The progression of grief

Walking this morning, I was thinking about grief, how it progresses through time and changes.

When my husband Helmut died in February 2021, I kept a kind of visual journal of grief, for even though I generally traffic in words, that activity helped me represent what I was feeling. For example, on a day in which I’d been busy with a variety of activities and then, afterwards, found myself overwhelmed with aloneness, though not crying, I expressed it as my upper body full of tears. IMG_1087

Eventually, however, the 98-page sketchbook was full, and by then it was November and less was “new” in the experience of grief. The first Christmas passed, and more crucially for me, New Year’s, which I approached with dread because the year in which he had still been alive would then be finished. The first anniversary of his death came and passed as well, which also signalled changes.

For an entire year I had found myself unable to move his keys from the ledge where they had always waited when not in use, but now, finally, I hung them on a hook under my jacket, as a spare set in case of need. Also — and I’m not sure why — I began after a year to sleep on “his” side of the bed. (Of course, alone in a queen bed one can push into the middle or all over as much as one wants, with no one pushing back, but I’m talking about the side of getting in and out.)

People with experience of grief told me the second year could be harder than the first. I don’t know if harder is the word for me, but certainly there are new challenges and questions. There’s a brutal finality that still confronts me, which no “magical thinking” of keys or leaving his side of the bed open could dissuade, nor moving keys or switching sides accomplish either, a finality that seems the more brutal because of how persistent is the disbelief around the truth that this is how it is. The challenges are the questions involved in shaping a new existence in the face of it: Is there anyone who truly needs me now? Who is witness to my life? Since I’m still here, what should I be doing with this time? 

If I were to sum up the first year visually, it might be thick vertical lines — lines of grief, say in purple, alternating with thick lines, say in green, of going on, as in coping and adapting. This, then this, then this. To sum the place that time has taken me now, I would use horizontal lines. Layers. Simultaneous. The most obvious layer perhaps what my sister, also a widow, meant when she said “you get used to it.” Doing the things of each day. There’s a solid layer of joy as well. As in my walk today, following a trail in a ditch and comprehending the subtle but rich colours of autumn grasses — cream, yellow, white, brown. As in fears overcome, and some upcoming travel to anticipate. As in my children, grandchildren, friends. As in the youngest grandchild, who, as babies do, delights me with his visible curiosity and cheerfulness. Another layer I call quest, short for the questions mentioned above. And always a layer of memories and missing, solidly in the mix though not dominating or excluding the rest of life as much as earlier.

Concern and influence

While I was picking blackberries on my way home from Tsawwassen Commons, a man on a bicycle passed me on the path and exclaimed, “You’re stealing from the birds!” He sounded quite serious, though he must have been joking because there are thousands and thousands of blackberries on those bushes. I called back cheerfully, “I don’t think so!” He was too far down the path for me to say, instead, “The birds get the best ones — the ones out of reach!” or “These crazy thorn-covered branches protect their own!” As happens frequently, afterwards I think of better things I might have said.

I ambled along the trail and filled up the yogurt container I carry in my little backpack since there are blackberry bushes bursting with berries in many of the places I happen to walk, but after I’d mulled a more clever answer to the bicycle man, I was thinking about whether to respond further to certain situations of which I’m aware — situations of harm done and subsequent pain — and if I did, how? I was thinking of a pastor friend’s blog post about his awful experience with denominational authorities, and authorities in the same denomination recently censoring an anthology of women’s stories I edited, and the collapse of a beloved congregation with grief in its wake, and it seemed something further must be done about these situations, though not regarding the beliefs involved as much as the behaviour contained within them. In a panic to control belief, I thought, all manner of bad actions had been done, had been justified, and were sliding into the past now without accountability.

…thinking about whether to respond further… and if I did, how?

Many years ago, when it was the wisdom-book of the day, I read Steven Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Successful People. One of his insights, which continues to help me, was the relationship of concern and influence. Covey pictured our concerns as a circle. Inside that circle is a smaller circle labelled influence. In other words, my concerns are often much bigger than my influence upon those concerns. What I take from this insight/diagram is to look at my concerns and, in my inevitable desire to effect some change, consider carefully what influence I can possibly, realistically, bring to them.

