Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Lessons Through Grief

A few years back, I was invited to share my personal experiences with grief at an annual Arbor Hospice Memorial Event. Here's what I had to say in the hope that it may be helpful to you in times of sorrow.

We have gathered together today to remember and honor those who are no longer physically with us, our parents, grandparents, partners and friends, spouses and children and others whom we loved.

We are here, too, because love and loss are inextricably intertwined. Our presence is a recognition that grief is the dues we pay for the love that has enriched our lives. We are also here this evening because we understand the value of a community that can support us through difficult times.

No one ever knows how much others hurt or in what ways. So I do not presume to know your grief. That's why I am speaking with you this evening not as an expert, but as one who has lost and grieved and has come to understand the power of human resilience in the face of profound loss.

My first significant losses were the deaths of my parents at too early an age, deaths that for me changed everything that followed. My mother died suddenly in her 60s of a heart attack. A few years later, my father died slowly from a progressive, debilitating disease. Having experienced both, neither way of dying recommends itself to me.

Like you, I put one foot in front of another to do whatever was next in fulfilling my daily responsibilities, although I wasn't always sure that I had the capacity to do so. Over time, I got better. My grief became less raw and consuming.

Since then, there have been other significant losses, each of which has deepened my understanding of the unique and unanticipated ways in which grief can present itself.

While grieving is a complex and unpredictable process, I'd like to share with you what I've learned through my own grief journey in the hope that some part of it may be of value to you.

The first thing I learned is that we are not crazy, even though we may feel that way at times. Most of our reactions are quite normal.

After my mother's death, I had trouble remembering things, and more than once I drove considerable distance with no memory of any details of the drive.

I had once read about monks in a religious order in New York State who believed that we experience heaven and hell in this lifetime through our emotional states, and I couldn't imagine a worse way to spend eternity than with the pain I felt about the loss of my mother.

Some of us can't sleep, or we lose our appetites. We may be seized by overpowering emotions at unexpected times. We have mood swings, we are unable to concentrate, and we may feel angry, guilty or fearful for the future.

Our relationships often change. After my mother's death, my father and I regularly talked on the phone, a task he had automatically handed off to my mother when she was alive. As we talked more, we became much closer, and some of my most cherished memories of my father were during this period.

The second thing I learned is that death of a loved one often raises issues related to the meaning of life and of our own mortality.

Questions regarding life's purpose arise. Our faith may be challenged. We ask "Why?" and our suffering may be increased if we don't receive a satisfying answer.

We may use metaphors to help us understand what otherwise seems incomprehensible. I've heard people say that grief is a journey, a wound, a mystery, a dark forest, a large lake, a voyage on turbulent sea and an exclusive club with a steep membership fee.

When my father died five years after my mother, I thought of myself as an orphan, although being in my 40s, I hardly fit the conventional meaning of that term. As the oldest child, I was acknowledging that in the natural order of things, my turn was next, an awareness that didn't always sit easily with me.

To make sense of things, I wrote about what I was thinking and feeling. Although my concentration was poor for several months, I was eventually able to listen to music and to read poetry and books that had spiritual messages.

My third lesson was that things do get better, but they do so in their own way and time. One of the few certainties in life is that things change, as you well know.

I've heard Arbor Hospice grief support staff say that while the wound doesn't disappear, its rough edges are smoothed by time. The frequency, duration and intensity of our sorrow diminishes.

Our sleep and appetite slowly return. We take better care of ourselves. We set new goals and resolve to find happiness wherever we can. We may begin to feel moments of joy as happy memories emerge. How long this takes varies from person to person as we each grieve in our own unique ways.

We gather strength as we experience and move past "the firsts" - the first birthdays and anniversaries, the first holidays and so on. The long-dreaded first Christmas after my mother's death passed with far less sadness than I anticipated, partly because of the degree of cooperation among the members of my family, an occurrence that undoubtedly would have brought a smile to my mother's face.

I knew things were getting better for me when I would suddenly be aware that several days had passed without sadness. Tears no longer came to my eyes when I thought of my parents, and happy memories slowly emerged.

During this time, I learned that rituals of remembrance like this one can sooth us and that grief is easier to bear together than alone, at least for most of us. We are here this evening because there is hope and strength in family and community.

I also learned that following an ending there is a new beginning, although not necessarily the one we would have chosen for ourselves had we been given a choice. But between the ending and beginning there may be a desert of sorts. With time and the support of others, we find our way to a new reality, a new normal.

A final lesson was that we do not forget those who have gone on before us. Many of us fear that we will gradually lose the precious memories we hold of our loved ones. We may be afraid that as our grief diminishes, our loved ones may slowly slip away from us in our memories, a prospect that seems unbearable. With time, though, joyful and sustaining memories arise that offer strength and guidance.

I believe that our loved ones live on through us. My parents and ancestors and others I loved remain alive in me. Like stones thrown in a pond, their thoughts and words and deeds ripple into the future, influencing us and countless others, including generations not yet born, in ways that are sometimes quite profound.

Years ago a friend told me that he was about to travel to Florida to visit a dying friend of his who he thought he was unlikely to see again, and he wondered what he might say to him. I told him that I had recently read a story about a man who had sought a highly-regarded spiritual teacher to find an answer to a similar question. The teacher told the man, "Tell him that when he dies, a part of you will die and go with him and that he will never be alone."

Today, I might offer another perspective to my friend: "Tell him when he dies, a part of him will stay with you and be a part of who you are for as long as you live and even beyond in the lives of others."

Sometimes people ask me why I am a hospice volunteer. I respond that I do it because it's a privilege to be with individuals and their families at such a sacred time, a time when life is reduced to its essentials.

In that spirit, I thank you for the privilege of being here with you today. And I thank you for being here for yourselves and for each other.

What has your grief taught you?

This blog post was written by Dennis Sparks, Arbor Hospice Volunteer. You may contact Dennis by commenting below or emailing him at thinkingpartner@gmail.com.

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