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Degrees of Grief

By Mary Summerbell

The recent death of a friend has moved me to reconsider my thoughts, feelings and beliefs on loss, death and grief. So far, I haven’t seen myself as being good at grieving. I wasn’t taught, in direct or obvious ways, what to do with losses in life – how to mourn, how to adeptly move through life beyond grief. I’ve always felt that in the Important Lessons of Life, I somehow missed Grief 101. I’ve learned, by observation, to follow funeral rituals, to give and receive the socially acceptable gestures of sympathy. But, as genuine and heartfelt as these condolences can be, I often find them less than adequate, no matter what my role in the scenario.

My first significant loss of something I loved was when I was about five years old. On a family trip to Iowa to visit cousins, I went to the basement with my mom and my aunt to do laundry. Going back upstairs, I left behind my most beloved stuffed animal – a little brown-gray dog with shiny eyes, floppy ears and the most wonderfully nubby texture – like very thick chenille. I can still feel it. I remember digging my little index finger down between the soft, yet firm, little bumps, rubbing them over and over to comfort myself, as needed, through daily kid tribulations.

When we found it, it was too late. My uncle’s very real dog had ripped my precious toy puppy to bits, scattered it all over the basement floor. There was no fixing it.

My mother told me, much later, that I cried all the way home. I don’t know how long I cried, only how utterly bereft I felt. It must have been a long, sorry drive back to Wisconsin for my parents, my siblings, and me – sobbing in the back seat. People were definitely angry and annoyed with me. I don’t know if anything was done to help me, but I remember no kind words or gentle touch, no offer of something to try to replace my irreplaceable furry friend. I remember no comfort but my own body releasing its little kid feelings in a torrent of tears.

My first impressions of death were deeply affected by two fatality accidents. In one, everyone in the car was killed – six young people, all in their early twenties, including our next door neighbors’ son. Then, my sophomore year of high school, three girls died and three were injured in a car going off an icy road. They were a year ahead of me in school, but some of their siblings were among my classmates and friends. One girl’s mother was to be my favorite teacher. And a close friend of all of them then is now a friend and spiritual guide of mine. The impact of these early deaths imprinted in me a tendency to see death as swift, sad, and tragic, and set me to deep questions of fate and destiny.

The ripples of these incidents continued in the undercurrents of my life when my first loss of a loved one was sudden and unexpected. Only two weeks after the first signs of inexplicable sickness, my ten-year-old brother died – a week before my high school graduation and ten days before my eighteenth birthday. What a shock! I got in trouble for staying with my boyfriend the night after we got the news. But I still remember his arms around me as he held me while I cried. In my confusion of grief I missed a final exam by mixing up my days. Mercifully, the teacher gave me a final grade based on my work without it. Even now it stands out in my life as a great gesture of kindness.

My graduation – barely a blur in my memory. No farewell parties. No time to trade yearbooks to sign. Too sad and distracted to say my good-byes. My birthday – a blank. It was a strange, sad summer. Then, the day I left for a college, my father unhappy with my rebellious nature disowned me, looking directly into my eyes, telling me, “As far as I’m concerned, you’re as dead to me as Michael.” He told my family that if any of them had any contact with me, and he found out about it, they would be out, also. In three months I lost my high school life, all but two of my friends, my home, and not just my brother, but my whole family.

In the many years since then, I’ve looked to learn ever-better ways to navigate life’s changes. I’ve read books on death and dying. Some, with arbitrary stages or phases of grief, helped me identify feelings, but are too artificial and simplistic to appeal to my deeper nature. I don’t think there’s any universal order to grief. And we humans can experience so many emotions simultaneously that such a linear-sequential approach seems an insult to our complexity. I don’t think anyone can formulate a handy-dandy way to handle loss, death, or grief. And, no matter how professional or highly educated, we all have personal issues that must affect even the most academic studies of such emotional topics.

I believe that all anyone can do is respond honestly to their own experience and share what works for them. This is what I’ve found in works written by individuals with serious or terminal illnesses, or disabilities, or unexpected catastrophes in their lives. In first person accounts, I find more authentic responses to life’s difficulties and losses, more re-framing of circumstances to allow more realistic examples of personal strategies and success than in generalized, formal formats. Stories give me details that illustrate specific human responses to the huge concepts of life and death. I like, and learn the most, from real people’s real in-the-shit reactions to their own and others’ mortality.

I’ve noticed that faith helps some people through grief. Faith – a confident belief or trust in something beyond our self – something not necessarily tangible. For many, this is God. It seems to me that religious people may have an easier time of grief because they question less than we doubters do. There’s less confusion because everything is God’s will, to be accepted. The deceased is “with God” or ” in a better place.” Meaning heaven, I guess. Or the loved one is “no longer suffering.” How do we know that? It smacks of fairy tales to me. I find no comfort in religion. I only know for sure that the dead are out of physical pain on this planet. I don’t know where they are or what they’re feeling there.

