Grief happens

"Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning."  Psalm 30:5
“Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.” Psalm 30:5

ORIGIN Middle English: from Old French grief, from grever ‘to burden’ (see grieve) .

I like that. To burden, specifically, to burden with sorrow.
It’s been a sad week. My heart goes out to the community of Truckee, California; to friends in Oregon who have endured losses, both expected and age appropriate and not. My work has brought me in touch with many people recently that have walked the Grief walk through death, foreclosure, the experience of family separation. The reality is, we will all encounter death and other losses, we will have to walk with Grief, for however long or brief a time is required for us to allow it to grow us and renew us.

Grief? Grows and renews? Oh yes, indeed. When we let it.

Like a fertile garden that must die back in the winter to make room for new growth in the spring, grief prunes away that which is unnecessary and brings us down to that which really matters and of which we can be certain — Today.

We tend to fight grief off. We numb our selves — “gotta get back to work”, “gotta get on with life”, “here, let me pour you a strong one”.  We get frustrated with people who don’t “move on”.  We want folks to grieve their losses on our timeline, because, frankly, other people’s grief makes us uncomfortable.

Grief and I are quite good acquaintances.  As a young child, I had two classmates lose multiple siblings in car accidents (all teenagers).  As a teen myself, I encountered 10 losses in 18 months around my sophomore year, including my own father and a man as dear to me.  There were car accidents, gunshot wounds, hit and runs.  Cousin, friends, and parent.  I grew through my childhood believing that when you are a teenager, a lot of people die.

Raised by a Depression-era mother who’d lost her own mother at 14 and then withdrew and didn’t talk to anyone for almost a year, I was encouraged to “pull myself up by my bootstraps”, “put on a happy face”, “don’t wear my heart on my sleeve” — colloquialisms all for “get over it”.  I’m sure my sadness brought up her youthful loss and neither one of us had any kind of road map for the sadness, or how grief works.  Without guidance, I had no model for how to pull myself back together.

(Beloved Swiss physician, hospice proponent and author Elisabeth Kubler-Ross had not yet published her outstanding guidebook on Grief and Loss).  We were adrift in a sea of feelings, and really, it took me decades to benefit from Grief.

Grief doesn’t go away because we will it to, anymore than those we’ve lost will come back to us.  Grief goes away when we are done.  Grief isn’t a one-size-fits-all experience.  Different situations bring it about differently.  As our parents age, especially getting into their 8th or 9th decade, we can predict our time with them is limited.  There is both a savoring of the days we get together, and often an anticipatory grieving, as we imagine what life will be like without them.  This is also often true of those who’s loved ones suffer a chronic, exacerbating, terminal illness.  A lot of the grieving occurs as the family prepares for the loss.

The difference in my grief experience between the unexpected and untimely death of my father and the slow aging and peaceful, expected, hospice-supported passing of my mother have no comparison*.  I was so at peace when my mother took her last breath, I had a chance to say my goodbyes, make my amends, and there was no sense of regret.  I miss her — to be sure —  and certain milestones make me sad she isn’t here to celebrate with us.  But the pain I feel around losing my dad at 16 still flares up with sharp edges and an enduring sense of loss — 37 years later.

*Hospice supported my mother’s emotional and spiritual healing process preceding her death, and kept her very comfortable near the end.  They supported the family by asking the right questions to get us talking, clarify values, make plans, and deal with the “business” of death.  Hospice care is generally offered to anyone with a life expectancy of less than 6 months, for whom medical care will not be accessed to prolong life.  In my humble opinion, everyone facing an imminent loss should have a hospice team at their disposal.

Here’s what I’ve learned about grief, and what I want to share with you, especially my friends in this very tender week:

There are predictable stages of the process.  They are not sequential, you may return to one over again, months or years later.  Denial (this isn’t happening).  Bargaining (“Wait God!  If I…. then will you take this cup from me?”) Anger (THIS ISN’T GOING TO HAPPEN!) Depression (which is quieter and people tend to withdraw and lick their emotional wounds)  Acceptance (the time when you realize it’s OK to be sad, and happy.  To love someone and miss them, and look around your own life, take stock, and be grateful again, realizing you are not being disloyal to their memory by getting up and getting on.)  Any state that begins to interfere with activities or daily living, or sadness that brings on suicidal thoughts needs to be addressed by a team who can help you negotiate this passage.

Different losses require different processes.  A parent losing a child is not going to incorporate the pain and heal the same way an adult child saying goodbye to an octogenarian parent will, nor should they.  The first loss in a circle of friends is not going to resolve easily, because this experience is so new and you don’t know how to feel, or how long you’ll have to feel.

