As we move from ice and snow into the blooming time here in the Northeast, it’s easy to say goodbye to winter. We can hardly wait for the gentle breezes, the bird songs, and the feel of soft cotton against our skin.
Other goodbyes are harder. We have trouble with them even at the end of a phone call. Many of us prefer “Talk to you soon!” or “See you later!” Why don’t we just say goodbye to wrap things up?
As the seasons and the years cycle past, we log the anniversaries not just of births and weddings but of endings. When things stop, we lose something. Losses tend to be troublesome because they are out of our control. We struggle to get over them.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross almost half a century ago described the grieving process as consisting of five stages: depression, denial, anger, bargaining, and acceptance. People generally cycle back and forth through them before eventually settling on the last, whether the loss involves a death or something else, such as being fired from a job or being diagnosed with a terminal illness.
The five stages can make us feel less alone and more normal in our grief, but they can also seem beside the point. Mostly we just want to be done with it. In this connection I think of Peter Lynch, a social worker whose graduate-level class I took many years ago.
The room was large, with folding tables arranged to form a U-shape. Lynch, tweed jacketed, with a separate table of his own, stood at the top of the U as he spoke. “How does it feel to lose something?” he asked.
The students were mostly women, some in their twenties, some middle-aged, most of us clad in jeans, with bulky winter coats draped over our metal chairs. No one answered.
He walked forward toward a young woman with long dark hair who was sitting at the base of the U. She was wearing a pair of eyeglasses with thick lenses. “May I have your glasses for a moment?” he asked. With obvious reluctance she handed them to him.
“I’ll return them to you in a moment,” he said. “Now, how do you feel?”
“I don’t see very well without my glasses. I’d like them back.”
“How can I make you feel better in the meantime? Perhaps you could think of something else?”
“No, I just want my glasses back.”
Lynch continued the dialogue briefly before returning them to her. Then he said, “That’s how we all feel when we lose something important. We don’t want consolation or support. We just want to have it back.”
In the face of someone’s grief, the best we can do is pay homage to the suffering. We can say only “I am sorry for your loss.” We can’t fix the problem or soften the blow.
The grieving process unfolds on its own timetable, sometimes taking many months. It cannot be rushed. Many of us hate thinking about death so much that, when the loss is someone else’s, we hurry away from the funeral home, relieved that our daily routines let us leave the bereaved to their own resources.
But the bereaved and also those who are losing their lives need opportunities to talk. Your anxiety may prompt you to lecture or to offer distractions, but the greatest gift is simply to listen and ask occasional questions for clarification.
How did she live? What did she do? How will you remember her for the rest of your life? What was important to her? Was there unfinished business between you? Did you have a chance to say goodbye?
People in pain need to connect. People experiencing life’s last transition often have important messages to convey before they go.
Losses inevitably demand that we set aside other activities and surrender to the sadness and pain, the anger and the outrage. The bigger the loss, the more unfair it may feel. We ask, how could this be happening to me?
You can make the grieving process easier for yourself in some ways, however.
You can shift a family member from life to constant memory by creating a reminder of love and inspiration that is ready to hand. Photos can help, whether on the wall, on a shelf, or on your cell phone and Facebook page.
Grief often means needing to weep. In cultures other than the Western, wailing and screaming are normal. Virginia Fry, who works in hospices in Vermont, suggests scream boxes and damnit dolls (make your own with a tube sock, a handful of dried beans, and some old nylon stockings as stuffing).
Whole-body exercise can help defuse anger and sadness. Run, chop wood, or head for the gym. In stretching the muscles and fighting resistance, you can reduce the stress.
Make a place where you can sit with the person who has died. You can create rituals and commemorative events. You can also make space, perhaps a room, a flowerbed with a bench, or a memory box. You can surround yourself with clothing, letters, or voice recordings. The bottle I have of my mother’s scented Imperial Formula lotion is now more than fifty-five years old.
Celebrate the person in a memoir. Paint a picture or make a collage. Write or play music. Popular songs sometimes help people release sadness. The possibilities include Mike and the Mechanics’ “In the Living Years,” Elton John’s “Daniel,” and Beth Nielsen Chapman’s “Sand and Water.” Movies such as Shadowlands and Field of Dreams may help you understand the meaning someone else’s life had for your own.
Children hold within themselves, for future generations, essential parts of both parents and can imagine that a departed sibling or mentor has passed the baton to them.
You can carry the soul of a parent or other important person within you. Knowing what she might say or do in various situations, you can touch base with her often.
There are no shortcuts through the swamp. The grieving process requires us to live from day to day, accepting the journey at each step. Meditation can help you sit with yourself.
The failure to grieve fully leaves people bitter. They often leak anger, which distances others and blocks opportunities for connection. Ungrieved losses that have piled up over the years may make people afraid of taking appropriate risks in pursuit of goals.
Since none of us is a permanent fixture on this earth, we all need to celebrate those we love and say goodbye when their days are drawing to a close. Unfinished business can haunt you after someone has gone.
Winter makes it possible for us to rejoice in spring. Death creates the opportunity for birth and makes it imperative for all of us to live well.