healing after loss
How does a parent ever recover from a tragedy as heartbreaking as the murder of twenty-six first-graders and staff at Sandy Hook Elementary? On this one-year anniversary, I’m heartened by the determination from many of the mothers and fathers that “this is not the end of the story.” On Scott Simon’s NPR Morning Edition this December 14, they included a compelling interview with Nelba Marquez-Greene, the mother of six-year-old Ana Grace who was killed. As a therapist who counsels mentally ill and troubled young people, she talked of three attitudes and actions that have shaped her days even when “most days, it feels like I’m hanging off the edge of a cliff.”
A GRIEVING MOTHER’S WISDOM FOR HEALING:
1) Making a choice on where to focus memory.
She’s very aware that one doesn’t always choose our circumstances, but we have choices on our responses.
She describes how “I’ve made it my business” to stay focused on good days with Ana, to keep her spirit alive. Rather than reliving December 14, she loves remembering the day before, on December 13, when their busy family suddenly dropped everything to go out together for dinner at the Cheesecake Factory. She’s forever grateful for this time of lots of laughter,enjoyment of one another, and snapping of photographs. It was their last dinner together as a family of four.
2) Living with an expanded heart. During the December 2 conference of the Ana Grace Project, 500 people gathered for their family’s effort to build community, connection, and compassion. “A moment came when we wondered if we should create a table with 28 candles instead of 26, to include both Adam and his mother who also died that day. We put 28, a gesture of compassion.”
3) Acting on creative ways to honor Ana Grace. Their family motto is Love Wins and Ana’s father, Jimmy, is a musician and friend of Harry Connick, Jr. so they’ve composed a song called Love Wins now available on You Tube.
Click this link to a beautiful full interview of a Generous Spirited Newtown Mother who seeks to make meaning from such heart devastation. I found her expanded story immensely inspiring. I think you might too.
OTHER EFFORTS FOR TRANSFORMATION
Even during their first year of acute raw grief, many are demonstrating the empowering characteristics of compassion, strength, intention, and resolve that mark their community.
As grieving parents, they banded together and formed the Sandy Hook Promise, going on the road to lobby for “common sense solutions to gun violence. When lawmakers failed to pass legislation in April, father Mark Barden expressed the sentiment of many. “We are disappointed, but not defeated.” Many saw this as “round one” in their fight for reform, equating the challenges of changing America’s gun violence as a marathon, not a sprint.
Now they have launched a grassroots campaign called Parents Together, emphasizing mental wellness, connection to community and gun safety. With a new strategy, and proven tools and programs to help local communities, they believe that parents’ common love for children can overcome national political paralysis. They are determined that Sandy Hook will be remembered as a place where real and lasting transformation to prevent gun violence in America began.
This is their solace and their hope, and a force towards their healing. Such courage and determined actions give hope and solace to our nation too.
“You won’t always feel this bad.” This was the quiet assurance a friend gave Babs a few weeks after her 16-year-old son died while rolling his truck on a mountain road. Reeling from the loss of her only child, she found “these words gave me immense comfort because I knew she’d been there after her own child’s death.”
She expressed the concern of mothers and fathers everywhere who carry the burden of sorrow beyond imagination when a beloved child dies. It’s a question I also carried after our 25-year-old daughter Krista was killed while volunteering in Bolivia.
“I liken grief to an intruder who breaks into your house, demands attention and takes over your life,” explained Jan Skaggs whose only daughter Cameron died in a crosswalk during college.
“It can feel violent, rude, and socially unacceptable, such as when I’d cry at inappropriate places. But in time, I recognized grief was here to stay. It would never leave. I’d never be able to go back to the new normal.”
“So I invited grief to sit at the table and offered hospitality. It became my friend.”
Four Reasons to Befriend Grief
1) Bereavement is a healthy, normal, and universal response to losing one we love.
“If he is worth loving, he is worth grieving,” states Nicholas Wolsterdorff in Lament for a Son, an eloquent account of his devastation after the mountain climbing death of his son Eric. “Grief is existential testimony to the worth of one loved. That worth abides. So I own my grief.”
Twelve years later, he said, “The wound is no longer raw. But it has not disappeared. That is as it should be. I do not try to put it behind me, to get over it, to forget it.”
Parental love is forever, and many parents speak of ways they continue bonds with their child. “When thoughts of Dawnya rise up,” says Diana Hartvigsen, whose daughter died twenty years ago, “I don’t try to suppress them. I allow myself to let them arise.”
2)“Attending” to grief often allows for deeper and earlier healing.
After my faculty colleague Jerry Sittser experienced the catastrophic death of his wife, daughter, and mother by a drunk driver, he told me of a terrible nightmare. Fleeing towards the sun, he felt the darkness engulf him. “My sister reminded me that the shortest distance to the light of the sun is east, through the darkness, until one comes to the sunrise.” Recognizing darkness was unavoidable, he writes in A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows through Grief of his decision to allow himself to be transformed by suffering.
As many parents expressed, all encompassing grief demands attention for healthy emotional growth. In the second year after Krista’s death, my husband took a solo-backpacking trip with our dog Scout into the Olympic National rainforest. Facing his profound sorrow brought deep refreshment on his own pilgrimage through grief.
In contrast, grief counselors observe that “unattended sorrow” can lead some to a narrowing and fading trust in life, emotional distancing, or even life- destructive addictions.
3) Grief can expands wisdom, clarifying what’s really important in our lives.
At Krista’s memorial, I saw a college friend of hers who endured the murder of her 2-year-old nephew. “How did your family ever survive such loss?” I asked.
Molly paused briefly, and then said simply, “Our joys become more intense.” It’s insight I’ve never forgotten as Jim and I seek to live with immense gratitude for each day.
When Marilyn Carlson Nelson’s daughter Juliet died in a car accident, this became a crucible moment for Marilyn. In her book How We Lead Matters, she speaks of emerging from her anger and depression at such a senseless death. Now acutely aware than each day could be their last, she writes, “My husband and I made a new commitment to living our lives to the fullest, making each day count.” She later became the first female CEO of Carlson, the world’s largest global travel business and initiated sound principles of love and care into this corporate structure.
4) Grief often becomes a catalyst for positive action
Beneath sorrow, there lies a wellspring of love for the one we have lost. When a grieving person accesses this, it become the source of amazing energy and creativity, and the catalyst for positive actions.
“But death can bring fear,” admits Pennye Nixon-West, whose 16-year-old daughter was killed while a Rotary student overseas. “Eventually I had to decide to either wilt or die or to be open to the opportunities that evolved from Etta’s death, including the willingness to grow.” Future blogs and my upcoming book Pilgrimage through Loss will show the beauty of such growth.
For Jan, who invited grief to be a guest at the table over ten years ago, she found befriending grief expanded her heart. “Life has been reconstructed. Grief knocked out walls of assumptions, prejudice and quick judgment and has built a much larger room now. My life is more grace filled, more welcoming to others, filled with a lighter heart.”
In what ways have you found that befriending and choosing to give attention to grief has been important?
Don’t get me wrong. Grief sucks; it really does. Unfortunately, though, avoiding it robs us of Life, of the now, of the sense of living spirit….The bad news is that whatever you use to keep the pain at bay robs you of the flecks and nuggets of gold that feeling grief will give you. ~Anne LaMott, Traveling Mercies