Love & Loss bring a legacy of fond memories and grief

Heather Jose photo.

Heather Jose

This week marks what would have been Dad’s 73rd birthday. He died last January after a long debilitating illness.

My family was all together in Disney World for his birthday last year, on a trip that was planned years in advance. We had no idea of the timing, but it was bittersweet as we all gathered there.

Disney World birthday treat for DadWe marked the day with a spirited round of Happy Birthday after a waiter had brought out a dessert with a candle for the occasion. I felt bad for Dad as he tried to identify who this special dish belonged to, but it was really nice of my brother to have ordered it to acknowledge the day.

We set it in the center and enjoyed it together.

A year later I am doing fine, but I have to say that grief is a strange thing. It sneaks up on me at random times, with seemingly no trigger. More often than not I simply long to have another conversation with him. Or just to ask his opinion about something. He always had an opinion.

There are many levels of grief and loss. This journey is different for everyone. I had a lot of time to prepare for Dad’s death and, at the end, he wasn’t the Dad I had known. I think that made it easier to let him go. In some ways, the end was a relief.

However, I never feel like I can say that without a bit of guilt.

It was a different story when a couple, who are friends with my mom, lost their adult son this year after caring for him since birth. He was in a wheelchair and while not expected to live through his teens—he lived to be 50. His parents cared for him every single day. It was a process that took hours. It was very physical work. They did it with love.

They had built their lives around him. The hole left in their lives is much bigger to fill as they try to find a new “normal” without him.

They say that sometimes the hardest thing is to face people. Since their son passed more than one person has told them: “It must be such a relief to not be providing all that care anymore.” But the truth is they would much rather be able to care for him each day.

The truth is I don’t have a lot of experience with death. I can see that we all grieve differently, and that time may relieve the pain but it doesn’t take away the loss. We try, in our own inadequate ways to comfort, but sometimes that makes it worse.

Gide for GriefI want to close by recommending the very helpful book on grief by my colleague the Rev. Dr. Rodger Murchison. His Guide for Grief includes both scientific research on grief as well as Rodger’s lifetime of pastoral wisdom in working with families. One of the central themes of his book is that we all should be compassionate toward friends and loved ones who grieve over what may seem like long periods of time.

Rodger writes that noted experts on grief warn: “We should be suspicious of any full resolution of grief that takes under a year.” For many people, the pain of grief lasts more than two years—in other words, even beyond a couple of cycles of annual “anniversaries” without our loved one. And, in some cases, the pain of grief can last much longer.

“No one welcomes grief,” Rodger writes, but “grief itself is not the enemy. The definition of grief is our response to loss. People grieve for all kinds of reasons: loss of a loved one to death, loss of health, loss of job, loss of relationships, infertility, separation, infidelity, divorce, spiritual crisis, retirement—on and on. Grief is like breathing air and drinking water. If you are going to live—then you are going to grieve.”

What is your experience with grief? Do you have suggestions or a story to share? Leave a Comment here or visit me on Facebook.

And, please, do a good deed this week and share this column with a friend. You can do that easily by using the blue-“f” Facebook icons or the tiny envelope-shaped email icons.

A death in the family? ‘Be tender and gentle with yourself.’

Heather Jose photo.

Heather Jose

As we founded WeAreCaregivers earlier this year, we promised to cover a wide range of issues facing the millions of caregivers working every day across this country. But one subject we haven’t addressed is death—a fear that looms large for many of us. At least at times, doesn’t it?

Now, as we count our blessings and give our thanks this November, it seems appropriate to touch on this subject that affects so many families in so many ways. Today, caregiving expert and author Benjamin Pratt writes about how deeply a death in the family can unsettle our lives. As you approach the year-end holidays, if your family is still coming to terms with a death—well, consider Ben’s story …

A Death Observed

No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing. At other times it feels like being mildly drunk, or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me.
C.S. Lewis in A Grief Observed

By the Rev. Dr. Benjamin Pratt

American tombstone by Steve Evans via Wikimedia CommonsWhen my father died, I gave myself the straight-forward advice that I had shared with others who had lost someone close throughout my long career in pastoral counseling: “Every emotion, idea and action in your life over the next six months pivots on your father’s dying. Don’t make any major decisions, plans or changes for the next year. Pay careful and cautious attention. Be tender and gentle with yourself.”

It was not long until I forgot my own advice.

Life, following the funeral, became filled with the janitorial functions that follow any death. I had to clean out Dad’s house and sell it and his car, the total of his life’s possessions. I handled the tedious probate of his will and paid his debts. This was, of course, on top of my already busy life as a father, husband and professional counselor. I did spend some time, especially in the first two months, with family and friends talking about the impact of losing my father.

I thought I was doing well. But, what did I know?

After settling my father’s estate, my brother and I each inherited about $7,000.00. Not a significant sum, but more than I had anticipated. After the tedious work was finished, the emotional tension began. It pressed me in night dreams and day dreams. The images were intense, exciting and constant. Each was different but with the same focus—I would give away large sums of money to support causes I value deeply. In one dream, I imagined plopping $50,000.00 on the desk of Morris Dees at the Southern Poverty Law Center. I unleashed $75,000.00 to the United Methodist Committee on Relief to help victims of famine and violent storms. The list grew; the funds didn’t. The images of giving away money I didn’t have obsessed me. One day, in a bit of panic, I called a broker, gave him my inheritance and told him I needed him to make a lot of money—so that I could give it all away one day.

The plan was in place.

Then, the stock market crashed and most of the money was lost. Wake up time! It was then that I remembered the admonition to myself at the time of Dad’s death. “Everything in the first six months is about your father’s dying. Don’t make any major decisions or plans in the first year”.

Time to step back and get a new perspective on what is happening. I began to search for the answer to what was really driving my urges to give away money I didn’t have. I began to face and feel emotions that I had worked hard to ignore, feelings that accompany vulnerability. Underneath all of my busy-holding-it-together exterior I was feeling like an orphan without parents, and I was especially aware of feeling very empty, lonely and powerless.

What I came to realize was that my intense images of giving huge sums of money away gave me a feeling of power. In truth, my power felt very limited. The benevolent images helped me cover my feelings of frailty, sadness and loss. They were definitely not the basis for a plan. They were mirrors reflecting the struggle of my soul. When I was feeling least potent because of the loss of my last parent, I turned to a fanciful image to mask my vulnerability and to make me feel vital and powerful.

As I reflect on this chapter in my life now, I also realize that it revealed a very positive trait of my character and soul: that I feel most valued and potent when I am giving to someone in need. That is when my soul sings. The images of giving money away were fantasies, not plans. They reminded me of who I am when I am responding as one crafted by God. There was both frailty and grace in my journey through those months.

As you enter the “family holidays” time of the year, think about all of the men, women and children you will encounter who are still within a year of a deeply felt death. And remember my advice, even if I forgot it for a while: Be tender and gentle with one another.

PLEASE, share a comment on Ben’s column. We also give you permission to share and even republish Ben’s column, as long as you retain his byline and include a link back to http://www.WeAreCaregivers.com, a part of the readthespirit.com online magazine. Want more from Ben? Check out his book, A Guide for Caregivers. (Psst! It’s a great holiday gift for someone you love.)