Category Archives: Loss and Grief

Death, change and loss

Birthdays in heaven

Jim and I used to celebrate our “feast days”—mine is July 22, the feast of St. Mary Magdalene, and his was July 25, the feast of St. James. During my morning prayer on each of those days recently, I recalled how we would mark these occasions—usually with a card and a small gift related to our patron saint.

Although Jim is no longer physically present, I still feel close to him, especially on days that were significant when he was alive.

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At lunch with friends the other day, one mentioned that her grandson’s birthday is coming up in a few weeks. This is will be the second birthday “since he is gone,” she said. The expression birthdays in heaven came to mind. Although her grandson is no longer physically present, his presence is still very strong, and she wants to mark his birthday.

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A few weeks ago, I facilitated a bereavement group at the cancer support center where I work. A dozen people talked about the pain of loss and the process of grief. They were strangers before coming to this group, and now they are connected by their shared experience of loss.

At the end of the meeting, the conversation took on a different tone as they planned their monthly Saturday dinner together.

Hope and resiliency were the words that came to mind as the air in the room became lighter. In the midst of deep sorrow, these twelve people were excited about their upcoming dinner.

Life is so often that kind of balancing act; sorrow and joy sitting side by side.

We hold all kinds of sorrows—because of death, dashed dreams, family members lost to addictions, betrayals, health issues and so on—and yet we also hold hope that things will get better.

And if we can hold onto that hope, things usually do get better.

We learn to carry our sorrow without letting it overwhelm us. We remember good times and discover deep gratitude for what had once been. We create a niche in our hearts where we store happy memories.

These experiences of loss change our lives and change us. They can increase our capacity for empathy and compassion, and they can teach us what really matters in life.

Moving through loss and grief can take a long time. People can get stuck in grief, fearing that to let go of sorrow would be a betrayal to those who have died or perhaps finding consolation in the identity of someone who is bereft.

That seems to be the exception, though; most people find a way to move through grief to a new normal—not the same as what once was, but good in a different way.

After their dinner, several members of the bereavement group reported that they had fun. One man brought each of them a loaf of bread from his daughter’s bakery. Small acts of generosity can lift spirits and awaken hope.

What can you do today that will generate hope?

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“…where there is sadness, joy.”

Before my cousin was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer ten years ago, I did not think much about cancer. Since her diagnosis, though, I have thought about it a lot. In the five years following her death, five other important people in my life died from cancer. How could I not think about it? Cancer invaded my life.

When my cousin was diagnosed, I wondered what I would do if it was me. Would I react as my cousin had?

After reflecting on that question for a while, I realized I could not possibly know what I would do. There is just no way to predict how one will react to a cancer diagnosis because so many factors come into play at the time of diagnosis.

Having worked at a cancer support center for the past four years, I understand that truth even more deeply.

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While praying this morning for someone who is newly diagnosed with stage four metastatic cancer, I realized I no longer think about what I might do if it was me. Instead, I try just to be present, to listen and to accept the decisions the person who has cancer is making.

This particular person was on my mind as I prayed St. Francis’ prayer his morning, and the words that jumped out at me were, “where there is sadness, joy.”

How can I speak joy into the sadness of this person’s life? I hear the anxiety in his wife’s voice and think of the pain he is experiencing; I feel their sadness.

And yet, as I talk with this couple, I notice little sparks of light at the edges of the darkness. A joke about how he is the cook in their relationship so being in the hospital is rescuing them from her cooking. Or how lucky they are to live near a national cancer institute so he can be assured of the most up-to-date treatment. Gratitude and joy creep in, even in the darkest moments

St Ignatius prayed, “Take, Lord, receive, all my liberty…give me only your love and your grace; that is enough for me.”

It is a prayer of surrender, of letting go.

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A cancer diagnosis can be one of those moments in life when leaning into God may be the only thing we can do. Even if we put our bodies at the mercy of medical professionals, our spirits belong to God.

