The Journey of Grief

Once in a while I read a book that’s more than good or even great.  Over the course of years I’ve read a few books that seemed to have deep personal significance and whose impact usually took me by surprise.

I just finished such a book.  Letters from Motherless Daughters by Hope Edelman is a compilation of letters written by daughters whose mothers have died, whether in the past year or more than twenty years ago.  Having lost my mother thirty-five years ago, I was interested in following the reflections of these women.

I could not put this book down.  The letters, written with passionate, emotional honesty and depth, expressed the grief they experienced–and still experience—with their mother’s death, and how it had influenced the future direction of their lives.   Many felt that the choices they made (not always good), other familial relationships (sometimes troublesome), and their own mothering issues were influenced by their mother’s death and the grief that followed.  Their stories testified to the fact that grief is not a linear process, but a cyclical journey. 

One of the most interesting things I learned was something called the “correspondence phenomenon.”  Coined by psychologist Therese Rando, correspondence phenomenon refers to the threshold when daughters reach the same age when their mother died.  Like a spark in the night, this ignited my attention.  I suddenly realized that I’m now at the age of my mother’s death.  I wondered, Is this why I’m drawn to reading this book about motherless daughters?   Is this why, a few months ago, my grief surfaced, unexpectedly, as I sat on my back porch facing the woods?  (See “The Wisdom of the Wild Woods”).

Reading Letters from Motherless Daughters was a spiritual experience that centered me deeply.  My feelings of grief were unearthed, and I usually read with damp eyes, but it was not a sad experience.  Instead, I learned more about myself, and I felt grateful to have discovered the quiet grief—and the continued love– I still carry for my mother.



The Journey toward Home

Seven months ago Rick and I moved from our home of many years in Minneapolis to a new home in Charleston.  This passage from one home to another was an enormous undertaking, overwhelming at times, but it was also a journey of joy, anticipation, and excitement.  After these seven months, we’ve found ourselves involved with the adventure of creating a new place that we now call home.

The word “home” has long intrigued me.  Full of emotion, desire, and longing, home characterizes our human yearning for love, acceptance, support, meaning, and belonging.   As the late poet Maya Angelou said, “the ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”   Yes, we long to be home, and we long to live “at home” within ourselves, wherever we may be.

I’ve been reading about the thoughts and feelings of others who have pondered the meaning of home.  For them, home can be characterized this way:

  • Where you are with family, friends and neighbors and feel loved, accepted and supported. On the contrary, homelessness means feeling unloved, unseen, unheard, unacknowledged.
  • Where you feel at peace, know you belong, and experience a sense of wholeness. Home is where you remove those uncomfortable shoes and be your needy old self.
  • Where you can easily and freely express yourself and can say outrageous things without fear of judgment or anger.
  • Where you can learn about yourself.
  • Where certain roles, such as parent, instill a sense of home, as do rituals and traditions.
  • Where spiritual practices that foster love, healing and health are performed and respected. These may include meditation, entertaining, reading, writing, exercise, cooking, creating, traveling, or whatever connects us to our deeper selves.

In reading these descriptions, it’s apparent that home is more than an external place.  Home is within each of us, and connecting to its gifts of joy, peace, comfort, and love is a journey, an archetypal pilgrimage depicted in some of our favorite myths and stories.  Its call is a universal one, but one that we take up individually.

I tend to think this journey never really ends.  We can always mature, deepen, and open ourselves to the possibility of increased wholeness, moving us ever deeper toward our inner home.  Though it requires work and courage, it’s a journey worth traversing.



A Smile As Unexpected Gift

Her head hung low when I first saw her.  She sat among other nursing home residents in a large gathering area, a television game show blaring nearby.

A few days ago, the hospice volunteer coordinator had called me and asked if I’d be interested in visiting Ann (not her real name).  “I’m not sure if she would benefit from visits.  Her son told me that she doesn’t seem to know when he’s there. If you decide to go see her, I’d like your feedback.  Let me know what you think.”

I was willing to try.  As a chaplain, I have sat with people with varying conditions and cognitive abilities.  The fact that she suffered from dementia and was no longer communicative was not new to my experience.  “Sure,” I said.   “I’ll be glad to visit her.”

