“It’s not impossible to grow in harsh environments,” said our knowledgeable volunteer while guiding us across the wind swept ridges near the Eagle Cap Wilderness by Wallowa Lake in Oregon. Accessible primarily by a high altitude tram, we marveled together at the charming wildflowers with names like pussyfoot and golden daisies.
“It just takes more effort!”
She should know.
Widowed just a few months earlier, she chose to uproot herself from her comfortable surroundings in Mississippi, and moved to the small arts-colony town of Joseph where she and her husband once dreamed of living.
Now this retired engineer is making daily efforts to recreate a new and meaningful life as a single woman. “I feel close to my husband here because he loved the exquisite natural beauty…storms and all!”
This grieving yet adventurous widow echoes the wisdom that “we can’t always choose our circumstances, but we do have the power to choose our response.” Her choice to make efforts to recreate a meaningful life again, even as she is living in the harsh early environment of lonely widowhood, inspired us.
For persons facing profound loss through death of a spouse or a divorce, a recent book by Christina Rasmussen titled Second Firsts offers insightful concepts. Widowed as a young mother, and unemployed with two young daughters, she rebuilt her life with a significant plan of action informed by mind research.
What conscious efforts have you made to grow during difficult times? Were they helpful towards healing?
Do men and women grieve differently?
Soon after Jim and I were engaged following just a three-month courtship, I mentioned to him that someday I wanted to go to Africa. The next day he took me out to lunch and expressed his alarm. “You have to understand, Linda, that I’m a poor graduate student.” Moreover, since he was immersed in doctoral studies at the University of Washington, he added, “and I probably will be for several years.”
At the time I found his concern for clarity endearing, and I assured him my idea of “someday” could mean years away. But it gave me a glimpse into the life-long effort married couples need to make to understand one another just on the small things. Maybe some glimmers of truth hover within the cliche that”Women are from Venus; Men are from Mars.”
A few weeks later, he announced seriously, “I’m in this for the ‘long haul.'” Mesmerized with being ‘in love’ and far more interested in giving focus to the daily joys of our romance and upcoming wedding, his declaration of our future ‘long haul’ had a dreary and decidedly unromantic sound! Who is this man I’ve just agreed to marry? “That annoys me,” I responded. One more communication gap. At that time, I didn’t know how his beliefs about commitment had been significantly shaped by watching his father’s faithfulness during his mother’s two-year bout with mental illness. A hysterectomy left her with a serious hormone imbalance that disrupted their family life in painful ways, even leading to her temporary institutionalization. His dad stuck with her and her eventual return to health gave them years more of satisfying marriage, and a model their three sons respected.
GENDER DIFFERENCES in GRIEVING?
Partners in a relationship when a child dies face far more profound communication differences. Shortly after Krista died, while canoeing with a father who lost his son, he mentioned, “Be aware that almost 90% of marriages end after the death of a child.” Since he was a scientist, at first I took his statistics at face value. Great, I thought. Am I now at risk of losing a husband I love as well as a cherished daughter? Later, my own research instincts kicked in and I learned that Compassionate Friends, an organization for parents who have lost children, conducted research and discovered that only 16% of couples divorce after such a devastating death, far different than this popular urban myth perpetuates. Also far lower than the national divorce rate.
Yet, it didn’t explore how satisfied couples were with their level of communication. Many men and women have spoken to me of their differences while living the pilgrimage through loss. In a book Grieving Beyond Gender: Understanding the Ways Men and Women Mourn, Kenneth Doka and Terry Martin explore these communication styles that often trouble relationships. Doka’s observations began thirty-nine years ago as a pediatric chaplain at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer hospital when couples often mentioned the differences in how they grieved their losses. With the added reality of divorces, blended families, stepparents, and absent parents, there are often multiple layers to a family’s dynamic.
He observed two distinct grieving styles. He believes men tend to grieve in an “instrumental” style; they prefer actions, working through the pain by doing and thinking. He observed that women are typically “intuitive” grievers, more feeling-oriented, with waves of emotion and much verbalizing. When couples differ, it becomes too easy to be judgmental of the other wondering “Why does she cry so much and always need to talk?” or “Why won’t he express what he’s feeling, or is he not really in grief?” Although these general patterns may prevail, Doka cautions that these styles are not restricted to gender and simply may vary by one’s temperament and the relationship with the child.
I agree. Instead, I value Isabel Allende’s words that say “sorrow is a solitary road.” I have found myself alternating between both these descriptions at various times.
For a more complete description of their work, please see my earlier blog post When Men & Women Grieve.
Do you feel Doka’s descriptions ring true for what you’ve observed about yourself or another? Where might it differ?
Jim was right…it took over 30 years before we finally visited Africa! Thankfully, I’ve come to a deep appreciation of Jim’s commitment to the long haul as the intensity of our grieving alternated between us in the following years. Now we are off to the enchanting Wallowa Lake in Oregon where we’re meeting friends to hike and share a little cabin for a few days. This should be an ideal wilderness area to continue preparing for our upcoming Healing and Nature workshop at the national Compassionate Friends conference in Chicago in July. Hope you are enjoying some days of sunshine too!
How does one find inner strength? My husband and I have been enjoying a thoughtful book The Day was Made for Walking: An Aussie’s Search for Meaning on the Camino de Santiago. It’s the true story of Noel Braun, a 77-year-old Australian, shattered by the death of his wife of 42 years who committed suicide following years of struggling with depression. Six years later, still suffering from anguish, Braun decided to walk the ancient pilgrim’s route as a means of facing his suffering head on.