Both St. Francis and St. Ignatius—and others who have come to this place of understanding their complete dependence on God—know that God is truly all we need. Letting go of our desire for control and our illusions that we actually have control is the path to peace.

Cancer comes out of the blue. It can be life-changing and even life-destroying. Like all challenges in life, though, it can be the gift that leads us to true peace, freedom and even joy.

No matter the darkness that might invade my life, I hope I react with trust and hope.

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Unconventional grief

In Chapter four of A Resurrection Shaped Life, “Mending Loss and Sorrow,” Jake Owensby introduced me to the term “unconventional grief.”

            “Unconventional grief occurs when the person we’ve lost is still right in front of us. A loved one may drift into dementia or sink into addiction. A person we once knew can be spirited away from us by brain injury of mental illness. The one we love is gone. And still sits at the Thanksgiving table. This kind of sorrow is not the same as anticipating someone’s death…unconventional grief involves continuing to live with a person who has become a stranger or to whom you are now a stranger” (Page 56).

I was familiar with the concept.

In 2002, my friend Jim did something completely out of character. “Who are you and what have you done with Jim?” I asked and then added, “You must have a brain tumor.” He blamed his action on being tired, but I was not convinced.

Jim was a man of routine. He was predictable, dependable.

So when he acted oddly on that day in 2002, I knew something was wrong.

And from then on, he began to act out of character more frequently—until he eventually became a new person whose life looked significantly different from his old life. His old routines were replaced by things that had once held no interest for him.

One day, I compiled a list with two columns—Old Jim and New Jim—to show him how he had changed. He looked at the sheet of paper and agreed he did not do things he had once done but could not seem to understand why it was an issue. It was as if his brain could not process the information.

And he refused to see a doctor.

By 2006, Old Jim was pretty much gone, and I was left with New Jim. And although the loss was real, I did not know how to grieve it.

Five years later, Jim was diagnosed with glioblastoma—brain cancer.

I described Old Jim and New Jim to the neurosurgeon and asked if this tumor could have caused the change. He explained that the glioblastoma had only been growing for three to four weeks. “But,” he added, “There is something in his right front lobe that is not glioblastoma and that could be a slow-growing tumor that has been there a long time.” He asked if there was a history of benign brain tumors in Jim’s family. In fact, Jim had an uncle who died from complications from benign brain tumor surgery.

I believe that every curse has a blessing. Glioblastoma was definitely a curse, but throughout Jim’s illness, we experienced many blessings. The greatest blessing, though, was that the treatments that were entirely ineffective on the glioblastoma somehow returned Jim’s brain to its pre-2002 condition. Old Jim came back!

I grieved Jim’s death, but have only recently begun to get in touch with those lost years, that time of unconventional grief.

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Is the parade passing by?

A friend recently invited me to her community theater’s production of Hello Dolly.

I tend to avoid musicals—too unrealistic for me. All that singing and dancing in the midst of poverty and despair is not how I remember the poor people in the neighborhood where I grew up or in neighborhoods where I have lived since.

When I saw Les Miserables, I remember thinking that most of the people in the theater would probably be afraid to walk through my neighborhood, yet they seemed to enjoy watching this upbeat depiction of oppression and wretchedness.

I worry that portraying poverty and human misery so light-heartedly can assuage the guilt of those who have the power to make societal changes. (Look how happy those poor people are; singing and dancing their way through despair—why change anything?)

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But, to support my friend, I decided to move against my resistance and go see Hello Dolly.

This particular community theater is no-cut, so the cast was large and included people of all ages.

I quickly got caught up in the music, costumes and pageantry of the play. It was all quite cheerful, and I found myself smiling as I searched the faces of the cast for my friend.

At some point, though, I realized the story was about Dolly’s desire to move past grieving her husband’s death.

In one scene, Dolly says to her deceased husband, Let me go. It’s been long enough.

I, too, have sometimes felt chained to my past and have pleaded to be let go. I want to be set free and move ahead, but sometimes the link to the past is so strong that it seems inescapable.

