Lost (and Found) at Sea: On Grief and Holidays

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Today is July 4, a holiday for most people in our nation. One of the problems with grief, though, is that it rears its ugly head frequently during special occasions. Whether it is watching others celebrate or being reminded of past events including our loved ones, holidays and other milestones seem to coax out the feelings of loss that we try to bury during our regular days. For me, this date reminds me of my childhood picnics; although largely positive, these recollections also trigger mournful feelings as I am reminded of how much I have lost.

Recently, I discovered an old photograph depicting me and my family at a holiday dinner, Christmas, I am presuming. I look to be about 3 in the photo. After marveling at how young everyone looked, I was hit by the realization that I am the lone survivor from the group. My grandparents, great-grandmother, and my great-aunt—all are gone. My mother, merely 30 in the picture, died six months ago. My baby brother, sitting happily in his high chair at our Christmas meal, died a couple of years after the photo was taken; leukemia was an automatic death sentence in the 1960s. My other brother, who was not yet born by the depicted Christmas, died six years ago at the age of 41. Only my father (who was the photographer) and I are still here to celebrate the holidays. This isn’t an unusual occurrence of course; as we age, we expect to lose loved ones from our childhood. But at 55, it seems like I have lost quite a bit already. That fact hit me hard while gazing at that photograph.

Luckily, though, life goes on. The family of my childhood may have largely passed on, but new members have entered my life. Today, I recognize special days not only with my father, but with my three wonderful children. They have partners now, too, further adding to the smiling faces around our holiday tables. Maybe someday in the future there will be small faces, too, as children are added to the mix. I welcome all these new arrivals, and they help to change my focus from those that were to those that are. But of course, I never forget anyone whom I have loved and lost.

One of the aspects of loss that bothers me the most is the uncertainty. Is there more to this life that what is present? Will the past be something we can ever revisit? Will I ever reconnect with those I’ve lost? A horrible side effect of grief is doubt, and this tide of questions with no answers can sweep anyone off his or her feet.  It is very difficult to get stuck either in the past or even in the present when the future seems to be unclear. Again, reminiscing on holidays brings this anxiety and melancholy to the forefront, at least for me.  But in the midst of one of my darker periods, one of my sons presented me with an analogy that not only makes sense, but gives me a semblance of peace and hope.

Imagine time is like the ocean, and we are stranded in a small lifeboat. To us, the sea looks unbounded; there is no clear end or beginning. Life in our view is confined to our immediate area. We can look all around, but there are limits to what we can perceive. We cannot see miles beneath us, nor can we see too far in any direction.  To our minds, life is finite. But that doesn’t mean there is nothing else. Just because we cannot see the creatures far below us or the areas of ocean beyond the capability of human sight doesn’t mean they aren’t there. The waves that just hit us are just as real as the waves that are on their way to the boat; in essence, everything and anything exists at once. Our human minds can focus on finite things, but other, more infinite things beyond our current comprehension, are still possible, if not likely.

Maybe this is like our lives: Everything is still there, in one way or another. A comforting thought, to say the least. And to think it was one of the newer people in my life, my son, who shared this. Seems fitting!

Sue Lawrence

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I, Sue Lawrence, am a psychology professor at two colleges, the assistant director at a local childcare facility, an professional development trainer, a mother of three grown children, music enthusiast, and a sibling loss survivor. My career has spanned 3 decades, in which time I worked as a therapist, preschool teacher and administrator, and psychology instructor. My experience has been extensive working with children and teaching to all age groups. Because of my personal situation, I have always been interested in the topic of sibling loss, and that interest has fueled my desire to reach out to others. My book, which has been years in the making, is one attempt to help adults working with bereaved children. Likewise, I am leading a research group this semester at Ursinus College in studying childhood grief and trauma. In addition, I have been taking courses in trauma, neuropsychology, and thanatology in order to broaden my knowledge base. I spend much of my "free" time reading and researching anything that helps me to better understand the topic of sibling loss.

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