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Live with Purpose - August 30, 2023
By Kathie Miller
Recently, I found myself captivated as I listened to Hanif Abdurraqib talk about his perspectives on grief. An American poet and essayist, Abdurraqib shared his thoughts as part an ongoing NPR series “Enlighten Me with Rachel Martin.” He described his experiences with grief in a way that resonated with me.
“I think grief treats me best when I’m kind of channeling the people I’ve lost through my current living,” Abdurraqib said. “There are things I know how to make — to cook or bake because I watched my mother do it. These things are just inherent to me. I just know them. And I think grief treats us well when these parts of people that we’ve gotten to enjoy—when they greet us—when they come to us, and they greet us warmly, just repeatedly.”
I’ve written about grief and loss previously for The Good Life. The losses I endured in 2019 acquainted me with grief in ways I hadn’t known it before. Managing through my own grief has made me realize how deeply personal it is, and how – at least in some cases – it never leaves us. With certain losses, the grief lingers. It might express itself in different ways, but it never quite leaves us.
Yet, as Abdurraqib shares, grief can treat us well. Along with the sense of loss, we might also experience the love and joy we shared with the people we miss.
With this new language to help me process and talk about my own personal process of grieving, I realized that August 30 is National Grief Awareness Day. So I reached out to colleagues who help others cope with grief and asked them to share their perspectives. Here’s what they shared with me.
As Goodwin House Bailey’s Crossroads Chaplain, Alex Allain offers pastoral help to residents, families and team members. When asked to define grief, Alex shared, “When I’m pressed for a succinct description of grief, I usually quote the late Queen Elizabeth II, who said, ‘Grief is the price we pay for love,’ because that touches people more than a definition about certain characteristics. Grief is our natural response to some loss that disrupts our lives.”
In her role of Bereavement Counselor for Goodwin Hospice, Anne Van Heyste provides support services to loved ones who are coping with loss. Anne shared her definition of grief: “Grief is what a person experiences as a result of loss, whether it is loss of a person, a job, a home, a pet, a longstanding friendship or a hope.” She continued, “Grief after the loss of a loved one is not a problem that needs fixing, but it is rather a process. A process that cannot be rushed. A process that has a life of its own. Grief can express itself physically, emotionally, mentally, socially, behaviorally, and/or spiritually. Grief is a normal and necessary reaction to loss. People don’t want to hurt, but they cannot but hurt. And little by little, people piece their life back together.”
Liz Pomerleau serves as director of the Goodwin Living Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) program. She provides training to those seeking to provide pastoral spiritual care in clinical settings. Liz defined grief in this way: “The often confusing path to find a way forward into new life after a loss.”
Liz Pomerleau: “I teach about grief to every CPE cohort of students. They work with Goodwin Living residents and patients in local hospitals who are actively grieving. I have all sorts of theoretical constructs to help students think about shepherding people through their grief process. For example: Grief of sorrow vs. grief of regret: Grief of sorrow is healing when you say and do what you need to say and do. Grief of regret is not healing, when you do not say and do what you need to say and do. Part of role of chaplain is to help people say and do what they need to say and do.”
Alex Allain: “As someone who meets people with grief, I affirm that their response is valid and normal. I should note that grief is related to loss of all kinds, but I generally deal with loss marked by death. Several factors influence the severity of grief: the length of the relationship, the depth of the relationship, the circumstances of the death, the person’s past experience with grief, the support system of the person and any other stressors that person may be facing. Generally, in the aftermath of a death, people are still in shock, and many people appreciate being able to articulate their emotions and reactions to the death. Others are stunned and prefer silence, but a grieving person’s preference doesn’t necessarily mean that they want to be alone, although some do. Mainly, people desire someone to accompany them in their grief, not fix their grief or compare their grief to their own, but someone who will listen attentively and earnestly. I aim to meet the person where they are, and I spend time sensing how this grief is impacting them in this moment. Time is relative in grief. It has its own timeline, and grieving people can feel embarrassed or pressured about their grief experience, because they think that they’re not “doing” it right, but there’s not one right way to grieve.”
