“The hardest thing I have ever done was to help somebody let go when I really wanted her to stay.”
These simple, yet profound, words were shared by my cousin, Annette the day after her mother died following a long illness. Last week death became personal in the Plocher household, where Terry and I both deal with death and grief professionally on a regular, if not daily, basis. Terry’s 47 year old cousin, Jamie, died suddenly and unexpectedly in Colorado. My cousin, Mary Lou, died after a long and courageous battle with illness in Southern California. Now I revisit issues and questions that are often discussed in my visits with families in our AfterCare program. Only now, these questions are personal:
Which is easier, losing someone suddenly or having time to prepare for the death?
My personal and professional experience teaches me that death hurts regardless of the circumstances. Some people find comfort in knowing that their loved one went quickly and did not suffer. However, this scenario can leave family and friends reeling in great shock or traumatized by being so suddenly torn from their loved one by death. Those who walk the journey of chronic or terminal illness with a loved one may similarly be traumatized by the suffering their loved one endures until the release of death comes. Yet, they have the advantage of time to put affairs in order, speak the words of love they long to share and complete or resolve any unfinished business in the relationship.
I am inclined to think that comparing sudden death and lingering death is rather like comparing apples and oranges. They are both fruit, but very different. Sudden death and lingering death – they are both excruciating experiences of loss and grief, yet each very unique.
How important is validation of the loss?
The beginning of healing from the pain of grief is validation of the loss you have experienced. It begins with opening to the reality of my own loss. I honor the pain this loss has caused me by finding ways to express what my loved one meant to me and expressing the pain it causes me when I sit with the knowledge that I will never see her again. I express my pain outside myself, both privately and publicly, which is what it means to mourn. In doing so, I open myself to receive the comfort, care and empathy of others. My loss is now validated by others. “I heal, in part, by allowing others to express their love for me. By choosing to invite others into my journey, I move toward health and healing. If I hide from others, I hide from healing.” (from Understanding Your Grief: Ten Essential Touchstones for Finding Hope and Healing Your Heart by Alan Wolfelt, Ph.D.) Moving from shock and denial to opening to the pain of my loss and to the care of others is the beginning of the journey of grief.
Terry never met Mary Lou and had not fully appreciated how much this loss meant to me. I had to take some initiative to share that with him and to open to the care he then could show me. Opening to the pain of our loss is never easy, but it is important.
How do I help someone who is mourning?
The last time I spoke to my cousin I promised her I would embrace her family, especially her daughters to whom I am closest) with care and comfort after her death. Typically, I would encourage people to simply be there with a hug, a shoulder, a hot dish, a special remembrance. Now I am frustrated by my desire to hug, to hold, to cry with –because so many miles separate us. I trust the Lord to receive all the love I hold in my heart for my cousins and touch them with the assurance that they are not alone in this time. I know I will find ways to give my love and prayers hands and feet in the weeks and months to come. This is the question I would encourage you to consider when you want to help someone who is grieving: How can you take the love and concern you have for that person and make it real? Give it hands and feet? Meet them where they are. Accept them as they are. Don’t try to fix them. Listen. Learn. Love.
Does the pain ever go away? Will I ever get over it?
When a loved one dies our lives are forever changed. In that sense, no, we never “get over it.” However, it is possible to choose to live even though our loved one has died. With some help from our friends and a willingness to engage what arguably will be the hardest work we will ever face – the work of grief- we can integrate this painful experience into our life. The intense feelings of grief can soften with time. The waves of grief that once knocked us right off our feet come less frequently and hit us with less impact. “Mourning never really ends. Only as time goes on, it erupts less frequently.” (Anonymous)
As you are able, allow yourself to embrace hope. The best expression of hope I have read is by Jean Kerr who writes, “Hope is the feeling you have that the feeling you have is not permanent.” Embrace the hope that it won’t hurt this bad forever. Embrace the hope that God still has good things planned for you. Embrace the hope that there is still beauty in the world, even if the depression you feel today is coloring your world in shades of gray. And above all, embrace the hope that we will one day be reunited with our loved ones in eternity, by grace, through faith.
Mary Lou’s daddy died in a hunting accident when she was just 7 years old. She “grew up” in my grandparent’s home, playing with my mom as they were nearly the same age. So many long years she missed her Daddy. While our hearts ache to lose her we believe there is a joyous reunion in heaven taking place. Mary Lou, now free from pain and the constraints of this life is once again with her mom and her daddy.
Grace and Peace,