Every Wednesday

Every Wednesday I will post something about grief. Sometimes it will be a reflection on an aspect of grief’s landscape. Now and then I will share from my own journey of grief, because in the sharing of our stories we find strength and build a community of people that support one another.

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Tuesday, December 1, 2015

In Grief We Are Family

(Earlier this year, Linda Schreyer interviewed me about grief and writing for Writers’ Talks at Studio West in Los Angeles. It was broadcast on Rare Bird Radio. The following is one of the topics we discussed. You can listen to the entire interview at http://t.co/9OWGGScNds )

Having a community of support is vital when you’re grieving, because it’s easy to feel isolated and alone. The emotions are intense and chaotic, and we need other people to help us navigate our way through. I had to search for community. Thankfully I found small pockets of people who understood grief.

My faith community was supportive, but they didn’t know what to do or say because Evelyn died suddenly when she was in her 40s. When you die in your 80s, people generally say something like — “It’s the natural course of things.” “She had a long life, a good career, and lots of grandchildren.” and it’s true. It affirms the accomplishments of a lifetime. But when you die young and out of the blue like Evelyn, the accomplishments were just beginning, and it seems so wrong that people are left speechless.

When grief became too much at home, I headed for Yosemite and found community with the rock climbers in Camp 4. Even though I was a hiker and not a climber, they welcomed me. I was drawn in by how they supported each other by sharing food and shelter, and mobilized for rescue missions when someone fell and was badly injured. Around campfires at night, we’d talk about our adventures from the day, both our failures and successes. 

They reminded me of the need to take risks in life, because if you just let life happen, then you merely survive, and what is the point of that? They wanted to put their lives on the line each day to see what they were made of.

In religious communities like Judaism with its 3000-year-old traditions, I found a framework of grief wisdom. For the first week of mourning, you sit in shiva, and let others take care of you and do the cooking and chores. After each worship service, nongrievers gather with those who were grieving to pray together (Kaddish), affirming that grief is a community event. And on the first anniversary of death, they celebrate Yahrzeit to honor and remember the one who died. Their traditions acknowledge that grief is going to go on for more than a month.

The Lakota Sioux community holds a tribal gathering when someone dies. Afterwards, the body is traditionally wrapped in a robe and put up in a cottonwood tree. As the body decomposes, it falls to the ground where it nourishes the grass, the grass the feed the buffalo, the buffalo that feed the tribe, and the cycle of life is affirmed.

Among my community of friends, there were individuals of compassion who kept close and kept me talking like Lori, Nicole, John, and especially Francesco and Molly. Some of them hadn’t experienced a close death, so they didn’t know exactly what to say or do, but they knew that it was important for me to keep talking about death, or else I would hide away and shrivel up. At the time, Francesco and Molly were dealing with Molly’s brain tumor, yet they kept supporting and encouraging me. Their compassion in the midst of their own suffering still touches me.

When Evelyn died in 2001, I didn’t find many resources on the Internet or in bookstores. This last year I’ve discovered quite a bit. There are online grief support communities like Refuge in Grief and Soaring Spirits that offer non-judgmental acceptance.

There are online grief journals like The Manifest Station, What’s Your Grief, Modern Loss, Open to Hope, and the Good Men Project where those who are grieving share their stories. And there are grief writers like Elaine Mansfield, Megan Devine, Tim Lawrence, and Neil Chetnik who open their hearts and write about their journeys and the context of grief in our society.

In grief we are family.

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