Walking a Sacred Path: Coming along side of someone who is grieving

Much of what we believe about grief comes from an assumption that it is an emotion revealing weakness, full of pain and suffering. We tend to see grieving that continues past an arbitrary date as abnormal and unhealthy. Beliefs about how grief should look—that we should all return to “normal” as quickly as possible, put away our dead one’s things and almost never speak of him/her again are prevalent in our culture. We relegate memories of the deceased to the upper shelf of a closet of the heart, boxed away like old photographs. The assumption is that the deceased no longer is relevant to the living. But loss, especially from death, is more like an amputation, than loss of a possession. Common advice is to set aside the loss, replace it with something else. The griever is encouraged to discharge the pain by making new connections, finding other outlets, and moving on with life as quickly as possible.

As a bereavement counselor, I have witnessed a variety of ways that people grieve. Grief often does not follow a single prescriptive path, like the 5 stages articulated by Kubler-Ross. Such a path does not sufficiently honor the client or the complexities of the relationship with the deceased. Rather, I have found that listening to histories of connection between the client and the deceased person is often more healing. Thus, I encourage the client to re-member their loved one. The dictionary defines “remember” as “to call to mind again”. But here I parse the word so as to illuminate another meaning that values connection and wholeness and to illuminate the death in a more meaningful way.  “Re-Member” is a word that suggests part of a part of one's life has been severed and it is reconnected to the larger body. The connection that was created and sustained during life can remain a loving, supportive bond after the other has died.

Recently I was asked to consult with a family. Two sisters asked me to speak with their grandmother who was grieving the loss of their mother, who was her daughter. Their mother and grandmother had developed a strong mother-daughter bond from having lived together for the last ten years of their mother’s life. The sisters painted a picture of their grandmother crying daily, unable to sleep or eat, and refusing offers to sort through their mother’s clothing and possessions as a way of bringing closure to her death. The sisters were convinced that “Mee-maw” could not move past her grief with so many reminders of loss around her in the home she once shared.

When I met with the grandmother, I learned that her granddaughters understood only the recent events of mom's illness and death, but not grandmother’s story. Yes, in fact, she was crying frequently and not sleeping well. And, she really did not want to sort her daughter’s things. Inviting me to tell me about her daughter, Grandmother described sixty years with someone who had been her “best friend”. Their bond deepened through divorces and the death of a husband. When her daughter was diagnosed with cancer, she also became her caregiver.

“Mee-maw” doubted whether she had done a good enough job in caring for her daughter. She looked for ways to nurse her. Staying with her around the clock, she recounted stories of rubbing her feet from neurological complications. She slept in the chair next to her bed, so she could stay alert to her needs for medication or attention. Listening, I began forming a new picture of her loss, which was different from that of her granddaughters. I began to see that this woman was not only grieving a death, but also an core identity. She was a loving and devoted mother. As she told me stories of her life with her daughter, I began to see how I could be supportive for the grandmother and her granddaughters.

I shared the story of how Native Americans have a belief that we all experience three deaths. The first is when the spirit leaves the body, the second death occurs when the body is buried; the third death is when there is no longer anyone who remembers us. I proposed a process that would postpone the third death, keeping that person alive with each person.

We began by creating a project of re-membering. For each grieving woman, her part of the project was unique to the relationship she had with mom/daughter. Over the weeks that followed each person explored the meaning of the deceased loved one to her life. As each person was ready, she shared her portion of re-membering with the others and finally developed a memorial that included everyone’s stories. The experience was moving and healing. In the room, they envisioned the their loved one as returning for a visit. Grandmother, over time, would talk with her daughter about family concerns. Daughters brought in pieces of their current lives to share with one another and “Mom.”  

Grandmother near the end of our work, stated that she felt closer to her best friend than before. She found ways that remembering her daughter comforted and sustained her. The granddaughters also felt that they connected with their grandmother more meaningfully than they thought was possible.