The Hardest Work You Will Ever Do

Mary Cook - Juneau, Alaska
As heard on NPR’s Morning Edition, January 30, 2006
Mary Cook
Photo by Nubar Alexanian

As a hospice volunteer, Mary Cook shares in the grief of others. But it was her own loss that taught her how to heal. She believes that recovering from grief requires not a battle, but surrender.

Age Group: 30 - 50
Themes: hope, love, setbacks

The day my fiancé fell to his death, it started to snow, just like any November day, just like the bottom hadn’t fallen out of my world when he freefell off the roof. His body, when I found it, was lightly covered with snow. It snowed almost every day for the next four months, while I sat on the couch and watched it pile up.

One morning, I shuffled downstairs and was startled to see a snowplow clearing my driveway and the bent back of a woman shoveling my walk. I dropped to my knees and crawled through the living room and back upstairs so those good Samaritans would not see me. I was mortified. My first thought was, How will I ever repay them? I didn’t have the strength to brush my hair let alone shovel someone’s walk.

Before Jon’s death, I took pride in the fact that I rarely asked for help or favors; I could always do it myself. My identity was defined by my competence and independence. Two hours after Jon died I canceled every obligation in my life. The identity crisis that followed was devastating. Who was I if I was no longer capable and busy? How could I respect myself if all I did was sit on the couch every day and watch the snow fall?

Learning how to receive the love and support that came my way wasn’t easy. Friends cooked for me and I cried because I couldn’t even help them set the table. “I’m not usually this lazy,” I wailed. Finally my friend Kathy sat down with me and said, “Mary, cooking for you is not a big deal. I love you and I want to do it. It makes me feel good to be able to do something for you.”

Over and over, I heard similar sentiments from the people who were supporting me during those dark days. One very wise person told me, “Watching your willingness to be vulnerable and to fully embrace your grief is a gift. The line between giving and receiving is constantly blurred.”

I began to think about how good it made me feel to help people, how the joy was always in the giving rather than the getting, and that maybe that was true for my friends and neighbors, as well. I also came to realize that I didn’t have to repay anyone in kind, but that I could pass on their love and compassion to others who needed it. Most importantly, I could accept their help in the spirit in which it was given – with grace and humility.

Surrendering to my neediness helped light the path to a new identity. I came to understand that we are much more than what we do, that our value lies in who we are.

Mary Cook works on the ground crew for an air taxi company in Gustavus, Alaska, a community of 450 surrounded by Glacier Bay National Park. In addition to loading and unloading planes, Cook handles the mail and tends the town’s only coffee house. She also serves as a hospice volunteer.

Independently produced for NPR by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with John Gregory and Viki Merrick.