Every November, I am vividly reminded of my deceased loved ones. I always receive an email asking if I would like anyone remembered at a prayer service on the campus of my alma mater; I attend mass on All Saints Day; and this year, my son’s sophomore Spanish class held a Dia de los Muertos celebration in school. Recently, though, I received an unexpected gift that reminded me of the poignancy of life and loss.
My daughter was asked to be an altar server at the annual mass for all those who died in my parish in the past year, and I decided to go with her without giving it much thought. I attended several funerals this year for family members of friends and acquaintances, and when I arrived, I saw many familiar faces.
There was a friend who lost his mom and his dad within weeks of each other. There was a classmate of my daughter whose father died over the summer—in attendance with her mother, brother and sister. A palpable sadness stirred among the attendees when this young family approached the front of the church together. Several others that I knew, and a host of others that I didn’t, lit a candle when the names of their loved ones were called.
One older gentleman, whose face I recognized but whose name I didn’t know, lit candles for three different people, the last time returning with tears in his eyes. Other names were read with no family in attendance. I’m sure we all prayed for those folks. I found myself remembering a similar service I attended more than 20 years ago at the hospital where my mother died, and I began to cry. I cried mostly just seeing the tears of others, but also as I recalled the real sense of loss I felt at age 17 and for years after.
In those years since, experiencing more losses and eventually working with many people grieving many kinds of losses, I’ve come to believe some things about grief that I sometimes offer to people I see in counseling.
We all experience loss
First, and I was so aware of this tonight, we all experience pain and loss. No one is immune. To be sure, some tragedies are hard to imagine, but in general, most of us can relate to the pain and emptiness of a loved one’s death. And for the most part, we survive it. I don’t often lead with this realization when working with someone’s “fresh” grief, but the expectation that they will survive allows me to more easily walk the journey with them. Knowing that the intensity of grief fades (and sometimes returns and fades again), and that life resumes, helps us to be there when another person needs us.
Grief is a process
Secondly, I see grief as a very active and tangible process. I find myself talking to people about the usefulness of pictures, keepsakes, and stories—not to make their loved ones into heroes that had no flaws—but simply to remember and honor the shared life experience. It is so common that these practices result in tears and/or laughter, each of which help to heal, and can be real signs of living through the loss.
Take time to remember
Related to this idea of being active, I encourage people to attempt putting some boundaries around the process. The best I can describe it to them is to move in and out of grief, taking some time intentionally to remember their loved one—possibly by writing a letter or looking at some pictures—and then to get on with life. Such a practice helps them to see that grief is real and valuable and does not have to be overwhelming.
Of course, no one is in perfect control of the process, nor should they be. Most of my healing tears have come from spontaneous memories prompted by a song or an event, like at the service tonight. I realized years ago that I could be grateful for the tears because they reminded me just how much each of those lost loved ones meant to me—may they rest in peace.
Photo by L.C.Nøttaasen (via flickr).