As some of you know, I am currently traveling to Minneapolis to be with my family as we celebrate the life and love of my beloved Aunt, Patricia Evans Borg, who recently died from complications of COPD. As I grieve the loss of my aunt and accompany my family (parents, cousins, siblings, my own children, other aunts and uncles) in mourning her death while celebrating her life, I have had an opportunity to learn a few lessons about grief. I share these lessons with you so that we all may have better tools for managing the losses of life.
Lesson ONE – Grief Unacknowledged Comes Out Sideways
The news of Patricia’s imminent death came Sunday morning in an email. She had been admitted into the hospital after going into respiratory arrest and being resuscitated. She was on a ventilator and the prognosis was grim. We were in the wait and watch period. Soon, I found myself overwhelmed with anxiety, obsessive thoughts and compulsive planning. I also found myself irritable, impatient, intolerant and even a bit angry. I lost my temper with my son, snapped at my daughter and suddenly found myself obsessively worrying about money (unnecessarily so). I looked at my calendar and realized the Universe had given me a few days off in the following week and decided I needed to make arrangements to go home to see Pat and be with my family. I then felt peace. Then my son asked me for something I wasn’t ready to give him and I lost my temper. After losing my temper, I realized, “I’m sad about Pat.” Then I apologized to my kids, shed some tears and acknowledged that I was grieving. Until I acknowledged my grief, it came out sideways in impatience, intolerance, frustration, anger, anxiety and all my typical expressions of anxiety.
Lesson Two – Grief Has Its Way with You
On Tuesday morning, I received the phone call that Pat had died. SCREECH…..everything came to a stand still as my body and my spirit went into shock. I couldn’t think straight. I knew it was too early in the morning to contact family and find out more. I sat down and tried to work and found I could not. I thought about yoga and my heart said, “meh!” I cried for a little bit. Then I took a nap. I felt numb and in a haze. A couple hours later I had energy to get some necessary work done. Then I needed another nap. I called my kids to tell them the news and I cried. I tried to eat and couldn’t. I tried to force myself to at least accomplish the pieces related to the Virtual Church service for this week and couldn’t. I decided, as “Pastor and Spiritual Director,” I had the freedom to excuse myself from this task on account of death. Then I watched What Dreams May Come, and cried and laughed, and mourned not only my aunt’s death, but that of Robin Williams. In all of this – paralysis, sadness, exhaustion, shock, foggy haze, lack of motivation, and sudden spurts of productive energy, I was reminded that in grief….WE ARE NOT IN CHARGE! Instead, it is grief that is driving the bus. Grief has its way with us…in its own way…in its own time.
Lesson Three – the importance of storytelling
After I lost my sh.t on my kids (as the grief was still coming out sideways), and after I acknowledged my grief and shed a few tears, my children spontaneously joined me at the dining room table and started telling their stories about Auntie Pat. “Mom, remember that hilarious and awesome outfit she wore for Halloween that one year?” “Mom, I love the time when Pat … I love the story Pat told us about…Mom, what was Auntie Pat like when you were young?” The stories went on and on as we shared the many loving memories we had of our Auntie Pat. I was acutely aware as we were sharing our stories, the healing power of narrative. In remembering Pat, we were remembering her love, and finding healing through these shared and sometimes new memories.
Lesson Four – New Grief Brings Up Old Grief
As I have been grieving Pat’s death, I found past situations of loss reappearing. In particular, I found myself overcome with anger and resentment over past relationship in which I had experience hurt and subsequent loss. I found myself ranting and raving about “so-and-so” who had hurt, slighted, or insulted me in some way. In the middle of day three of ranting, I suddenly realized, “Oh yeah….I’m grieving….here is the anger stage of grief….but instead of being angry at Pat, or about Pat, it is showing up in other unhealed losses.” When I shared this observation with my daughter, she said, “Well, that would explain when I was sad about ….., that angry thoughts of … showed up.” Who knew??? New grief brings up old grief. My guess would be that the purpose of this is that new layers of healing can now be accomplished related to both (or all) experiences of loss. HMMMMM
Grief is the amazing and miraculous way in which we process the inevitable losses of the human condition and through which we find healing from these losses. Grief is not something to be suppressed or ignored, but something to embrace, especially if we want healing from the pain of loss. In a culture that tells us to “get over it…and move on,” it is ever more important to RE-LEARN the lessons about grief that were known by our ancestors and somehow forgotten in our quest to be “intelligent and rational” beings. Grief belongs to all of us and the more we try to resist or suppress it, the more it will hound us. So instead of resisting or suppressing grief, my invitation to all of us is to risk being vulnerable enough to grieve….and when we grieve, to grieve big so that we can find the new life that is promised on the other side of the loss.