Category Archives: Loss and Grief

Death, change and loss

Making room

My tears flowed freely, and this time

I did not stop them.

Loud wails rose from deep within,

and I did not stop them.

Each sob seemed to come from some deeper place,

breaking apart layers of scar tissue,

unblocking paths I hadn’t known were there.

Could I risk plunging in,

free-falling into the abyss,

letting myself go under, and

be completely submerged?

Could I risk feeling that kind of deep sorrow,

immersing myself in it and

letting it take me down

until I feel like I am drowning,

until I cannot catch my breath.

Is that the way through the pain?

Is that the way to move beyond

the grief I carry inside,

to empty myself and

make room to live and love again?

Holding on or letting go

A friend once reminded me to “hold on loosely.” At the time, I was facing a great loss and was conflicted about holding on to what I was losing or letting it go.

I wanted to be finished with the pain and sadness of the impending loss. At the same time, I wanted to hold onto what had once been.

My friend used his hands to demonstrate how to hold on loosely—palms facing up and open, fingers spread just a bit apart. A colander came to mind—something that can both hold on and let go.

That image of his open hands (and the colander) has come back to me at other times of loss, and it occurred to me the other day as I thought of the death of my mother and the end of my work career.

Every day, I am reminded of both losses, and I try to be present to my grief when those reminders pop up.

My usual way of dealing with difficult emotions, though, is to stuff down my feelings and deny or delay the pain and sadness, even though I know it is healthier to allow the feelings of sadness and desolation to surface in their own time and to process them as they appear. Old habits are difficult to change, though, and this one is an ongoing challenge for me.

With every loss, we choose what we want to hold on to and what we want to let go. I am reminded of one of the gates of grief: Everything we love we will lose. Remembering this truth helps me hold onto the gift of what has been and let go of what falls through my open fingers.

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The best is yet to come

My life has been turned a bit upside down recently by my mother’s death and my leaving the job I have had for the past seven years. Two big losses at the same time and lots of empty space in front of me.

No more dinners with my mother or shopping for her or calling or stopping by to check in.

And no more work emails or office to go to or meetings to attend.

I have to admit that it is a bit scary to stand in front of this vast empty canvas without the commitments that have structured my life for the past years. And yet…

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I have decided to view the coming year as a sabbatical, a time to pause after thirty-five years of working in nonprofit management, to reflect on and say goodbye to what has been, and to prepare for what is to come.

Almost as soon as I made that decision, two retreat opportunities presented themselves—one is focused on discernment for people in transition and the other is for writers. I had not been looking for either one, but both seem opportune, and I signed up for them. One is virtual, and the other is in Texas—my first flight since the pandemic lockdown in March 2020.

As a child, I had no idea what I might be when I grew up—no passionate hopes or dreams to be this or that. As an adult, I tended to fall into jobs more than selecting them with a goal in mind.

So here I am in the third third of my life, still deciding what I want to be when I grow up. Only now, I have lots of experience and a pretty good idea of my gifts and talents.

And that knowledge and awareness energizes me—standing on the precipice of the next chapter in my life is thrilling.

My friend Jim used to say, “The best is yet to come.” I am in total agreement, and I am looking forward to what the next chapter of my life holds.

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Love and loss

A few weeks ago, I told my dog’s veterinarian that my dog, Detroit, was not eating and she refused to take her medicine.

I had always bragged that Detroit thought her daily pills were crunchy treats, and she usually gobbled them down as she did any other treat. But she had stopped eating most everything except chicken. She would not even eat her favorite treats.

One day, we sat on the back porch and watched a cat walk across our yard. Detroit did not even flinch—she made no move to chase the cat.

Detroit lived to chase squirrels and cats. She loved to let the world know that our yard belonged to her and only she could grant permission for visitors. But twice in one week, I had seen her allow a cat free access.

I knew something was seriously wrong. Not gobbling down her food, no treats and not chasing a cat in her yard!

Blood tests revealed Detroit had liver disease. The vet prescribed some medicine, but after a week, Detroit’s liver levels had gone even higher; the medicine was not working. And then Detroit stopped eating chicken.

I inherited Detroit from my friend Jim who died from brain cancer eight years ago. She was the love of his life, and his one wish for her was that she not have surgery—ever. He hated his time in the hospital for two surgeries connected to the cancer. He did not want to live or die in the hospital, and that is what he wanted for his dog, too.

After a third visit to the vet, it was clear that Detroit was not going to get better. The vet said surgery was a possibility but there was no guarantee it would help. I said “no” to surgery and then took a few days to process the fact that Detroit was dying. Last Saturday I took her to the vet one last time.

I believe that Detroit has been reunited with Jim, and although I miss her terribly, I am happy for them. I imagine Detroit jumping into his arms and licking his face—an image that makes me smile.

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Jim and Detroit, 2010

She was a wonderful companion to me through many changes and losses over the past eight years—and especially during this time of isolation. I feel so blessed to have had her in my life.

Gratitude mixes with grief.

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What I learned from unexpected events

This week, Christians celebrate that God became human in the form of an infant child. The story is full of unexpected twists and turns—Mary becomes pregnant even though she is a virgin; Joseph stays true to his commitment to marry her because an angel appears to him in a dream; and Mary and Joseph trek to his hometown for a census, only to find no room for them at the inn.

It is easy to imagine the people in this story saying, “I didn’t expect that” or “I didn’t see that coming.”

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“How was the past decade for you?” someone asked on a radio show this week.

My first reaction was “Ugh!” The past decade was a tough one for me—full of unexpected twists and turns. Many times, I said, “I didn’t expect that” or “I didn’t see that coming.”

