone before. But more poignant to us both was not only the loss of my husband Trent in a car accident 23 years ago, but the loss of her 22-year-old son, Adam, to leukemia only six years past.

    Though our personal grief wounds have scarred over in time, we still find comfort in being able to speak freely to each other of our losses. That night our discussion, wrought with both laughter and tears, culminated with an epiphany for me and I think for my sister as well. In a nutshell we discovered that our memories are a treasured gift and it’s really the lost future with our deceased loved ones that we grieve.

    Many times, especially in early grief, I have heard mourners lament that they can’t think or talk about their deceased loved one or even look at photographs of happier times because it evokes such pain. I surely understand that each grief journey charts its own direction and there is an appropriate time and place for each of us to go more deeply into the feelings memories may evoke. However, I wonder — if we really think about our memories and their place in our lives, would we come to view their purpose in a different light?

    Perhaps our memories are a gift of grief. These are the precious thoughts that evoke rich personal feelings from the past that actually keep our loved ones alive for us. Without our memories there would be no connection to the past or to our loved ones. I know my life is fuller having known (and now gratefully remember) the many who have gone before me.

    With that said, the burden of grief then is the undeniable fact that after a loved one has died there is no more time in which to make new memories. And that for me is the deepest grief. Over the past 23 years, I have mourned anew for Trent when one or the other of our daughters (or myself) marked a special life event, such as a play or sports performance, earning a driver’s license, attending prom, graduation or a new job and he was not there to rejoice with us. I can only imagine if he were here what life would be like now.

    A natural and very common cry heard from the bereaved relates to the loss of the future for their deceased loved ones. And none feel this so smartly as parents who have lost a child. My sister’s son was aspiring to a career in medicine when he was diagnosed with cancer at age 20. His young adulthood was racked with chemical therapies and long, grueling hospital stays before he died. Now when she speaks of him she weeps for what might have been for her precious boy.

    “What would he be like now?” she asked, bravely admitting that as time moves forward the distance between the present moment and her son’s death weakens her physical connection to him. She, too, can only speculate as to what his life (and hers) would be like had he lived.

    A wise old matriarchal character in the movie “From Time to Time” told her struggling grandson as he faced his wartime MIA father’s fate, “Death is not the important thing. Whether you were loved or not …that’s what people think about at the end of their lives.” Perhaps it’s not so much that we have no more time to make those precious memories with our deceased loved ones in this life, though that is a very real grief, but that they were loved — and we love them still.

     

    Posted on June 11, 2013, to: