When a loved one dies, survivors are left with an enormous amount of physical and emotional work. The first few days seem like a blur and most people are in disbelief that this can even be happening. When rituals have passed, grievers are left with the task of rethinking their own lives. Rethinking ourselves requires asking many questions that often flood together in an avalanche of unknowns. Who am I now? How can I go on? What will I do? It may feel that there is a gaping hole in our hearts that will never heal.
Grievers most often rely upon their families, friends and their church or synagogue for support, but often these resources are not enough. Well-meaning friends may not know what to say, or they may avoid those in grief because they are afraid of awakening the pain once again. Others may try to dismiss grief as something one should be over by now. The sense of loneliness in grief may be compounded because others we care about may not be able to help us express our sorrow in ways that enable us to heal from it.
I once heard a well-known author, spiritual director and supervisor of students for ministry whose name is Parker Palmer speak about his attempt to cope with a midlife depression by attending the wilderness experience called Outward Bound. After spending a week in the wild, the final task was to repel over a cliff and lower himself to the ground. Parker said, "I let myself over the rock face and slid down to the first crevice, and after pushing off with my feet, I froze." The guide looking up from the ground said, "Parker, if you cant get out of it, get into it." Parker said, "I realized then that I had been taught how to control my descent and began to lower myself to the ground."
Grief feels for all the world like being tossed over a cliff, and clinging with all of our might to little threads that connect us to the past. We know that we cannot go back, and we dont know what lies ahead. Getting into our grief may be the best way to learn to live differently. Sometimes when the bottom falls out of our life we are set free. We attain enlightenment, or an enlightenment of sorts—some perspective, some clarity, some sense of reality, some sense of dealing with things as they are, some relief from anxiety and perplexity, because something profound has happened. In her meditation manual, "Tree and Jubilee," Rev. Greta Crosby has written about grief this way:
Whenever that profound thing happens, we can expect to go through a process, sometimes a long process, a painful process, or at least an uncomfortable process, in which we let go of something and slowly learn how to live again. This is true no matter what we lose; a loved one, a work, a hope, a vision, an image our ourselves, a part of ourselves. Loss makes artists of us all, as we weave new patterns in the fabric of our lives.
Reverend George A. Burn is the director of pastoral care at Mount Nittany Medical Center and co-facilitates the "Growing through Loss" bereavement program, which is offered free to the community. "Growing Through Loss" has been in existence for over 10 years, and many people have used the group as a stepping-stone to new life. "Growing through Loss" will begin another seven-week cycle beginning Monday, March 13, 2006. Please call 231-7090 for details.