If someone had asked me at the end of 2009 to predict what the next decade would bring, I would not have been able to guess most of what happened over the past ten years.

It started in December 2009, when my cousin died from pancreatic cancer. Her death rocked my world on several levels. She was near my age (too young to die) and she lived away from family (as did I). She was unwilling to talk about her illness and seemed to be in denial that she was about to die.

I grew up in a house where denial was a way of life. Years of therapy have helped me learn a different way, but my cousin’s death made me wonder if I would revert to the fallback position of denial if something catastrophic happened to me. I began to ask myself how I would react if I was diagnosed with cancer or another terminal illness.

Of course, we only know what we will do when we are faced with the situation, but my cousin’s death made me face my own mortality.

Over the next six years, five friends died from cancer and one (who was only twenty-six) died from a heart attack.

Plus, I moved back to my home state to be near my family.  

It was a decade of change and loss, and I am happy to put it behind me.

At the same time, I learned a lot during this decade.

I am not the same person I was ten years ago and much of that change happened because of the challenges I had to face.

I learned that I really would step up in a crisis, take someone into my home and help him to have the kind of death he wanted.

I learned to be more honest and realistic, to let go of unmet expectations and accept reality.

I learned to spend more time and energy on what really matters and give little time or energy to petty problems or contrived dramas. “Is it brain cancer?” I ask.

Unexpected events happen; how we respond to them is what makes the difference.  

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Heartbroken

A local chamber music concert included both old and new music. The last piece on the program was called “Pieta” and was introduced as a new piece. The program listed the performers as a mezzo-soprano and pianist. A man and a woman entered the room and the woman gave us the background for this premier performance.

She told us that her son had been a musician—like his mother and grandmother. He had studied music at a university in Chicago, and she was clearly proud of his accomplishment. Not long after graduation, though, he came down with mononucleosis, and then a complication caused his sudden and unexpected death on a winter day almost three years ago. She had been devastated.

She told us she did not remember writing the words we were about to hear, but her friend (the pianist) had set them to music, the piece we were about to hear.

And then he began to play the piano and she began to sing.

She sang of her love for her son and his delightful personality; he was the light in her life. She sang of her sorrow, and she promised that she would never forget him. She sang the love letter she had written to him.

I was mesmerized by her singing, her story and her passion. It was operatic in that sense of being an event that could happen to anyone and yet was bigger than all of us. The depth of her sorrow and grief poured out through her singing.

Every parent who has experienced the death of a child needs to hear this, I thought. Her sorrow is their sorrow.

The title was not lost on me either, and I recalled standing before the Pieta in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome—a grieving mother holding her dead child, Mary and Jesus. This performance brought that statue to life.

How brave this woman was to sing of her deep sadness, to give voice to the sorrow that comes from the loss of a child. She held nothing back.

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I love opera—the music and singing, costumes and sets. Opera presents ordinary events with all the underlying feelings and emotions. It invites us to experience hope, joy and sorrow.

As I listened to this mezzo-soprano, I imagined the story line of an opera—the young man, growing up in a house where music was valued, going off to college with all his hopes for a bright future as a musician. I could see the ordinariness of his college days and then his becoming ill with something common to college students. Then the unexpected, dramatic death, and its aftermath—confusion, anxiety, sorrow, grief.

All that promise gone. All that potential vanished.

What remains is the pouring out of a mother’s feelings of love and loss in this beautiful song.

My heart was touched by this performance and opened by the emotions shared by this grief-stricken mother. I was deeply grateful that she shared so honestly. What a gift.

Starting over

The winter that Jim had cancer, our friends gave us their New Jersey shore house to use whenever we could. That gift was a huge sacrifice for them because they rented the shore house all summer and usually used it themselves on weekends in the winter; it was their winter escape. But that winter, the shore house was ours.

We went to the shore in between Jim’s cancer treatments and spent the better part of November, December and January there. It was a great gift.

Each time we arrived, I thought of our friends’ generosity and cried tears of gratitude. Their selflessness amazed me.

I wanted to do something to thank them and so I started knitting a blanket.

Many people associate the shore with summer heat, but in the winter, when our friends would be using the house, the shore can be quite cold, so I thought a blanket an appropriate expression of my gratitude.

The problem was that I found it difficult to concentrate on the pattern, and I kept making mistakes. Time and again, I had to rip out what I had knitted and start over. After casting on for the umpteenth time, I realized that I needed to be knitting for the process of knitting, rather than focusing on the finished product.

Knitting can be a meditative activity. Like other repetitive practices, I can lose myself in the gentle sound of clacking needles and the movement of yarn slipping through my fingers. I have often used knitting to help me focus, and during those months at the shore, knitting helped me focus on Jim and what we were going through. It helped me to let go of my fears and move to feeling blessed and grateful.

I didn’t finish the blanket before Jim died, and then it took me a long time before I could pick it again because it had become a symbol of my grief; each time I tried to knit that blanket, I cried tears of sorrow.

Enough time has passed, and I am again knitting the blanket. Each stitch reminds me of those days at the shore, our friends’ generosity and the importance of being present to the process instead of being overly focused on the finished product.

I think that life can be like that. I can have many false starts before I find the best path to travel. But each false start offers me a lesson, something that helps me see a little more clearly.

I remember reading somewhere that the stories we tell over and over are offering us lessons that we still need to learn. We keep retelling those stories because something is unresolved or not fully understood.

As I retell the story of knitting this blanket, I am again filled with gratitude for what was—and with hope for what is yet to be. I am grateful for the many opportunities to start over.

What stories do you tell and retell? What lessons are they offering you?

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?

“…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.