Since Jim and I visited there (no, not walking!) with our daughter Krista, our rich memories are intertwining with his adventures. In fact, we still hang the symbolic scallop sea shells given to Krista, Jim and me in our home. They include personal messages written to us when we met Jacque, a deeply spiritual host, whose family’s hostel has been feeding and housing pilgrims for three generations! Tragically, this historic hostel had recently burned down, but with the help of others they had begun rebuilding.
Some of you may be familiar with this popular European pilgrimage if you saw The Way. This film stars Martin Sheen as the doctor father who chooses to walk ‘The Way of St. James’ to cope with the death of his son (Emelio Estevez) and honor his son’s desire to finish the journey.
This 1521 kilometer rugged trail that begins in France and ends at the St. James Cathedral in Galicia, Spain offers a daunting challenge to anyone, let alone a grieving husband almost 80-years-old.
DRAWING FROM HIS QUIET POOL OF STRENGTH
After failing to carefully observe route markers on his first day, he becomes lost and needs to walk an extra 14 kilometers before he arrives exhausted, sore, and discouraged to the ‘gite’, the pilgrim’s equivalent of hostels along the trail. He writes,”Inside, I was racing. Yesterday’s failure had stirred something deep. Within us there’s a quiet clear pool of strength, often hidden in the tangle of day-to-day activity, that we’re not aware of it until we’re challenged. I drank from the pool.”
He muses about why on earth was he involved in such a caper, trekking across the French countryside with an overweight backpack? “Why didn’t I act my age and go on cruises and pass the time shuffling deck chairs?” But he was determined to keep going and to learn the lessons that the Camino has been teaching pilgrims for a thousand years.
Then he elaborates in his chapter “I Advance Slowly but Surely.” Determined that no setback was going to stop him, he muses, “Hadn’t I drawn on the same pool of strength and coped with the greatest of catastrophes when I lost Maris? Nothing worse could happen to me. I was vulnerable, at the mercy of the Camino and my own foolishness, but on my side, I had tenacity, Maris’s spirit and an undefinable presence which I like to call God. I felt stirrings in my internal journey.”
His book is a moving love story and a tale of resilience as he discovers the pilgrimage adds meaning to his life and breathes a “new vitality into my body and spirit.” Rather than closing off to life in the midst of his pain, devastation, and guilt that suicide survivors often experience, he keeps his heart and soul…and definitely his aging body…open to growth. With the warmth of healing companionship he experiences while on his pilgrimage and his strong interest in social justice, he especially likes the words from “The Servant Song” by Richard Gillard.
We are pilgrims on the journey
We are brothers on the road
We are here to help each other
Walk the mile and bear the load.
OUR OWN QUIET POOL OF STRENGTH
When we lose someone we love dearly, it inevitably means we have to draw on internal strength to embrace life again with hope. Most of us don’t have the time or energy for a 1500 kilometer journey, but need to find our own quiet ways to heal. For me, the garden often gives this gift; for Jim, it’s often been music or poetry. What has been helpful for you?
National celebrations like Father’s Day inevitably bring bittersweet memories. The picture above is my husband Jim enjoying the quintessential father-moment of dancing with his daughter Krista. Holding a young woman radiant with peace and happiness after the traditional father-daughter wedding dance, he needs to tangibly let go as she turns to dance with her new husband. Also a bittersweet moment, but he chooses to live with the trust that the deep roots from family of origin will remain as they integrate creating their new family with continuing bonds with their mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters and extended family.
In a way, after a child dies, parents face a similar challenge. After the tangible loss of our child, we are forced into letting go of the sheer physical pleasure of their presence, their hugs, the lilt and tone in their voices, all that we yearn for and miss. But, as long as we don’t aim for the illusive ‘closure’ that our culture elevates (see earlier blog Who Wants Closure), we can turn in trust that our bonds will continue with the warmth of deep memories. A father and mother’s challenge is learning to live with sorrow and forever love intertwined, often heightened during America’s parent-day celebrations.
One mother interviewed in Pilgrimage through Loss expresses how she discovered this possibility after the intensive early years of deep grieving.
“When you integrate your child into your life, the loss changes significantly,” explains Babs Egolf, whose only child died at sixteen in a pick-up truck accident.
“At first, when Wade died, the loss felt completely outside and I was missing him terribly. But then something wonderful happened; it’s like I turned around and he came back inside me. I first sensed this when I traveled to India for four months. Without the familiar sites of his bedroom at home, I felt disoriented, wondering, ‘Where is he?’ But then I recognized he lives inside me now and I can never lose him….even in the Himalayas.”
“The loss is quite different now,” she said, amazed at this change. “It’s like we became one.”
What Babs Egolf is experiencing is what many grieving persons discover; they desire to continue the bonds they have with a loved one, not end them. The ‘continuing bonds theory’ emphasizes people do not just let go and move on, but they hang on to the bonds by transforming the relationship. “Every year on my daughter’s birthday,” said one parent,”I write her a long letter and then go and sit by her gravesite and tell her all that has happened in the family and my life. It’s a comforting time for me.”
This afternoon, we are looking forward to a fun Father’s Day barbecue at our son Jefferson’s home with his wife Kris and granddaughter Erin, grateful for this continuing of family bonds. With Jim, Jefferson and Jack (Kris’s special stepfather), we will celebrate their goodness in our lives. But to ease into this bittersweet day, I surprised Jim with a treasure hunt, with hidden gifts for his heart, soul, body, and mind. The heart-gift was the promise to frame this delightful picture from granddaughter Erin who lights up her grandfather’s heart, a tangible remembrance of the ongoing nature of family!
What have you done in your family to help ease the bittersweet celebration of Father’s Day or Mother’s Day? Is there anything you’ve found helpful to do for families you know are encountering grief on this day of remembrance?