When I first arrived at Ann’s residence, I asked the nurse to identify her for me.  She pointed to a thin, white-haired woman, sitting in her wheelchair. Her head was drooping low but she was awake.  I spoke her name, introduced myself, and pulled up a chair beside her, but I soon realized that we needed a quiet space if we were to have half a chance at a meaningful encounter.  With the nurse’s permission, I wheeled her to her room.

During our time together I took her hand, offered reassuring words, played music, and read poetry to her.  She did not seem to respond to my efforts.  Her head continued to hang down, and only occasionally did she look up, groan with a soft cry, and return her head in a downward position.

At the end of our visit, I returned her to the large room where I initially found her.  I thanked her for our time together and told her goodbye.  At that point, she looked up at me for the first time and smiled!  Surprised and moved, I felt the warmth of her smile, and I knew that I’d return again.

Sometimes we wonder if it’s worth our time and energy to visit someone who cannot communicate or will not recognize us.  However, I believe that presence has more power to communicate care and compassion than we may realize.  Though we may not speak words or hold a conversation, our “just being there” can be deeply and intuitively felt, alleviating the loneliness of a hurting heart that yearns to be acknowledged and known.

Sometimes, though, our humanness needs a sign or small gesture to encourage us and let us know that the time we took out of our busy day was worth it.  Her smile did that for me.  She gave me a gift that day, a gift that has become a precious memory.


Coping with Grief during the Holidays

When we’ve suffered a significant loss, special days and holidays may be even more difficult. It’s a tall order to feel like celebrating when we’re deeply saddened, working through our feelings, and tending to financial details.  We may feel isolated and alone, wondering if anyone has had the same experience of grief that we are currently experiencing.

Suggestions to Help Manage the Holidays

During these holiday months, memories may emerge without warning. We recall how our loved one did things, what they liked or disliked, and what role they fulfilled during these special days. Here are a few thoughts to help manage these special days.

  • Come as you are.  Remember that you are grieving and you will experience this season than you have ever before.
  • Ask yourself:  What do I need at this time? How do I want the holidays to be?  For example, do you need more quiet this year?  Do you wish to enjoy just one event and let the rest go?  Do you want to experience a heightened sense of hope for your future?  Take time to reflect on these questions.
  • Expect contradictory feelings.  You may miss your loved one and look forward to attending a holiday event with friends.
  • Plan ahead.  If you do holiday shopping, make a list ahead of time and then shop when you’re having a good day.
  • Rework cherished traditions.  Be creative with your traditions.  Adapt them to fit your current needs.  For example, visit a soup kitchen or find someone who won’t receive a visitor.
  • Be aware of expectations.  If you feel pressured to celebrate the way you always have, ask yourself:  Whose expectations are these, mine or someone else’s?  Sometimes our own expectations make the pain more acute.  Be realistic about what you can do.  If others are putting expectations on you, simply say, “Not this year.”  You can always return to old traditions another year.
  • Express your feelings.  Your grief won’t go away because it’s the holiday season.  Find a trustworthy person to share your feelings with.
  • Let the spiritual dimension of the holidays speak to you.  Pray, meditate, or simply sit in a room that brings you comfort and beauty.

A Few Practical Ideas for the Holiday Journey

  • Play music that is comforting and meaningful to you.
  • Put a bouquet of flowers on your holiday table in memory of your loved one.
  • Create a quilt, scrapbook, poem, prose, picture, or collage using colors, symbols, or images that remind you of your loss.
  • Have a moment of silence at the holiday table as a toast to honor your loved one.
  • Write a poem about your loved one and read it during a holiday ritual.
  • Play your loved one’s favorite game or music.
  • Don’t be afraid to have fun.  Laughter and joy are not disrespectful.  Remember that many bereaved persons do enjoy the holidays again.
  • Plan for after the holidays.

May your upcoming days be healing.

St. Kates Picture 2
St. Catherine University, St. Paul, Minnesota.  Photo JStanton.


Wasted Time, Productive Time

I love the dark morning hours.  I love to awaken early, brew a cup of hot tea, and move to the upstairs loft, where I can be quiet, still, and alone.  It is, I’ve proclaimed, “quiet hours” in the house.  After an hour or two, I break the silence to begin the active part of my day.