Don’t replace sadness with anger.  Allow sadness.  Allow time.  Allow memories and sharing and stories.  Sadness will burden you, but not forever.  Trying to dodge it by numbing it with excessive activity or chemicals or television won’t make it go away.  Sadness will have it’s day, will leave it’s mark, and like metal tempered in the fire, will make you strong in ways you never knew you were weak, will reveal love from directions you’d never noticed it coming before.

I send love to those I know need it this morning, and to those who know this walk painfully and intimately.  Death and loss are part of our human experience.  Allow it to be what it is, seek love from those around you, be tender with yourself, protect those walking this walk with you.

With loving kindness this morning,


Making Ends Meet

My mother was a strong woman, resiliant and fiercely independent. She lived on her own until 2 weeks before her death, and it’s not unthinkable that she waited at home until she knew her time was at hand, and then asked for help in getting her moved to a situation where she wouldn’t have to fret about us or the activities of her daily life. She reminded me of a woman in labor — knowing the birth is coming but backing away from that last transition even as she leans into the contractions. It was a tumultuous time.

In my mother’s case, we found her a wonderful adult foster home (a system of care in Oregon). I knew of the home because it was one I had some oversight in as a Community Health Nurse for the State Seniors and People with Disabilities Office. I loved the home, the caregivers, the ambiance. It was primarily a hospice home, though I really did not anticipate that was the service my mother needed. Even I, her RN daughter, thought that what she needed was time to rest, heal, let someone else take care of her. She was walking on her own with stand by assistance the day we arrived at the house, her bedroom already set up, furniture and pictures from her own bedroom adding familiarity and comfort. By the end of the week she could not stand without assistance, was irregularly communicating with us verbally, beginning to exhibit repetitive neurological motions referred to as “terminal agitation”, and sleeping frequently. (It was that weekend that I saw my father, deceased some 35 years before, standing by her bedside. It was a brief vision, but brought intense comfort to me).

On her 88th birthday, only days later, we were able to get her dressed and into a chair in the living room, where we shared an apple pie, her choice of birthday desert. Amanda her caregiver, my husband and I shared her birthday, untold friends called and sent cards.

It was clear this story was coming to an end.

My mother passed away very peacefully on a Sunday morning, with my sister, my husband, my brother in law all at her bedside. I was telling some silly story an uncle had told me the week before, about her father and a couple brothers and truck in a ditch. A “Golden Oldies” CD was playing, and I became aware simultaneously of her lack of respirations, and the words from one of her favorite songs, “Walk on the Sunny Side of the Street” — “like Rover, I crossed over….”. I asked Amanda, a tender hearted and very mature young woman, for a stethoscope, and I listened to her chest — her very silent chest. Stethoscopes are built to pick up sounds, and so are my ears, accustomed to focusing in on the earliest of fetal heart beats, the sometimes complicated extra sounds of the adult heart beat. I had never before heard just a hollow “nothing”.

The years leading up to my mother’s passing were busy, crazy busy with teenager activities, and her increasingly frequent medical trips or emergency room visits. For years I waited for “the other shoe to drop”, and after it did, after I bid her a tender and gracious goodbye, I did not grieve much. There was work to do, a memorial to attend to, a house to empty and sell, a marriage that dissolved rapidly after my mother’s demise and still… children to raise. My siblings and I went our own ways, I think each in our sorrow and orphan-ness to adapt.

I was unprepared for my first trip to visit my sister, some 18 months later, and in her guest room, find a chair. My mother’s chair.

The following is a description of the grief that finally found it’s expression. Grief comes in it’s own time, in it’s own way. There are no rules, except that there are no rules. I hope you don’t mind my sharing the rawness of that morning.

There was such a deep sadness… loss… confusion

curled up like a child in my mother’s chair, my head resting tiny against the wing of the back, where her head would loll as she’d fall asleep in front of the television.

There was a hug for me in the pillow she’d made, as I clutched it to my chest

and it became a depositor for my tears, my sobbing, my racking breath.


All the anger and love and resentment and loss, isolation and tenderness rolled all up in a ball in my chest —

fragile —

like a Christmas ornament dropped on a cold tile floor, shattered into a million shards of glass; prismatic, sharp, painful,

liquified me into brutal tears pouring forth, each sharp piece piercing my heart and the shell of detachment worn thin in spots

thin enough to be rent apart.

Flashflood. The torrent of emotion burst from me unexpectedly, profoundly, leaving me spent and more contemplative. I had not anticipated such a powerful response, having been so accepting of her passing and my circumstances as they unfolded. I didn’t know I held such pain, or that the pain held so much power until it’s critical mass was unleashed by a familiar, winged back chair in the wrong house, sitting empty save for the throw pillow that would rest her head.