Grief Work

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“… even out of unspeakable grief, beautiful things take wing.” – AR Torres, “The Lessons of Loss”

“Wow it looks like it snowed!” shouts Hunter, and indeed it does, the hillside covered in white as far as the eye can see. But it is mid-May, the temperature in the 70s, and we are walking a wooded hillside trail in Twin Lakes park. It is not a late snowstorm, but an effusive, magnificent display of giant white trilliums. Tens of thousands of the three-petaled, yellow-centered ephemeral wildflowers blanket the forest floor, which just weeks ago was mostly brown leaf litter. We walk up a trail until we are immersed in the flowers, surrounded by beauty. Wow, the wonder on display overwhelms my senses, warms my heart.

My heart wasn’t warm when I woke and started this day. Unexpectedly, as I rushed through my morning trying to get ready for a busy weekend, with a sick child and too much to do and too little help, I realized I was angry again at my wife for passing, and leaving me with a life upside down and overwhelmed. And then I realized on the long drive to the park that tomorrow was Mother’s Day. This would be the boys’ second Mother’s Day without their mom, and I had to fight back the tears of sadness remembering the conversation I had with my youngest son about how he felt having to make a Mother’s Day card in school. Anger and depression, two emotions I thought I had worked through, but here they were, back again, sigh. And that seemingly step backwards in my grief work put me in a bad, fowl mood. Good lord, hadn’t I done all this, hadn’t I processed all these emotions more than once already? Hadn’t I earned the right to move on and just be happy now? And really, I am going to lead others on a Healing Hike, when clearly I haven’t healed myself?

I know all about grief, from an academic perspective. I have attended the group therapy and counseling sessions and read the books and marked the anniversaries and performed the ceremonies, and I understand what needs to be done. I know I have to accept the reality of my loss, I know I have to experience the pain of grief, and I know I have to adjust to my new environment without my wife, and I believe I have done most of this. But I also know that the wheel of grief spins between the five stages, denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression, and finally, acceptance, and I know firsthand that that wheel can land on any of those stages at any time. I just thought I had a better handle on it, almost two years hence. I understand what I have already done, and I thought I was tough enough now to start helping others, to start sharing what I have lived and learned. I’m feeling like a hypocrite as I pull into the Twin Lakes parking lot.

But as I step out of the car, the birds are singing, and the treetops are filled with colorful spring migrants, brilliant scarlet tanagers, orioles and warblers. And then I come to the trillium display, and my heart does melt, and I know this is the place I need to be today.

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Grief is hard, its emotions baffling, and the jumping between stages and the gulf between where you are some mornings and acceptance seems impossible. That is why it is called grief work. You really do have to work at it. But I have discovered many things that have helped me, and I want to share these things with others who are hurting.

I know that nature can help; she certainly helped me through my grief. In nature, the cycles of life and death are on crystal clear display, all the time, as are the regenerative powers of nature.  Even after catastrophes, it seems unlimited. And I know the emotional connection I feel with the earth and Mother Nature is real too, felt deeply inside, and in my special places and in times of quiet contemplation in my backyard.

I know that performing ceremonies, marking my grief and working through the emotions that accompany anniversaries and special dates is important, for it lets the trapped emotions free. And I know that sharing my feelings with others helps tremendously, too, for the same reason of feeling the emotion and then letting them go.


It is a diverse group that sits amongst the trilliums. Folks who have lost their spouse to suicide, to cancer, who have lost a child to a sudden heart attack, a young boy who has lost his dad but still sees a snowstorm in the white wildflowers. I can feel their sadness, and sometimes the tears flow like the intermittent rain that follows us today.

But I like the rain, I like walking in the rain, it clears my head, and I like the fact that the rain has brought these flowers. This group doesn’t seem to mind the rain today, either. We have all been through hell, a little bit of rain doesn’t seem so bad. Loss of any kind has the tendency to strip away the bullshit, to get down to the bone and marrow of what is important, to re-focus your life and priorities, as many folks share when they tell their tales of moving forward after their losses. It is inspiring.

It is funny too, we have stopped along the trail, in this patch of white, next to an old fallen tree covered with giant mushrooms. Mushrooms, the forest janitors, cleaning up the death and decay of the forest, but also preparing the soil for the next generation of trees and wildflowers. We all marvel at the intricate patterns and beauty in the mushrooms, and the juxtaposition of the mushrooms and trilliums is beautiful, too. Death is a part of life. So teaches Mother Nature, everyday.