During this early morning time, I may read poetry, meditate, write, or simply look out the window to the forest behind our house, all while slowly sipping tea.  Or I may move to the computer to catch up on news or send an early-morning email.  Most mornings I do a combination of these.

During this time I often set an intention for the day, how I want to be in relationship with this day, with others, with myself.  In his book, To Bless the Space between Us,* John O’Donohue has a beautiful intention, one that I sometimes adopt as my own:

May I live this day

Compassionate of heart,

Clear in word,

Gracious in awareness,

Courageous in thought,

Generous in love.    (p.8)

This rhythm of this early morning extended time is something I’ve desired for a long time but found difficult to do in my working life.  Now that I’ve begun retirement and can choose my activities and schedule carefully, I want to continue with this morning ritual that is, paradoxically, both wasted time and productive time.  One of the best times of my day.

*Published by Doubleday, copyright 2008.

Backyard Woods
Backyard Woods. Photo by JStanton.

We Made It!

These three words–“WE MADE IT”–says it all!

After planning a retirement move from Minnesota to South Carolina for over a year, our dream of living closer to our son and being active outdoors throughout the year was materialized this past month.  On July 24 (our 44th wedding anniversary), we closed on our newly built house in Charleston.

It’s been a busy, if not hectic month, to say the least.  Those of you who have experienced a move, which is probably most of you, know the extent of work and planning that goes into such a process.  And packing and lifting and moving and stuffing boxes are only part of the experience.  There’s the emotional aspect as well.  Our exhaustion and excitement sometimes gave way to moments of homesickness, of missing Minnesota, where we lived so many years and made so many memories.

And now, after being in our new house in Charleston two and a half weeks, we are able to slow down a bit. Though not everything is put away, hung, or organized, I was able to take some time this morning to download pictures of our moving process. Though I try to stay away from simplistic cliches, I do believe that in this case pictures are worth a thousand words.  Hence, here are some pictures of our move that may well tell the story best.  Enjoy!

Our home of 22 years in Minneapolis
Our home of 22 years in Minneapolis
Our house sold in a few days.
Our house sold in a few days.
Boxes accumulated right to the very last day!
Boxes accumulate right to the very last day!

Rick is hard at work

And don't forget the garage!
And don’t forget the garage!
The movers arrive to our front door.
The movers arrive to our front door.
Four men (one unseen) move the Steinway.  This was our biggest worry.
Four men (one unseen) move the Steinway. This was our biggest worry.
The car is jam-packed and ready to start a long journey.
The car is jam-packed and ready to start a long journey.
Every night we loaded up a cart and carried into our hotel room.  Thank goodness for wheels!
Every night we loaded up a cart and carried into our hotel room. Thank goodness for wheels!
Pausing to reflect in the Smoky Mountains.
Pausing to reflect in the Smoky Mountains.
We stayed in downtown Charleston a few nights before closing on our house.  What a great view!
We stayed in downtown Charleston a few nights before closing on our house. What a great view!
We made it to our new home, grateful and exhausted. And then...
We made it to our new home! And then…
We do it all over again!
We do it all over again!

Grief Catching Up

I felt it yesterday morning.  As I walked through the neighborhood on this sunny and cool morning, I realized that the grief of leaving this beautiful neighborhood, this wonderful city and state, has caught up with me.  This chapter of my life, where numerous memories still linger in my mind and heart, is now over. Though the possibilities for new blessings await me, I feel the grief of leaving this place where I’ve lived so much of my adult life.

As I walked yesterday morning I relished the beauty of this area on a spring-like day: the fullness of numerous trees and vegetation all around, the running track at Minnehaha Academy, the “Little Libraries” that decorate the various blocks with donated books, and of course the neighbors who’ve made this neighborhood a wonderful place to live.

Though I believe that this upcoming move is a good choice for us, I’ve known that grief would catch up with me eventually.  That’s the way grief is, sometimes posing contradictory feelings.  I can look ahead with eagerness and anticipation to what lies ahead and feel the sadness of what is left behind all at the same time.  My task now is to embrace both feelings, to accept them as part of life and as part of what it means to be human.

I’m grateful for those who continue to accompany me on this journey, supporting and affirming our decision.  It makes this big change much easier.

Looking out over our front yard
Looking out over our front yard. Photo JStanton