How much should we focus on the progression of our grief? On whether we are “doing better”?
The question came up this week when I received an email from a man who thought an associate was “stuck” in grief. He wanted assistance. He wanted the person to experience healing.
A worthy desire. However, the person may or may not be “stuck.”
I tread lightly when I hear someone brandish “stuck” in relationship to grief. It’s just too easy for outsiders to label us with a condition in need of a fast cure. Grief isn’t finished after the funeral. It isn’t done after the first year. Nor the year after that.
We also can become impatient with ourselves, feeling we aren’t moving along quickly enough. We may feel – yes – stuck. How, we ask, do I extract myself from this hellish sorrow?
I found myself in a courtroom again recently, but this time I was there as a plaintiff in a civil matter instead of as a newspaper reporter.
As I took a seat and waited for the judge to arrive, I glanced around. I checked out the at-ease lawyers in the front row and the anxious faces of the unsettled masses in the back.
Me? I was relaxed. The only discomfort I felt was at the point where my sore hamstring met the hard, wooden bench. I’ve been inside courtrooms dozens of times. I’ve reported on federal drug trials, police misconduct trials and capital murder trials. I was in my element.
Crime Scene Interviews
As the judge delayed her start by 30 minutes, I reflected upon the early years of my career. As a police scanner crackled, I’d whip out a map and push the speed limit to get to a crime scene. I’d look for witnesses, bystanders and family members to tell me about assaults, robberies, vehicular accidents and shootings that ended in deaths. I wanted their story.
If family members weren’t on site, sometimes I’d look them up the next day, drive to their neighborhood and stand outside their home, wondering if they’d want to talk or get angry for the intrusion. As their door cracked open, I spoke in a hushed voice.
We’ve got a cage in our living room. There’s plenty of space for a bowl of water, a compact bed and turnaround provisions, but it is, nonetheless, a cage.
Tuffy gives me the sad face. He knows this face works to get what he wants. Droopy eyes. Lowered head. Closed mouth. But not this time. His foot is hurt. He’s staying in the cage.
I’m in my own cage. No bars. No enclosure. But I’m not able to do as I please. Not right now.
Like Tuffy, I’ve been nursing an old injury. Three years ago, I crashed and burned on my bicycle and tore my meniscus in my left knee. As I write this, I’m waiting for the results of my MRI. My doctor suspects the meniscus has been further damaged by the ins and outs of life.
I’ve been in many cages throughout life. Sometimes because of temporary physical limitations that illness bestows upon me. Sometimes because of unpleasant circumstances willed upon me by others. Failed romances. Broken hearts. Job disappointments. Lost opportunities. We try to push through, get to the good stuff, but find ourselves stuck in place, licking a wound.
I want to tell you that my daddy turned 81 this week, that I made him a German chocolate cake, treated him to a big buffet lunch and gave him a beautiful card. But that would be misleading.
The truth is, he would have turned 81 – the same age Mom was at death – if he’d lived 14 years longer. My daddy died in 2006 at age 67.
I’ve read plenty of stories about children reaching the age a parent was at death. Outliving that marker. Meaning drips from the milestone. I’m not there, yet this birthday haunted me.
He could have lived this long, I thought to myself. He could have been 81. He could still be here. With me. With us.
Why do we do this to ourselves?
When we let go of the emotional investment we’re putting in outcomes, we often get pleasantly surprised by what happens without striving and effort.
I’m referring today to a personal surprise, however, this applies to our grief journey as well. If we let grief process unfold, and never mind the end point, we’ll experience healing faster.
Drum Roll Please
First, my announcement. I’m in another book. I’m not crowing. Well, okay, I am maybe just a wee little bit, but really, I want you to know there’s another resource for us to use in our journey.
It’s called Buckets of Hope: Recovery from Grief and Loss. Kat Crawford, aka Kat the Lionhearted, published the book after assembling essays from 26 authors, including from me.
I’m also a contributor in Grief Dialogues: The Book. It came out in November and is available on Amazon here.
