By Pat Schwiebert, R.N.
A father in our infant loss support group spoke of his baby’s name and how glad he was that they had named her Olive. It was a name that was connected with the past in their family, but it became more than that for him in his grief journey. He found great pleasure in being reminded of his daughter as he cooked with olive oil, or saw a bowl of olives on the Thanksgiving table, or ordered olives on his pizza. Seeing the Olive Garden restaurant sign as he drove past it every day on the way to work caused him to smile. He wondered if an olive tree would grow in this climate.
Often, in deep grief we tend to protect ourselves from reminders of the pain and suffering we bear, as though we could pretend that it is not there. But we cannot. The pain lies within us waiting for the opportunity to be exposed to the light, waiting to be noticed and acknowledged by us at least, if not others.
Instead of pushing away thoughts about his daughter because remembering was too hard to bear, this father took her in to himself and delighted in her being all around him. Some of us take years to get this wise. We do the “ain’t it awful” dance instead of seeing that it’s all good, even the hard stuff. We look at what we have lost rather than what we have received.
I looked around my house and realized that I have reminders everywhere of those I have lost to death. I have a crystal bowl that belonged to my mother. I use it often, not just on special occasions. I have beautiful pottery that my dear friend Jo made and a chair that belonged to Midge. A glass box in my bathroom came from Jay’s relics. To other people who see them, they’re just a pretty bowl, a nice piece of pottery, an interesting box and a comfortable chair. But for me, these items speak volumes about those who are gone, and can transport me to another time and place where grief was fresh and nothing else mattered. I have not forgotten where these items came from and the stories and the lessons that are carried in them.
Learning how to use grief in a positive way can be hard work. And it can be lonely work. Others who haven’t suffered a profound loss in their lives won’t understand what’s happened to you. It will be difficult for them to appreciate where your heart and mind will travel as you try to put meaning to loss. It’s just an olive, right? But there will be people around you who have walked in the darkness of pain and suffering, even if the story doesn’t match yours.
Last night I watched the movie “An Unfinished Life.” In this movie a father who is in deep grief after the tragic death of his son, can only see the imperfection in his daughter-in law, whom he has reason to blame for his son’s death. It is easier for him to push her away with his anger than to cherish what he, and she, have both loved, and lost. Over time he gets to see how others have dealt with unfortunate mistakes in their own lives, acknowledging their shortcomings and asking for forgiveness from those impacted by their mistakes. Grief casts a wide net catching all kinds of life experiences that help us to learn what we need to learn. In the movie the father was drunk the night his friend was mauled by a bear and unable to help him. The young granddaughter, in a moment of panic puts the truck into gear causing her grandfather to fall off the truck and get injured. A mother looks away for an instant and her 12 year old daughter drowns. It’s the griever who is challenged to be open to the message these stories carry as they hear of others’ tragedies or mistakes. Too often we say, “You don’t understand.”
It is easy to focus on the tragic end rather than allowing ourselves to remember the whole story that includes both sorrow and joy.
When we allow gratitude and forgiveness into this grief work we have to do, the load gets lighter. Sometimes it comes quickly. Sometimes it’s a longer process. We are forever changed. And that can be a good thing.