Everything has changed

In his book, Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief, David Kessler, the world’s foremost expert on grief, relates a story about how an indigenous village in northern Australia responds to a death in their community. “…the night that someone dies, everyone in the village moves a piece of furniture or something else into their yard. The next day, when the bereaved family wakes up and looks outside, they see that everything has changed after their loved one died —not just for them but for everyone.” Kessler expounds further that, by making the loss visible to all, and by “bearing witness and mirroring grief,” the villagers show that this person’s death mattered. (Kessler, p.30)

Grief must be acknowledged

To be bereaved is defined as having been robbed by death of someone who is dear. Grieving such devastating loss can be overwhelming and painful. And although each person grieves and copes differently, all people share the need to have their grief fully acknowledged.

Unlike in this indigenous Australian village, the bereaved in our communities, such as those served by Unity in Northeast Wisconsin, often report a much different response after the death of a loved one. For many, even if there is an initial outpouring of support immediately after the death, this support dwindles too quickly in the weeks and months that follow. Consequently, navigating one’s life-altering grief can be a lonely journey.

In our communities, grief counselors take on the role of the Australian villagers. By listening carefully, kindly, patiently, and without judgement, counselors remain fully present to reflect the sorrows that the bereaved share. Although it can be challenging to sit with the discomfort of all this pain and the bereaved may want a quick fix, that isn’t possible. Stories of loss need to be re-told at length; the pain expressed in whatever way it manifests—emotionally, mentally, spiritually, and physically. The bereaved often live in the depths of their pain for a much longer time than anyone wants, before they are ready to see how their painful loss fits in with a larger picture of love and good memories.

This readiness can’t be pushed, but even for an inconsolable mother who has lost her child, “there will come a point, after she has honored the grief, when she will want to stop hurting.” (p. 15) It is only at the point at which she feels that her pain has been fully experienced and acknowledged that she will begin to recognize the love underlying her pain. Whether this awareness develops gradually or as a sudden revelation, it needs to happen in one’s own time.

Ready for hope

Because the hard work of grieving requires a strong body, mind, and spirit, self-care is an essential piece of the grief journey. Grief counselors can help manage the stresses related to this monumental life change. They can encourage rest, relaxation, movement, adequate nutrition, and avoiding unhealthy coping choices such as alcohol or illicit drugs.

When a bereaved is ready for hope, there are options to help lessen the suffering associated with the pain of loss. One may learn to live with loss by feeling gratitude for what one has had—recognizing that one wouldn’t feel the pain without the love, by celebrating/memorializing a loved one’s legacy, or by supporting another griever. Healing begins when one “can remember those who died with more love than pain.” (p. 248)

Choosing a new way to live

Making the choice to embrace a future without one’s loved one is a significant challenge for those who are grieving. Yet, this decision helps move one toward healing. To illustrate this choice, Kessler relates another story about a valuable vase that was accidentally shattered into many small pieces. In this story, the owner of the vase can choose to try to put the vase back together, but then it would never be as it was. Another choice would be to create something new and beautiful from the broken shards. The shattered vase is a metaphor for a broken life after loss, where unlike those who struggle in vain to put their former life together, “those who accept the breakage and build themselves anew become more resilient and open to new ways of living.” (p. 96)


Another choice would be to create something new and beautiful from the broken shards.

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This blog post was shared by Kathy T., Grief Counselor at Unity Hospice.

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