The French writer and philosopher Albert Camus once wrote, “In the midst of winter, I found there was, within me, an invincible summer.” For those who are grieving the loss of a loved one, especially as winter and the holiday season approaches, it can be challenging to find that “invincible summer” through one’s anguish and tears. When burdened with sadness and pain, how do we find that which comforts and calms us? I believe the foundation of the resilience of which Camus writes is hope.
Grief and Loss
A total solar eclipse is one of nature’s most awe-inspiring events. In those brief enchanting minutes, the natural becomes the supernatural. The solar eclipse of 2017 was an incredible visual spectacle that many JourneyCare staff members shared as we gathered in The Waud Family Healing Garden and at our other locations. Not only did we share protective glasses so everyone safely experienced the eclipse firsthand, but we also took the time to meditate together focusing on our personal and communal growth.
Camp Courage is JourneyCare's annual grief support camp that helps children and teens cope with the death of a loved one while having summer fun. Entirely supported by charitable donations, the program helps campers deal with their loss while they enjoy art, music, sports and other activities with friends.
I cannot begin to explain how remarkable Camp Courage is for everyone involved in just a quick blog post. My intention here is to convey what Camp Courage meant to me as a camp counselor this summer, and what I hope the kids can take from camp to use in the future to help cope with the loss of a loved one. The most wonderful thing I observed was how these kids recovered the hope and confidence they may have initially lost along with their loved one.
April is Counseling Awareness Month.
Some say they don’t want counseling. Some say they don’t need counseling. Personally, I'm a big believer in counseling. In bereavement. In seeking some sort of help. Some sort of support. Some sort of release.
When you lose a loved one, your life is turned upside down. Your mind is tired. Your heart is broken. Help is available. Help can be sought. And dare I say, help should be sought.
I fell in love with my beautiful wife at the age of eighteen, and we dated for one year. We spent eight years apart, until fate brought us back together. At the age of 30, she took her last breath with us.
While the death of a loved one is one of life’s most difficult times, the holidays can compound our sense of loss and isolation. When we're experiencing the pain of grief, the last thing we want to do is participate in any kind of holiday celebration. We want the pain to end, and we can’t imagine being around others at a time that is supposed to be full of joy when we are so burdened with sorrow.
This is a normal way to feel, but since we can’t cut out the calendar from late October through early Januaryof the next year, it might be helpful to modify our plans, and most especially to take good care of ourselves.
Consider the following suggestions:
I will always remember my hospice patient’s dog, Jack. Jack was a medium-sized, furry mutt, with all the friendliness of a well-loved and trained dog. My patient was a man who was deeply loved by family and friends... and his dog, Jack.
As the patient was dying, Jack was lying awake with his head on his front legs, under the patient’s bed. The family told me Jack had been there over 24 hours and was refusing to come out to eat or drink. Jack and his human friend were inseparable in life. And Jack stayed there, under the patient’s bed, until the funeral home arrived.
In our fast-paced, success-based society, people often feel stigmatized for the need to seek out counseling support. There’s this expectation that people will “pull themselves up by the bootstraps,” and the desire for help is deemed a failure. Men in particular are taught early on to withhold their emotions, and those who remain stoic in the face of adversity are considered heroic. Although we each carry a unique perspective, there are certain universal experiences that alter the course of our lives and inevitably affect our way of thinking.
In my family of origin, I saw illness from an early age. My sister is developmentally challenged and she also has severe epilepsy. My father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease when I was in my early 20s. This was a prolonged illness that took its toll over the last 20 years of his life. My whole life I witnessed my mother as the caregiver for my sister, and then later for my father. After my father passed, my husband and I found an excellent group home for my sister. We did this in hopes to give my mother a much-needed break from the role of caregiver, and to allow my sister to live as independently as she possibly could. Finally, I would have my mother back as her relaxed and fun-loving self. Finally, she would be free to have more enjoyment and freedom in her life!
Something unexpected occurred, however.
Children can, and do, grieve and children process their grief through play. Two concepts that my training has taught me and two concepts that I have witnessed firsthand countless times as a child life specialist. Yet, somehow, these two concepts became more real to me than they ever were as I sat with a five-year-old sibling of a three-year-old hospice patient in her backyard, providing support as she learned that a frog she caught and had been caring for had died.
She talked about playing with him the day before, how he seemed to really enjoy the dirt, and how sad she was that he had died. She cried as she talked about how much she would miss him; kissed him as she talked about saying goodbye. We picked flowers, prepared his resting place, and said what we would miss about him. Throughout the interaction, she discussed the parallels between her brother’s anticipated death and the death of her frog. She cried for both as she attempted to reconcile what was to come.
The winter season is one of dichotomous feelings and expectations. With a flux of holidays, considered by many to be “the most wonderful time of the year,” there also comes the sadness mirroring a period of loss, change, darkness, and cold. For those who have experienced a recent death of someone they love, there are constant reminders of traditions and memories, but also of the empty place at the family table. As a grief therapist with JourneyCare throughout the past three years, my calendar grows ever fuller as December rolls around. There is also palpable relief in those I counsel when the holidays have passed us by.