We don't know what life will bring, so it is what we bring to life that matters.
Patricia Campbell Carlson
It was really interesting to observe the reactions I got when I told people that I was going to a Bereavement Skills Training Course. They ran the full gamut from genuine interest to feigned interest to horror to concern. Most people didn't really know what to make of my decision to attend a four-day training at the Center for Loss & Life Transition in Colorado last week. I think many were worried about why I would want to do this. Wouldn't it be too difficult for me? Wouldn't it dredge up painful memories of Matthew? And while I can certainly appreciate their concern, I'm here to say not only did I survive, but it ended up being one of the most worthwhile trainings I've ever participated in.
Dr. Alan Wolfeldt is renowned in the field of grief and bereavement and has devoted his professional life to working with people in various stages of grief. His main premise is that of "companioning the mourner." By this he means being with and present to another person's pain and not trying to take it away. It's about walking alongside the mourner, not leading them. It's about acknowledging and listening with the heart, not trying to direct their pain to an easier place. It's not about "fixing" someone. All of this makes such innate sense to me, and yet so much of this is not the direction that our culture is headed towards. In fact, Dr. Wolfeldt said more than once that we in America live in a perceived "deathless society." Of course we don't. But unlike our grandparents' generation where death was more visible on a day-to-day basis, death nowadays is remote; it's behind closed doors.
Still with me? I realize that this may seem like a dark and foreboding topic, but I can promise you that I walked out of this course both educated and rejuvenated. Doesn't it make sense that if we deny or inhibit our emotions our pain lasts longer? After a significant loss we can easily lose our joie de vivre--our reason for living. It's only natural that when we lose someone we love our divine spark feels muted. The easiness that we once inhabited our lives gives way to an all-encompassing heaviness. But rather than subverting or denying these feelings of loss, we need to mourn well so that we can go on and live our lives well. We need to acknowledge the loss and subsequent pain, not evade it.
I learned so much that it's hard to know what I want to say in this blog post. I imagine that I'll be writing in the coming months about many different aspects of what transpired in those four days. But I'll tell you something that I've thought about often this past week, and that is how we started on the first day. There were 36 of us gathered to glean what we could from Alan Wolfeldt. Thirty-six people who were interested in learning more about the mysterious body of knowledge surrounding grief and loss. It was a mix of social workers, nurses, clergy, hospice employees and volunteers. Before beginning, Dr. Wolfeldt asked us to tell the story of why we were there, as well as share a significant loss in our lives. We took three and a half hours to hear everyone's stories. This was not a quick check-in, but instead a thoughtful exercise that ultimately resulted in creating a sacred space that lasted the week. We listened as one-by-one people shared what we soon came to realize were our love stories. It was amazing. For me, it was the chance to talk about Matthew and this new journey that I find myself on. There were both tears and laughter as people opened up their hearts to strangers. There were two other bereaved moms in the group, and of course there was a natural bond between the three of us. But what soon became evident was that everyone has a story (or two) of loss, for that's what being human is all about.
Three years ago I wouldn't have imagined myself on this path. Three years ago I was writing a little blog about children's books, as well as working on my own children's book. But as we all know, life often takes you in a different direction than the one you start out on. And now I find myself on my own grief journey with a worldview that has been dramatically changed by life's circumstances. My heart has been broken open and I find myself drawn to the world of the mourner. I find that I am able to sit with people who are in a dark place and listen to their stories of loss and love. I'll end with a C.S. Lewis quote that Dr. Wolfeldt shared with us that resonated with me: "Grief is like a long, winding valley where any bend may reveal a totally new landscape."