Anne Van Heyste: “There are as many approaches to grief as there are people. Grief is determined by many factors. A lot also depends on the type of griever a bereaved person is. There are feelers, thinkers and doers. Although most people exhibit a little of all three styles, people tend to have one predominant style. In the end, finding meaning in the death and relationship once held is what brings peace and helps the bereaved person to participate in life again. Helping for me is being open to what is most important to the bereaved. I do not follow a predetermined process. I remain flexible to the needs of the bereaved. I start out by meeting the bereaved where they are. My main approach is bearing witness to the pain, validating, normalizing and educating.”
Anne Van Heyste: “Allow the feelings and thoughts. Give these feelings and thoughts room and allow these to move through. Suppressing will give temporary relief but will not allow for resolution and relief. The act of suppression halts the grief process. Initially, numbness will provide protection against intense emotions, but eventually numbness will dwindle, and emotions/thoughts will be released. Rather than having these thoughts and emotions go round and round these need to be externalized, whether it is by talking to a friend or a counselor or by journaling. Any method that helps with externalizing is good. It can be a bike ride. It can be digging up the weeds in the back yard. Again, it depends on the grieving style. A doer will dig up the back yard, a feeler will seek out a friend and talk, a thinker may journal or become an expert in grief.”
Alex Allain: “Grief is not a linear or easily accessible experience, and dealing with grief can make people anxious or unsure of what to say or do. Unfortunately, this common discomfort causes people to avoid the grief of their loved one(s) altogether, which can compound the grieving person’s sense of isolation. Honor grief and the griever. Find ways to honor the deceased and give voice to memories when they arise. Grief can catch you off guard, and be assured that it’s normal to feel strange during grief, and it’s worthwhile to normalize that experience in oneself and others.”
Liz Pomerleau: “Share the story of the person you loved. Remember them. Your tears are symbols of your love; let them flow. There is freedom that comes from expressing and feeling grief all the way through. Be gentle with yourself. Find a routine that works for you in this unsteady time and give yourself space when you’re overwhelmed. I encourage support groups when the person is ready, which varies.”
Processing the deepest grief in my lifetime these past few years, I’ve become more aware of our societal views on death, grief and grieving. As I asked my coworkers for the insights they so kindly shared above, I also asked them to share their thoughts on societal views.
Liz was quick to share, “It is shunned.” Anne commented, “Because the U.S. is a society that focuses on optimism and positivity, there is little room for grief. Very few people are aware that grief lasts a long time and frankly have no patience for grief. It is understandable as there is so much negative news that people do not have the bandwidth anymore to listen to a grieving person or remain attentive to a bereaved person. The expectation is that the bereaved person is back to their old self after three months and the reality is that the bereaved person is forever changed.”
I agree with Anne. I am forever changed by the grief brought to me by the events of 2019. I also agree with Hanif Abdurraqib. Grief returns to visit me, and it treats me better some days than it does others. Even with the more difficult visits, I chose to find beauty in the grief for it bears witness to the impact people have had on me, the legacy they leave behind.
As Abdurraqib put it: “That’s the real gift, I think […] I am not just one person. I am multiple versions of a person. And some of those versions of myself have been loved immensely by people who were so incredible, and through their loving of me, I have a richer texture, and that texture allows me to navigate the world in ways that I am just, on my own, not equipped to do. And that means that on my best days, I get through the world—I get through the challenges of living—navigated gently by a whole host of people who, even without them knowing it, or maybe with them knowing it— but I think a lot of times without them knowing it—have created a generous blueprint through which I’ve learned to maneuver this life well. And that is the richest praise I can give anyone’s living, is that it echoes repeatedly through my survival.”
For more about Grief Awareness Day as well as resources to help you through grief, you can find resources from the American Psychological Association.
As Corporate Director of Marketing & Communications, Kathie Miller provides strategic guidance and tactical support for all areas of Goodwin Living. She writes, edits and manages The Good Life blog and newsletter. Kathie joined Goodwin Living in 2014 after nearly 15 years at NPR, where she honed her skills in brand and reputation management, content marketing and internal communications. Originally from Pennsylvania, Kathie has slowly come to realize she’s lived in Arlington for more than half her life and should call herself a Virginian. She enjoys the outdoors and brings her rescue dog, Remi, to work every day. Her rescue cat, Willit, also makes an occasional office visit.