About two weeks ago I answered a phone call from a friend of mine who told me over the phone, “Jon…my sister who lives far away just died this morning. We didn’t expect this at all, and my parents happen to be in Abilene visiting with us right now…can you come talk with us for a while?”
My friend and his family didn’t know many details at that point, and in spite of discovering some answers about what happened since she died, they still struggle with difficult questions and sometimes overwhelming reactions to their loss. The difficulty of loss can seem overwhelming to both the bereaved and their companions, demanding so much from both. I am compelled to hope for all of us, however, because of the remarkable strength that I’ve seen in others walking through loss…because of what the strength of others has taught me.
I have learned that grief doesn’t happen “in order.” You will cycle through a full range of emotions many times as you process the weight of loss. A great grief counselor, Alan Wolfelt, describes this using the metaphor of ripples in a pond. Once a stone has been thrown, the ripples start large, but gradually lessen as the impact of the stone is absorbed. The passage of time and the resilience of the water eventually bring the peaks and valleys to stillness. Even after stillness is reached, the stone has changed the pond permanently by what it has displaced, leaving only a memory of waves. It is OK to be affected, and even to be changed by loss.
I have learned that most reactions to grief are normal. Losing a loved one produces a multitude of reactions in those who are bereaved. Those reactions may be influenced by unique personalities of the bereaved, by the cause or nature of a death, by whether the loss was sudden or expected, or by whether it occurred inside or outside of an expected sequence of life events. Some people are anticipatory grievers who are quick to begin processing their loss, and some are delayed grievers who cling to avoiding the weight of loss. There are many healthy ways to express grief, and each person must survive in the way he or she is capable.
I have learned that grief does not have to divide families. A daughter who can’t bring herself to clean out mom’s room struggles because she would want to do anything she can to preserve good memories, and cleaning things out right away feels akin to destroying those memories. A son who wants to clean everything out quickly feels that “Mom would not want us to worry over her since she believed she is in a better place now.”
Conflict often accompanies grief, but it can be lessened by realizing that each person close to loss shares the same hurt in common, and all of us need a little room to express it in our way. Sharing stories of a loved one’s humor or vibrancy in life, especially early in the grieving process, may help unite families in loss.
Your grief does not have to “get stuck”. That’s a normal response too, but can hurt you over time. I think that we struggle with grief even more than necessary because of our own discomfort with it, when there are resources to help care for yourself in the midst of loss, such as friends who share the problem of grief. I wish, along with my friend who called, that they had no cause to grieve. At the same time, I recognize strength in his sadness because it comes from a part of him that is determined to honor his sister, and I am thankful to have seen it.