“I keep seeing a flame out the window,” my cousin Matt said.
Walking toward the picture window, I say, “there’s no flame.” Only there was. There was a flame flickering on the arm of Lisa’s front yard glider.
Out the front door and across the yard, walking out in our pajamas, we found a candle burning. The candle was low and wide and had three wicks; with it was a box of matches. Throughout that day, we relit the candle every time we passed by. We never learned who left this touching memorial, but we deeply appreciated this gesture on the morning after my younger sister Lisa died.
Lisa died of a brain aneurysm. She was an athletic, hard-working, fun-loving, well-traveled 53-year-old when she died on February 1, 2017. She kayaked, backpacked alone, loved camping, gardened, built her own chicken aviary, and loved her border collie Dorje. He died just weeks before she did.
Lisa’s death was not my first lesson in loss. By the time she died, both my parents were gone. They died 28 months apart—both at the age of 68. In late 2016, my 28-year marriage ended in divorce. Divorce and the deaths of important loved ones gave me unexpected opportunities to reflect and learn about grief, mourning, and finding new meaning in a changed life.
Grief is a weird thing. It is very personal and has a landscape that shifts and changes. While the intensity of the loss experience may lessen over time, it can also feel fresh, new, and raw even years later. I often say grief is a full-body experience. It can touch every aspect of your being: the loss of sleep and appetite to body pain, soothing ourselves with food or alcohol, and long-term health effects. Unattended grief can take a significant physical toll. Data abounds, reflecting the need to care for our grief and attend to it as we attend to any other aspect of change and transition in our lives. Grief takes time. Grief, if well nurtured, provides opportunities for growth and wholehearted living.
Lessons of Loss
Because of my previous grief experiences and my work as a certified funeral celebrant, I knew that support, encouragement, and grace could arrive at any moment during the deep loss of my sister. I knew to stay awake to things that would prove to be a comfort in the present situation and a touchstone of healing in the future process of mourning. I knew to practice noticing.
When we first learned that Lisa had suffered a brain aneurysm, she was in a hospital in Seattle, Washington, and my younger sister and I were in Indianapolis, Indiana. We flew in, preparing ourselves as her sister-MASH unit. On arriving, we learned her condition and situation were life-threatening. Right away, we discovered that only about 50 percent of people survive the type of aneurysm she’d suffered.
For our second morning at the hospital, I’d intended to bring pictures of Lisa so that her caring staff could see how she’d lived before these hours in a coma. I’d forgotten those pictures, but some dear friends showed up later in the morning with a prayer flag made of messages and images of Lisa. Just the kind of thing I’d been thinking to share.
Keep a Watchful Eye and an Open Heart
Even in the most traumatic of losses, you might find that there are golden moments if you look closely. Gifts of grace arrive in the arms of a friend or loved one. The gifts show up as witnesses to your grief. They show up in shapes well beyond the old-school casserole. The gifts might be the person who volunteers to set up a Caring Bridge page to make communication about your loved one’s health more accessible. Or the grace might look like someone who volunteers to run out for groceries, fly in as reinforcements, or leave a candle burning in the front yard or pictures strung like a prayer flag by the hospital bed.
Allowing and Accepting Help
It can sometimes be challenging to accept help in the darkness and uncertainty of loss. And it can be the most precious thing to receive. Especially when you didn’t know you needed it. It is necessary to find those who can help in times of loss. Help may come from unexpected quarters. Accepting help can sometimes be hard. In moments of great loss, we believe we should handle whatever is happening on our own. Alone. But grief isn’t meant to be a solo journey. We need to be as open as we can to what might be offered.
Helpers often have their own experiences of loss and can readily apply compassion on your behalf. They can companion you in your own grief out of their experience. Those who offer may bring actions, words, or silence to support you. They may offer a tiny bit of information, simple presence, or a kind word that enables you to take the smallest step forward in the darkness of your grief. Allowing others to help you will also build new memories of care as you gain distance from the immediacy of your loss. In turn, you will learn more about grief and be able to pay forward this same compassion for another. Trusting that you will be able to give back later can enable you to accept offered help.