What’s really neat about Buckets of Hope is each story begins with a Bible verse and each ends with a reflection. I found God to be the greatest element of comfort and healing after the deaths of my parents, and so I’m delighted to be a part of a publication that includes Christian faith as essential to the grief journey.
In Buckets of Hope, my contribution is called The Last Closet. It starts on page 102. I published a similar but not identical version of this story on my blog in October 2017 called 3 Tips to Clean Out a Loved One’s Closet.
While the blog version is a mixture of personal story and how-to, the book version is about the difficulty I had cleaning out the contents of the last closet with my parents’ things in it, and the revelation I had that allowed me to do so finally with gusto. Buckets of Hope is available on Amazon here
I submitted The Last Closet in February 2018. You see the math? That was 18 months ago.
I remember the shock of the World Trade Center coming down, and I remember the unifying comfort of shared, national grief.
We huddled in front of television news broadcasts together. We lighted candles together. We stuck magnetic America flags and troop support ribbons on our cars. A sea of grief expression.
This week, 18 years later, social media is abuzz with the collectively remembered anniversary of the sudden, dramatic, deliberate slaughter that invaded our shores. Not like an army but like a bug, creeping into our safe place and then striking us with horror.
We don’t grieve like this a lot. Publicly. Visually. But in the 1800s, grief was out in the open. This month, in the Victorian Village Historic District of Memphis, the Mallory-Neely House is decked out in mourning clothes and educating people about the way we used to grieve.
I grabbed an ear of fresh corn. Hovering over an open garbage can, I began to peel the husks off to reveal the sweet yellow gold inside.
At that moment, my mind flashed to the image of my dad standing beside a little-girl me as we shucked ears of corn in the kitchen of my childhood home.
The pain of having lost my dad to a heart attack wasn’t on my radar that hour until the ambush. That’s what a grief trigger is. An ambush. We do not expect that dagger to come at us from the bushes. Defenseless, we collapse. Especially if the loss is new.
Innocently at a grocery store one afternoon years ago, I spotted a can of Campbell’s bean with bacon soup, one of the few foods Mom would eat in her last days. I felt like I’d been punched. I carried my sadness through the store and into the parking lot that day.
My loss was fresh then. Now it’s been more than a decade since my parents died. I feel the loss, but it’s easier to embrace happy memories triggered by something I hear or see, and I’m in the habit of processing any new pieces of grief that pop up.
After years of slow but progressive work on grieving my parents, I see four ways that helped me move to a happier place, giving me the ability to accept grief as a part of life rather than as an interruption that jumps out at me from the bushes.
Have you ever suffered? A silly question, right? Haven’t we all suffered in some form? Perhaps not as much as others, but we have suffered.
I found a poem years ago, and I want to share it with you today. It’s called A Creed For Those Who Have Suffered. I found a copy of it in my father’s bedroom the week he died. I understood immediately why my father had it, for he had suffered.
He suffered from the painful spine curvature of scoliosis. And from Parkinson’s. His shaky hands could not button his shirt. He died of a heart attack at age 67 without ever getting to enjoy his retirement.
We had the Creed read at Dad’s funeral. I do not know, but I do hope that my father found a perspective in the poem that enabled his mind and spirit to transcend the despicable fate of his body – while still trapped inside of it.
We need something to give us solace at such times because sometimes we cannot shake suffering. Its choke hold is absolute. There is no fix. No prescription. No therapy. No cure. But there is space to rise above suffering. Not all of us can attain it. Or maintain it. But it exists.
As our body betrays us, we shift our focus onto the soul. That is the key, and that is obviously what the Creed author did. I don’t believe Brooklyn Dodgers Hall of Fame catcher Roy Campanella authored the poem but he supposedly read it publicly in 1959 after a car accident and spinal injury paralyzed him, ending his career.
My dad, by the way, was a Dodgers fan. I do not think, though, that he knew how much the poem had touched Campanella. I cannot know what comfort it might have offered my father, but I can pass it on to you in hopes that it will encourage you now or on another day.