And, it isn’t always a relationship that holds me back. Sometimes (and perhaps more often) it is an unhealthy or unrealistic belief about myself—my own lack of confidence—that can keep me trapped.God-vulnerability-faith

When Dolly sang, I’ve decided to join the human race again before the parade passes by, I could feel the tears well up in my eyes.

Then Dolly admitted that no one else’s life is mixed up with mine, and I felt found out and exposed.

Through this upbeat, light-hearted musical, this play was speaking deep truths to my soul and inviting me to examine the current state of my life and just how free I am.

Am I open to mixing up my life with others? Or am I keeping to myself?

Am I participating in the human race? Or am I sitting on the sidelines?

Is the parade passing me by?

Grief can take on a life of its own, and great loss can make it difficult to re-enter life fully. But, I know it is possible, and Hello Dolly invited me to let go and live more fully.

Perhaps Les Miserables and other musicals portraying oppression and poverty work the same way on those who have the capacity to effect social change, exposing vulnerabilities and offering insight for transformation. Maybe I judged too harshly.

 

 

 

 

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Fill my heart with gratitude

Re-reading a journal from three years ago, I came upon an entry about my friend Ted, who had gone through surgery and treatment for esophageal cancer the previous year. Nine months after being declared “cancer free,” it was clear that something was wrong. He was understandably a bit reluctant to go and get checked out—who would want to face the recurrence of cancer?

During that time between realizing something was wrong and getting checked out, I wrote this: “I pray for Ted to be present to what is instead of wishing for something else.”

Then I wrote, “How about me? Being present to what is instead of wishing for something else? Accept, surrender, stop resisting.”

A few weeks later, Ted found out the cancer had come back, and he died a few months after that.

Facing truths that we might not want to face, and accepting those truths can be so difficult. Fear comes into play, usually accompanied by anxiety.

As I was thinking about how Ted faced his illness and death—and pondering my own fears and anxieties—this prayer came to me: Lord, fill my heart with gratitude.

Gratitude helps me focus on what is, on the reality of my life right here and now. It helps me identify and accept the truths in my life—both the things I find difficult to accept and also those I easily embrace.

I believe that gratitude, like love, casts out fear.gratitude-God-spiritualityAnd yet, some realities of life can understandably create fear. Cancer is one of them, but there are others—loss of job, betrayal, death of a loved one, etc. Without looking for them or wanting them, we encounter bumps in the road—things beyond our control that upset the order of our lives.

It can be very difficult to be grateful in the midst of some horrible life situation, but that may be the point. It is easy to be grateful when things are going well, when everything is turning my way and everything I touch succeeds.

Being grateful when bad news outweighs the good news is the challenge—and the invitation.gratitude-God-spiritualityI work at a cancer support center, so every day I hear from people who have received bad news. Helping people find something for which to be grateful as they are facing surgery, chemotherapy, radiation—or even death—can be a daunting task. I think, though, that people come to our center not just to vent, but also to find hope.

Gratitude and hope go hand in hand.

The difficulties and challenges don’t go away, but gratitude has a way of robbing bad news of its power. Gratitude changes the focus.gratitude-God-spiritualityI have so much for which to be grateful—a home, job, family, friends, health, faith….

I want to revive the Litany of Gratitude I created when Jim was sick, add to it every day, and read it regularly. Then I will be more open to allowing God to fill my heart with gratitude.gratitude-God-spirituality

 

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Moving on

Celebrating the Sacrament of Reconciliation is a regular part of my spiritual life. Reviewing my thoughts, words and actions, looking at where I need to make changes and admitting my shortcomings to another human being helps me live more intentionally.

One transgression I don’t ever remember confessing is envy—because I tend to be quite content with my life.

Recently, though, I heard myself saying words I regretted the moment they out of my mouth. I knew I needed to apologize, but before I did, I wanted to understand what had prompted this comment.

I prayed for insight.

