I work in a place where grief abounds. As a member of the criminal justice community, I have talked with, cried with and tried to reason with those who grieve. Their grief is about the loss of life, the loss of trust, the loss of the feeling of safety. I have spoken to moms, dads, daughters and sons. Their grief is palpable. It stings with its intensity. It is very different for each and every one of them and the tenor of their lives has changed forever. I often wonder if the reason I am there is to help them grieve, not just to prosecute the person who set them on this trail of anger and sadness. But I don’t know how to help them. I want to tell them to move on, get over it, and accept that we will all die, but I won’t do that. I want to do that to ease my own pain, so I won’t have to be a part of the emotions that are theirs, so I won’t have to feel their sorrow. But, the reality of it is that to help them grieve, I must grieve with them. I must listen, I must accept their anger with open arms. I must allow them to cry, to yell, to tell me that the system doesn’t work, that they see me as the problem and at times, even see me as equally evil as the person who caused the death of their loved one. Grief, at least initially, seems like a crime.
Grief brings everything to the surface. The inability to tell someone you love them that one last time, the guilt over past differences, the belief that if I would have done one thing different that day then he or she would not have died. The possibility that someday someone may grieve over me, or perhaps no one will grieve. Sometimes, holding on to that guilt is like a blanket of testimony to the character of the person we miss so much. It’s as if the continuance of guilt is a memorial to the person we want so desperately to have back, to touch and hold. We can’t smile, laugh or enjoy the freshness of the day.
I am completely convinced that those who acknowledge, evaluate and feel their sorrow will find that there are questions to explore and answers that will move them to a place where good memories surface, where anger subsides, and love grows. Explore grief. Feel it, question it, use it to make your life better. One mother that I know, her son was killed by a drunk driver. She will miss him forever. I can’t imagine what that feels like. But she has done amazing things with her grief. She takes her grief to others, to people who drink and drive, and she tells them her story. It is a testimony of love for her son, for her community for those who drink and drive. She is changing the world, because of her grief. I know another mother, whose child was killed in a traffic accident, who cannot go beyond anger. Her personality, physical health and emotional health have been impaired. She cannot see beyond the anger. She is killing herself and her relationships. Why are these two women so different? I don’t know, but I do know that the way to make sense of loss is to work through your grief, not let it stop you in your tracks, but let it work through your life, let it give your life a different direction that just might change the world.
Greif is not a stranger to any of us. It’s very personal and very universal all at the same time. I have suffered with grief. Before I was born, my parents had three children. Two of them were born with PKU, and were severely cognitively impaired as a result. Both were diagnosed as severely mentally retarded. My parents represented two very distinct, different responses to their grief. My father suffered through every holiday, he was despondent, depressed, could not enjoy the beauty of those days. My mother became part of a statewide effort to enact legislation that mandated testing of all newborns, because if a child is born with PKU, a specific diet for several years will completely eliminate the disability. Grief, if ignored, will destroy. Grief, if acknowledged, can produce incredible changes.
My father died 23 years ago. My mother is 88, and has Alzheimer’s. My grief over my father’s death was hard, but he had lung cancer, and I accepted and learned. I thought at the time, that I have now experienced grief. I can handle it. It will not overwhelm me. I am a strong person who can handle anything. About 5 years ago, my mother started acting different….and my denial was amazing. I did not acknowledge that my mother had problems. I got sick being in denial. I was running as fast as I could to avoid reality. I had more colds, I distanced myself from my husband and coworkers, I worked too hard, and continued to ignore reality. Then, one day, I couldn’t ignore it any longer. My mom’s friends were calling me, worried about her safety. I cried for months. My mom was the smartest woman I knew, I couldn’t believe that this was happening. Then I read everything I could find about Alzheimer’s. I talked to people (and still do) about my mom, about Alzheimer’s, about life. I’m sure that there are many out there who wish I would stop talking. But you have been my saviors. Just as I have had to listen to others grieve, I too need you to listen to me. I enjoy my mother as she is today. Tomorrow may be worse, and some day she will not recognize me, and my grief will be overwhelming. But she remains my mom, and I am so proud of her, of her life, and I am ready, and willing to be thankful I have had her so that I can take the time to grieve her.
So, what I want to leave with you today is both simple and complex. There are no easy answers to grief.
There is no predictability about how you will respond to grief.
But grief, as personal and universal as it is, can challenge you to change your world, to do things that you would never have imagined.
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