Grief Has Its Own Timing
Whether the loss experience is the result of death, divorce, loss of health, an empty nest, or another major life change, the grief can feel incredibly painful. Loss can leave one feeling angry, confused, hurt, sad, frustrated, discouraged, uncertain, and more. The feelings related to loss are varied depending on the nature of the loss. Each grief is unique. Grief is not a mental illness or a problem to be solved. Rather because we love, we grieve; our losses are a part of living.
Finding wholeheartedness after a loss takes time. For some, it includes reconsidering one’s whole identity—answering questions such as who am I now that I am no longer a daughter, spouse or partner, sibling, or parent. Redefining oneself is just one of the many processes of mourning in the weeks, months, and sometimes years after a life-changing loss. Just as love takes time to grow and mature, so grief takes time to ease and heal. Grief can be a new beginning as well as an ending.
Meaning-making and Ritual
In her poem Summer’s Day, Mary Oliver writes, “Tell me what you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” This question has been a driving force behind my recovery from my own divorce and the death of my sister Lisa. Lisa lived a wild and precious life full of rich experiences, deep friendships and love of the environment. She fearlessly pursued her interests and dreams with as much vigor as she pursued her work. These qualities have been her legacy to me—to remember that work and play are both important. Lisa worked so that she could play, and I try to remember this.
Lisa’s death also taught me to come alongside my grief with compassion. The experience of mourning is not something I can “fix” with my mind or heart. Rather I have learned to hold it as gently as I can. To look at my feelings around her absence in my life with tenderness, curiosity, and kindness.
Making meaning in times of loss is just as individual and personal as the grief itself. The process for making meaning begins with ritual. Whether the ritual is a ceremony such as a memorial service or funeral or a safe space to name and share words with trusted friends around other types of endings and beginnings, it is important.
I have come to believe that all losses need acknowledgement. Ceremonies or rituals help us acknowledge losses when words seem impossible. While some believe that these activities bring a sense of closure, I have come to understand that instead, they open the doors of possibilities. Rather than seeking closure, through ceremony we can find an opening into exploring what’s next. We might glimpse the curiosity we’ll need as an essential tool for going forward.
Elements of ritual can include but are not limited to music, lighting candles, offering a way to collect small notes, gathering stones, assembling pictures, and other personal items. Rituals call for a time for storytelling. We need to tell our stories of loss—sometimes, again and again, to see them with soft and kind eyes. Stories give us new ways to remember experiences that at first might seem singularly tragic. Stories enable us to open to a narrative that is healing. Different cultures offer rituals that can feel honoring and soothing—such as the creation of an Ofrenda —an alter for the one who has died for Día de los Muertos. Exploring your own family history and culture can bring with it healing ritual prompts.
I once performed a funeral for a man who loved cars—he spent his career working on all kinds of vehicles, including race cars. As a young mechanic, he recorded the sounds of engines he loved. I took that story about him and found one of the race cars he’d worked on. I recorded the sound of the car running the racetrack at Laguna Beach and played it at the end of the funeral. An unexpected surprise was that is sounded very much as if he was driving away, free. It brought tears of joy mixed with sorrow to all in attendance, including me.
Grief in Times of Turmoil
A global pandemic has brought grief and loss out in the open. Before, our culture was reluctant to speak of the pain of loss; grief is now pounding down the door. Grief is and will be an ongoing theme into the foreseeable future. As a global pandemic rages on, we are confronted by innumerable losses and a stark awareness of our mortality. Life is fragile and oh, so brief.
Anxiety, uncertainty, and exhaustion are all riding piggyback on grief in today’s world. It can be difficult to discern what characteristics belong under the heading of grief and what might be depression. They do have overlapping qualities. However, if you find yourself with overwhelming feelings of any kind that do not lessen over time, professional support can help.
Seek out a therapist, grief coach or counselor, grief support group, or a support group for your specific kind of loss. Group support is an excellent way to discover how you are not alone in your experience. You do not have to shoulder your loss all by yourself, get over it quickly, or be hard on yourself for the experience you are having. Grief support can enable you to find the comfort and peace you need to breathe in and out every day. Eventually, that breathing in and out will enable you to find your footing again.
Artwork by Greg Rose/Haykidd Media.