Pondering the situation, I realized I envied the woman I had spoken to; I was envious of a part of her life that reminded me of what I used to have but have lost.

Five years ago, I moved “home” after having lived away for almost forty years. That move changed my proximity to some friends and the things we used to do together. I hadn’t realized how much I missed that part of my old life until I heard this woman talking about a trip she had recently taken with her friends.

I was happy for her and the fun she had, but a week later—and not even thinking or talking about her trip—I said something totally irrelevant and rude. I was speaking out of the past, a past I have lost and apparently still mourn.vulnerability-grief-hopeUnderstanding doesn’t change or fix what is wrong, but it helps me to apologize sincerely and to figure out what adjustments I need to make to act differently in the future.

In this situation, my words led me to reflect on developing more friends in my new home—or perhaps initiating more with my family and the friends I do have.

When I moved home, I decided that I would not expect people to accommodate me—to make space for me in their lives—because I did not want to have unrealistic expectations. I knew that their lives had gone on without me while I chose to live away.

Developing realistic expectations can be tricky because expectations that are too high can lead to disappointment and expectations that are too low can lead to—well, I think in this situation, loneliness.

I realized that a fear of disappointment or rejection led me to develop extremely low expectations.

As I look back on the five years since my move, I can see that some of my attempts at initiating have been rejected and I have been disappointed on occasion. But more often, family and friends have embraced me and responded positively to my suggested activities.

Building a new life has been a challenge, and even though I am deeply grateful to be living near my family, my rude comment tells me that I still have a ways to go before I am totally content with my new life. Admitting that is the first step toward changing it. Letting go of what was also helps.vulnerability-grief-hope

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Embrace Wisdom

After about a month of weekly visits to a woman in a mental institution, I realized how rare it is to spend that kind of quality time with someone. In the institution’s visiting room, there were no distractions—television or music or chores—as there might be anywhere else. It was just two people, talking for two hours once a week. We got to know one another very well in a short period of time.

I was reminded of that experience during the recent cancer caregiver training I attended. The four-day workshop consisted of three presentations each day—on topics like mindfulness, guided imagery, movement and breathing. We practiced what we were learning in the large group (about 100 people) and also met in small groups.

My small group was made up of eleven women of varying backgrounds and ages. It is unlikely we would have come together under any other circumstances, but there we were, meeting twice a day for two hours each time. That’s a lot of face time.

These “mind-body skills groups” were opportunities to practice the skills we had been taught during the presentations. We were led through breathing exercises, guided meditation and other mindfulness practices, all meant to cultivate greater awareness. We wrote, drew pictures and shared our insights.

One exercise was a guided imagery exercise to find our “wise guide.” Eyes closed, feet firmly planted on the floor, our group facilitator invited us to visit a place where we felt safe. I allowed images to float into my consciousness—the New Jersey shore, a friend’s cottage and my friend Ted (who died from esophageal cancer two years ago).

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New Jersey Shore

Images of being with Ted at my home in Pennsylvania, his home in Oregon and travelling around the world reminded me of how safe I always felt with him. Gratitude filled me—how blessed I was to have been so deeply known and loved. But Ted is no longer with me and so I began to allow other images to surface.

I saw myself on the Irish Sea coast, in a place I had gone for a week’s silent retreat a few months after my Jim died. Ireland is one of those places where I feel incredibly safe.

I imagined walking along the shore of the Irish Sea, and looking at the sun on the horizon.

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Irish Sea

The facilitator’s words brought focus to the question, “who will be my wise guide?”

As I looked across the Sea, the image of a white light emerged at the horizon. It was different from the yellow sun—not as defined and bright white. This light moved across the water and came near to me, and I saw that it was Wisdom. As Wisdom approached me, I became aware of my heart beating. Wisdom wanted to enter my heart, and I embraced her.

It is no mystery to me that I left this four-day training feeling like my heart had expanded and I was more open than I ever remember feeling.meditation-mindfulness-vulnerability