So as I was filling up my container, trying not to get snagged by out-reaching branches, which I swear leap forward if one is anywhere in close proximity, I wondered how much influence I had left, if any. I’d spoken up in several ways in the above scenarios and also worked on a small committee that organized a petition for redress for the pastor friend, which unfortunately yielded little besides pieties and excuses. Was there any point, I wondered, in telling a story much on my mind these days — the story of the time when I worked at the denominational magazine in 2004 and all the staff were women and a leader friend told us of a recent Board of Faith and Life meeting in which a board member unleashed a rant about us, using the worst labels he could think of, it seemed, without quite calling us Beelzebub? We laughed it off and went back to work but what hurt was the stunned silence he told us had followed, no one speaking up in our defence, the chair then carrying on with the meeting.

The story had a happy ending, however, because some weeks later our friend, perhaps bothered in retrospect by his own silence, told us he’d rallied his fellow board members and they’d given the ranter an ultimatum: withdraw the remarks or resign. Apparently said ranter did the former, and while it’s possible he didn’t change his mind about us, a line about charitable behaviour had been established and our friend and his colleagues had used their influence to establish it.

…a line about charitable behaviour had been established, and our friend and his colleagues had used their influence to establish it. 

Would there be any point indeed, I wondered, to tell such a story? The story, in essence, seems a model and a plea to those who have influence where I have none, folks like pastors and seminary professors and colleagues of the denomination’s pinnacle leaders, who, as far as I know, though I don’t know for certain, have been mostly silent on these matters. Was there any hope of persuading them to prioritize behaviour, of persuading them that the health of their denomination is surely their concern, of pleading that they rally and declare that these harming actions must be withdrawn or somehow addressed or we no longer have confidence in the leaders responsible?

I reached home, and still had no answer about whether I had a wee edge of influence left to touch my concerns or rouse the influence of others or whether a simple story and plea would be like shouting after a bicycle man already out of earshot. I saw the half-finished jigsaw puzzle on the coffee table and thought of the enjoyable slow rhythm required for its completion; the patience of many pieces and a steady process of finding the one by one. Maybe, I thought, it’s a puzzle piece I’ll place when I find the spot it fits.

Or maybe I’ve already placed it.

In spite of fear and hesitation

When we push through and accomplish something we’ve been afraid of, or dreading, the satisfaction at the other end is often enormous: relief, surprise, happiness, pride. Even if it’s nothing particularly remarkable in the eyes of others, it’s the doing in spite of hesitation, the overcoming of inner resistance, that makes it seem a personal triumph.

An example for me is my recent road trip to Alberta: eight days away, about 2500 kilometres. Helmut and I enjoyed road tripping, but he did most of the driving. I might spell him off for an hour or two, by which time I was tired but he’d had a snooze and was good to go again. He liked driving; I felt he was better at it than I was. I suppose it was just one of those intuitive patterns couples fall into over the years. In fact, I ‘d never filled up the car with gas until the last year of his life, when it occurred to me I might need to know how, and he showed me. He had always kept track of everything about our vehicles. Besides, if need be, there were gas stations like Domo or Co-op where I could pull in and they did it for you.

Anyway, back in winter when everything concerning summer seemed possible, I agreed to attend a school reunion with my long-time friend Miriam, and decided to combine it with visits with other long-time friends — Eunice and Ruth — in Edmonton and Calgary, as well as my grandson Ben. As July neared, however, I grew nervous at the prospect and kept wanting to change my mind! But I’d promised, and I knew I should give it a try.

And I did. Every destination I reached, thanks to the lovely guiding voice in google maps (whom I thanked aloud more than once, as if able to speak she must also be able to hear) boosted my confidence. The visits were good, and the reunion after 50 years, though a “time warp” in Miriam’s words, had its surprises and gifts. I was kept safe and returned home with the satisfaction of it all, and perhaps a little more pluck.

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Mount Robson

Out of quite a few, just two memorable moments: my first glimpse of Mount Robson, highest peak in the Rockies, crowned with clouds, as I rounded a curve on the Yellowhead Highway from Yalemount towards Jasper. And, finding that, unbidden, tears were sliding down my face during the grand entry (with its drumming, colour, glory), thinking especially of the women, at a powwow my photographer friend Ruth took me to in southern Alberta.

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Credit: Ruth Bergen Braun. See more of her powwow photos at https://www.facebook.com/Ruth-Bergen-Braun-Photography-479109028950448

Do you have any recent stories of “pushing through” to reward on the other side?