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We move to Reflection Island, a memorial area designated for quiet reflection and meditation. The area has a butterfly garden, a healing water pond (loaded with tadpoles, as Hunter points out!) dedicated to the memory of unborn children, a Mother’s Grotto in honor and memory of all mothers, a Father’s encounter deck overlooking the lake in honor and memory of all fathers, and a Contemplation Walkway honoring all whose names appear here. The whole area has a peace and energy to it, what a wonderful feature of the park!

We had planned on spending some time here in quiet, individual contemplation, but the rains return, heavier this time. So we move into the covered gazebo, as the rain patters and the thunders lightly rolls, and a wood thrush sings his flute-like song. Sitting in a circle in this perfect setting, the sharing just comes naturally. We share stories of our losses, our challenges, what we have overcome and what we still struggle with. I feel so much more normal after haring everyone’s tales, and sharing a few of my own. Tears are mixed with memories and even laughter, but there is a genuineness amongst all; again, loss strips us down to what is important, and it is important to share these stories. “Grief shared is grief diminished.” I am honored to be a part of this group, and they are helping me too; my melancholy from this morning, and trivial worries and fears, are absorbed in the real love and healing felt amongst these brave souls.

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The rain lets up in time to walk back to our starting point, where we gather at a deck along the lake. Everyone picks a flower, something that reminds them of their lost loved one, and we say a silent prayer of remembrance in their honor. Deb offers a closing prayer, and we set our flowers adrift on the reflective glass water. I close with a reading about the first time I realized I could experience joy again after my wife died, and we end our letting go ceremony with hugs, cookies and brownies.

Ceremonies were never something I appreciated in my younger years. I viewed them as something archaic, something that didn’t really apply to my life. But a wise person pointed out to me that I could create my own ceremonies, and I have taken this to heart, especially in my travels with grief. It has been a tremendous healing tool for me also.

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And so the next day, we walk in the Race for the Cure, as has been our family tradition for fifteen years. We started this tradition to honor mothers and breast cancers survivors, long before it got too personal when my wife was diagnosed with the disease. Last year was the first year we marched in her honor, and it was emotionally charged and draining. This year is a little easier, because I am more on my feet finally.

But after the Race we head out to my wife’s grave, for a tombstone dedication ceremony. Beautiful words are spoken and memories shared, under the flowering dogwood, and I ask everyone to plant a vision of Debbie in the garden of their memory. I share my vision of Debbie, because I know from my my experience with my dad’s death 32 years ago, his tombstone so close to my wife’s here in Plum Creek, that memories fade. I want my boys to keep a memory, all their own, of their mom. I know this ceremony is painful for them, and certainly it was hard for them to make the Mother’s Day cards in school and write the notes that they have brought with them. But they need to feel the pain of loss, they need to experience it, if they are to heal. There is no way around, only through. And it will be worth it when the memories they keep evoke smiles, not sadness.

I want them to heal. Their mom wants them to heal. She wants them to grow and love and experience all that this beautiful life has to offer. She wants them to keep their beautiful memories of her love alive inside of them, too. You can’t keep the pain buried, it will only comes out later, and prevent you from loving the present.

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And so we all shed some tears, we all feel some pain, we all wrestle with the confusing and heart-breaking emotions of grief, all in our own ways, all wherever we are at this time in our own wheel of grief. But we have so many tools to help us navigate, from counseling to prayer to meditation, walks in the woods with the trillium and mushrooms, to gatherings in the woods and at the Race and in the cemeteries, where we give life the ceremonies we need to work through the grief. And when we have done our grief work, we too will come to acceptance and live again, just like spring does every year, when the trilliums and dogwoods bloom again after the long, cold winter.

PS – Two days after the ceremony at the cemetery, my oldest boy pulls me aside in private and thanks me for what we did on Mother’s Day. I know Debbie, God, is guiding us again, all we have to do is listen, and trust that traveling through the pain will be worth it.

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3 thoughts on “Grief Work

  1. Thank you so much for sharing, yet again. You have all been in my thoughts and prayers and a special prayer was said in honor of Debbie this past Sunday. You are an incredible writer and your words are so inspiring. Please don’t ever stop. You are helping others, even if you don’t realize it. God Bless you all!!!!!

  2. Joe, I am so happy that Jake came to you and shared his appreciation of what you did! The love and caring efforts you have put forth so so many times is inspiring and heartwarming! You are combining your mind, heart and soul in all you do and in moving forward with living and loving! Debbie was right there with us all at the gravesite and on the Race For The Cure walk!

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