I traveled to Washington last week to attend a memorial service for my aunt. Tante Claar lived to be 93 years old, in relatively good health until the end when both her body and mind began to fail. Like my parents, my aunt experienced the trauma of being interned in a concentration camp during World War II, where she was subjected to abuse and deprivation unimaginable to us in our comfortable current circumstances. In spite of, or perhaps because of the ugliness of the horrific events she witnessed as an adolescent girl, Tante Claar created beauty wherever she went. She could make works of art from everyday materials like scraps of paper or bits of twine, and shells, leaves and twigs collected on our walks were transformed into creative pieces her children and nieces were privileged to receive and display. She learned to paint, sculpt, play the clarinet and flute, and even wrote and published her life story during her last few years. Tante Claar did not carry bitterness from her war years but extended forgiveness towards her captors which allowed her to embrace a richly textured life of relationships and experiences.
Bereavement literally means “to be deprived by death.” All of us will be deprived at some point in our lives of someone we care deeply about and do not want to lose. The nature of both that relationship and that loss will determine what type of grief we experience in the aftermath. Even when a loss is expected, like that of my father at age 91 or my aunt at age 93, the reality and finality of it can be intensely moving and difficult. When a loss is unexpected, due to an unforeseen illness or accident, or seems “out of sequence,” like that of a younger person whom we expected to precede in death, it can be severely disorienting, creating a disequilibrium in our lives that leaves us feeling confused and overwhelmed. A suicide is particularly challenging to cope with, as we struggle with conflicting feelings of betrayal and anger that this person seemingly “chose” to leave us behind in this tragic manner. Grief becomes even more complicated when there are unresolved issues between ourselves and the one who has passed away. Words we wish we had spoken, or those we wish to take back, hugs not given or received, time we meant to spend together, forgiveness not asked for or extended all weigh on our already broken hearts.
We may experience denial, disbelief, shock, sadness, yearning, anger, humiliation, despair and even guilt following a loss without the closure that allows us to “part on good terms.” Having to work through this unilaterally is certainly more difficult but not impossible following such a death. Seeking the support of another, whether a caring friend or trained professional, may prove beneficial in the case of complicated grief.
Whether grief is complicated or not, many people are surprised by the depth of their psychological, emotional and physical distress. Common symptoms of grief include stomach upset, sleep disturbance, loss of energy, anxiety, depression, lowered immunity and susceptibility to illness, irritability, sadness, changes in appetite, and a lack of interest in relationships and activities one used to enjoy. A desire to isolate from others and withdraw from life may occur. Despite this desire, it is important to stay connected to others and seek comfort from supportive relationships. We are wired for connection and cannot recover from the discouragement of grief and loss in isolation. We need others to help us regain our perspective that life goes on and can be meaningful and fulfilling once more despite the absence of our loved one.
Grief often moves us to explore our spiritual connections as well. Questions about the afterlife and salvation may be raised. This can be a fruitful time to seek connection with God and a community of faith and to participate in the potentially comforting practices of prayer, reading scripture, and meditation. Psalm 34:18 reminds us that “the Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.” God knows what it means to lose Someone He loves.