This is an offering from a chaplain friend, Heather Thomason. She is in the ordination process with the Disciples of Christ. This is her take on assisting people through grief. Although she works at a hospital, there is connective tissue to the trauma and grief that the youth within the juvenile detention centers. The story she offers us is a life-long journey through the valleys.
My heart is pounding. My palms are sweaty. I can feel the grief in the room as the neurosurgeon enters. I am sitting with a family who is being told one of their children is already dead and the other has such a significant injury that doctors see little hope for their survival. I think to myself as I listen to the surgeon talk to the sobbing father, “This will be a very long grief process for them.” My heart breaks and a week later when the child is removed from life support, I say goodbye to her as I cry. My tears drop on her arm as if to baptize the grief process for her family.
I sit with another family as they receive the news: their son will never walk again or have a “normal” life. He will need to be on a ventilator, wheelchair and will require constant care. His spinal cord injury is never going to heal. It is a very different life than the one his family envisioned for him just a week prior. His mother cries.
I walk down the hospital hallway and see a woman sitting on a bench. She is sobbing, almost uncontrollably. I sense that she needs someone to talk to so I gently touch her shoulder, and say, “It looks like you might need some support.” She gets up, latches onto me in a bear hug, and screams, “Yes, it’s my husband!” She continues to cry. As we sit down together, she tells me about their life and how much he means to her and also about how this heart episode is so unexpected. I run into her in the hallway a few days later and her husband is doing well. We rejoice.
The undercurrent of all these stories is grief. Grief that threatens to consume us because the life we once lived has been shattered. How do you “get over” the death of a child? How do you “deal with” the lost expectations you held for the life of a loved one? How do you “move on” from a near-death experience that happened to the most important person in your life? I put these questions partially in quotation marks because that is what our society teaches us we do in the face of grief: We move on, we get over it, we deal with it. When grief threatens to consume our very lives, we stuff our emotions into phrases which we think are going to help us make meaning of events that sometimes are impossible to make meaning from. How do we find a new normal when our lives will never be normal again? Admitting that, to many people, makes them feel afraid of the judgment they will receive from others who have “gotten over,” “dealt with” or “moved on” from a traumatic event.
We say to ourselves, “My mom got over her miscarriage so I should too.” “My best-friend moved on from the death of her mom way faster than I am dealing with mine.” “Someday I shouldn’t think about the sister I lost when we were both little, right?” Get over it. Move on. Deal with it. Then you’re all better and your life will go on as normal. Except that it doesn’t. We tell ourselves it will but it doesn’t. The grief lingers for years. Every time I see a child whose hair is the same color as my baby’s. Every time I smell the cigars my grandpa used to smoke. Each time something triggers a memory, I feel that grief. Sure, it might not be as pointed but it is still there. It will always be there. And the lie we tell ourselves each time that trigger happens, is “I should be over this by now. How long is it going to take?” Avoiding grief is ingrained deep into our culture and we enter into the lie unconsciously.
Having worked with people in the midst of their grief process I have made some interesting observations and been privy to very private and intimate details of how people make meaning of the traumatic events they suffer. The first is that everyone’s grief process is different. Some people start at anger, some in denial, and some never start a process at all. Everyone is different and I have personally witnessed people bursting into tears, collapsing on the floor, laughing, vomiting or a combination of all of the above, when they experience a grief-inducing life event. The lie our society tells us is that there is a “right way” and a “wrong way” to work through grief. While there are certainly healthier behaviors than others, I don’t believe there is a “correct” starting place in a grief process. What I do as a chaplain is meet people where they are, encourage them to be gentle with themselves in whatever their process is going to look like, and provide support as they make meaning out of their life-altering event. It’s not my work to do, it’s theirs. I don’t push or force the work; I walk alongside people as they walk their grief-path.
My supervisor here at the hospital likes to remind us that when a life-altering event occurs the good chaplains are the ones who go into the Valley of the Shadow of Death with the people we serve, alongside them. We don’t force them to go to places they aren’t willing or able, but we show them they are not alone and even though the Valley is deep, dark, and long, there is the other side and we will be with them until they reach it. Even when they do, it’s a good reminder that they are not completely finished; they are just through the darkest part of the Valley.
The second observation I have made is the expansion of my own capacity to absorb, process and return to normal, after having done that deep, dark walk in the Valley with folks. When you do it all the time, you have to be able to let go of people where they are at in their process and hope they have the support they need once they leave the hospital room to keep the work going. Sometimes, knowing someone doesn’t have support but they can’t stay with us is the hardest part of the work I do. I pray for those folks every day.
The third observation is the constancy of our society pressuring people not to go into the Valley. “Fill your time with distractions and then you won’t feel the pain of your loss or potential loss,” it says. But that is a lie. When we don’t do our work to make meaning out of life events, or we do our work but it’s inauthentic or incomplete, we risk profoundly altering who we are. When we don’t do our work we drink, we work too much, we engage in other risky behaviors, we have health problems, we snap at those closest to us, we kill ourselves. When we don’t go into the Valley, whether out of fear or for other reasons, we change. And most of the time, this change is not for the better.
So the next time your best friend brings up that miscarriage she had or your brother brings up how hard it is around the holidays without his wife, recognize the grief in those events and realize that grief will never be completely gone. Sure, they will hopefully process it and make meaning in their own way, but that twinge will always be there. It is our role as support people, and my role as a chaplain, to walk alongside them as they look into the deep, black abyss that is the Valley, and say, “I’m right here, not going anywhere. You take as long as you need; baby step by baby step.” One day, they will look up and see the sun shining, the bottom of the Valley behind them, and they will notice the two sets of footprints on the path behind. You will be there with their hand in your hand, and give it a gentle squeeze as if to say, “You did the work and you survived.”
Making that first step into the Valley is terrifying because we don’t know if we are going to see the other side, or if we do, how long that process will take. Some people never finish that work and are consumed in the depths of the Valley. Others take a few steps down and realize how hard the work is and retreat to their life of distractions and periodic meltdowns because, we falsely think, that is so much easier emotionally. Some enter into it and make it through to the other side where they find a new way to do life. I wish I could provide answers for people or a “grief checklist” that folks can use in order to make meaning out of their life event. It would be so much easier to do it that way and that is what our society tells us: “Make this as easy as possible.” Except that a grief process isn’t supposed to be easy. We are supposed to struggle, to lament, to get angry, to mourn the loss, to cry. We grieve because it’s the hardest thing we will do as people. It’s supposed to be a difficult process because we have suffered a profound loss which we struggle to understand. True grief is hard.
Otherwise it wouldn’t be grief.