As summer begins to wind down, the hours of daylight become less, and the kids prepare for school, I am reminded of a feeling I used to have as a child and young adult during the transition from summer to fall. I did not understand it then, but I have come to know that what I was experiencing was grief. I was grieving the loss of my favorite season, the freedom from school and a schedule, loads of fun with friends and family outdoors most of the day, and that feeling of pure joy. As a young person, I believed I would not experience this feeling again, that it was somehow gone. Grief is the experience we have when we lose something or someone. This can also apply to the loss of dreams, desires, and goals. Grief and loss are universal. It is something we will all experience in our lifetimes. Some losses may have silver linings or the opening of new doors, and some losses are carried with no happy ending or “positive spin.”
Unfortunately, I have come to know grief intimately, at a much deeper and more painful level than when I used to grieve the ending of summer. I have experienced the loss of my father 7 years ago from cancer; 11 months later I lost my sister – and best friend – to her 19-year battle with cancer; and one year ago, I lost my mother very suddenly and unexpectedly due to a brain hemorrhage. I am by no means a grief expert. I am a person who has had an overwhelming and heart-breaking amount of loss in a short time and has sought ways to bring comfort and ease the pain. Through my experience, reading books, talking with my own personal grief counselor and spiritual director, listening to people talk about their experiences of grief as a therapist, talking with friends, family, and colleagues, I have learned a lot. I hope to share with others a few of my insights and the resources I have found helpful, and that have brought me comfort along the way:
1. Grieving the loss of my loved ones will never go away. For me, the intensity and rawness of the early days of loss have changed over time. Some days and moments are good, and some are not, but the intensity is much less than it once was. “Grief is something that is carried not fixed,” as Megan DeVine, author of “It’s OK That You’re Not OK,” shares.
2. No feelings are wrong or bad and expressing them can be relieving. Talking, crying, writing, drawing, screaming are all ways that can help to release the intensity of the feelings. However, during the initial stages of grief, the griever may not have the energy to do any of these things. For me, I needed quiet and stillness to cope, and had to set limits and boundaries for myself.
3. Grief is an experience that effects the various levels of our being, i.e., mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual. However, the shock of the loss in the initial stages overwhelms our physical bodies – which is why people often have trouble sleeping and eating, have headaches, upset digestive systems, a challenging time focusing and remembering things. The medical community understands the physical impact of grief more today and has identified “broken heart syndrome” as a real condition that can affect some people who have experienced loss. I remember the visceral experience I had right after my sister’s death – where it was difficult for me to even breathe, let alone talk to anyone.
4. Not everyone is able to be supportive during grief and some relationships may end. People in our society are often uncomfortable with grief and offer platitudes that can feel insensitive and hurtful to the griever. Hearing “she would not want you to be sad,” “they are in a better place,” “she is no longer in pain,” “he had a long life,” does not make the griever feel better. It stops their feelings and suggests their pain is not OK. Grievers need people who can sit with them and acknowledge their pain, not try to fix it. In the bereavement world this is called “companioning.”
5. Finding a grief mentor or grief community is crucial. This is an individual or a group (formal and informal) who understands grief, who you have watched and respected their navigation of the painful waters. My community of friends who have also experienced major losses in their lives are a source of comfort. We can talk, laugh, and cry about our shared experiences. We have no need to fix one another’s feelings, only acknowledge the pain, and “hold space” for one another.
I was also fortunate enough to have my mother as a mentor. She showed so much grace and strength after my dad’s death, then my sister’s. My mom’s heart was completely shattered after living through the last few months of Rochelle’s illness and eventual death. I watched her courageously move forward in her life, taking on new challenges and doing things she had never done before. She was 76 years old at the time. I watched her being more “of service” to others. I heard her words of wisdom about the losses. One day, when we were talking about Rochelle’s death at such a young age (she was only 53), my mom said,” I never thought I would have all of the years I had with her…I am so grateful for what I had.” She would tell me how my dad was the “love of her life” and often share her memories of love and fun times with him. She journaled, attended grief groups, and talked easily about her love and memories of them. As David Kessler, grief expert and author, teaches, “people often think there is no way to heal from severe loss. I believe that is not true. You heal when you can remember those who have died with more love than pain…”
6. For me, the path to healing grief is filled with many twists and turns; it is not a straight line. There are days when I am on the path and other days when I deviate from it and lose my way, feeling lost. However, the insights I have shared, some of my daily practices, and the following resources have brought me great comfort and often help me to find my way back.
Some of my favorite resources:
David Kessler – I recommend any of his books, blogs, YouTube videos.
Cornerstone of Hope – A Cleveland based grief center that provides specialized counseling to grievers in the form of individual and group counseling, and they offer a variety of programs and events throughout the year.