Many people, including most of my friends, believe in reincarnation, which is reassuring to them. To believe that we have been with loved ones in previous lives, and will meet again in future times – a nice thought, and I see much evidence for it, including my own experience. It’s a logical, reasonable explanation for many of life’s obvious disparities. It appeals to our compassionate desire for a chance for true justice and fairness. But, again, I’m the skeptic. It’s a great theory. But who keeps track of all that? With billions of people coming and going over millenniums, it’s got to be a scheduling nightmare. Surely computers make it easier, but still…..

The most meaningful memorial ritual I’ve ever attended was for a very close friend of mine. It was held outside, at another friend’s house. There were eight of us there, all women. I was asked to officiate. Sharon’s favorite color was purple, so I started by putting a round purple table cloth on the ground. We gathered our chairs facing one another, and cleared and dedicated the space to our ceremony. In the center we spontaneously created a beautiful arrangement of flowers, a candle, rocks and sacred objects.

Then I invited each woman, taking turns around the circle, to share a thought or story or memory of Sharon. It’s one of the few times in my life I felt people open up to hearing each other rather than thinking of other things while someone else was talking. Listening to the others reaffirmed my love for my friend, and some of my feelings and opinions about her, but I also heard new things, expanding my experience of her. After my turn, I invited a second round of responses, and found in them that we had all inspired each other to share even more honest and intimate insights of our friend. In closing, we honored Sharon’s Native American beliefs by singing rounds of “Oh, Great Spirit.” Before returning to our lives we shared a fun, refreshing little feast of treats we each had brought. For me, it was exquisitely simple, personal and poignant. It was not only consoling, but uplifting.

Recently, when my friend was sick, I didn’t get to be with him as much as I wanted to. I was thankful that other friends were able to help him more than I could. There was such beauty in the way we rallied as a group to meet his final needs. I held him in my mind and heart as I went about my life, and sent him healing energy. Whenever we talked, I told him that I loved him. That was my greatest concern – to express those feelings to him, to let him know he was important to me. I didn’t pray for him to live, or get better, but for him to face his challenges with strength and grace. Most of all, I wanted to support him in his process.

In time, it was obvious that he was deep in denial of the seriousness of his illness, and his impending death – even as he faced obviously increasing limitations each day. I wish he could have had an easier time of it, been more accepting, more quickly, of the inevitable, in order to use his last energy most wisely. And yet, maybe he did. Maybe he did all he was capable of doing. No one knows what goes on inside someone else, but I believe he did his best, with whatever his internal resources were, and the support of those close to him, to cope with and grow through his test of destiny.

From my friend’s death I take the lesson that we are all in denial. No one sees All. But now I feel a push to look at my own life and ask myself how I can most wisely use the rest of my time on earth. I can’t keep fooling myself by continuing to think that I will live a very long, healthy life. I don’t know that. I need to look at my issues honestly and get my life in order. So I ask my Soul to show me what I am in denial about. And then I see that we can only do what we are able to at any moment in time. All we can do is all we can do. And no one can judge another.

In this light, looking back, I see myself in the past with more understanding, with mercy and compassion. I admire the feisty five-year-old me for showing honest emotion under pressure of angry disapproval. I’m impressed with my teenaged self, standing up to parental judgement and punishment to seek the comfort she needed. I am amazed that in the chaos of layers of deep grief, loss and isolation, I went on to college for three semesters before I couldn’t continue. Instead of feeling myself a failure for not graduating, I see the victory in my brave attempt to make it on my own. I realize that for much of my life I have been in denial about my own strength, resilience and persistence facing great difficulties. I see a rare, keen, deep, intuitive sense of self-knowing – of listening to my inner voice above all others. It is my own beautiful little spiritual rebellion.

I realize now that supporting my friend in his process helped me learn to honor my own process. Knowing him, and caring about him, changed me for the better, made my life richer, more meaningful – more fun! And I know that our friendship enriched him. We have a caring connection that endures beyond death, as all loving relationships in life do – especially as part of a larger, loving spiritual community, which it is. And that is something I can have faith in – the continuity of Love in the cycles of Life. That’s no fairy tale. Whether it’s one lifetime, or many, that we share, it’s meaningful connection, especially in community, that matters to me. That’s real.

So – I didn’t miss Grief 101, after all. I’ve just been creating my own curriculum, all along! It’s what we all do – find our own way in our own time. And sometimes we help each other. And life is better and easier when we do.

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