The ending of this “story” is happy…. There is joy to be found in realizing that long-held, shame-filled, buried grief, however painful, can be uncovered, looked at, handled tenderly, shared, and brought into the light for healing. It’s never too late.

—Hannah, age 80, writing about a deep and painful secret.

Secret Grief from Early in Life

A friend recently asked me if I would help create a service of remembrance to help her 80-year old mother, Hannah, heal a secret grief she had carried for 60 years.

Hannah told me that she became pregnant at 19 and contracted German Measles in her first trimester. At that time, none of her physicians told her the risks to her fetus until she was at full term. As a result, her daughter, Linda, was born, deaf and blind with severe cerebral palsy.

For ten months, Hannah tried tirelessly to take care of her daughter. Throughout, she was heart-broken and overwhelmed. Over time, her family and doctors pressured her to give up her daughter. They told her, “You cannot take care of her in the ways she will need. Relinquishing Linda will allow you to move on and prepare for your future ‘normal’ children.”

Loss Never Mentioned

Eventually, Hannah relented and surrendered Linda to the local state hospital. After that decision, she visited her daughter only once. It was too painful to go.

Hannah told me: “Linda’s life was never mentioned by my family, or others who knew about her. In the intervening years, I almost never spoke of her. The trauma of that experience erased my memories and feelings. I had no idea how to address this sorrow, nothing to guide me. I passed by that hospital hundreds of times in the years that followed, and I was never tempted to turn into the gate.”

A Gathering to Go From Loss to Peace

Last year, almost 60 years later, and mindful of the harmful legacy of secrecy she was leaving for her children, Hannah decided to revisit this wrenching experience. She had little information about Linda, but she was able to obtain her death certificate. She learned that Linda had died 45 years ago (at age 16) and was buried near the state hospital that had been her home. “I want to break the patterns of secrecy and silence and lift my shame,” she told me.

Hannah asked me to help plan a gathering of remembrance for Linda with family and friends. She wanted to face her guilt, shame and sorrow, and make peace with this profound loss and her decision to surrender Linda. And she wanted to begin sharing her feelings and experiences with her loved ones.

Open Hearts

On the anniversary of Linda’s death, 25 people gathered in the parking lot near the cemetery. We walked in silence on that warm November day and gathered under a tall oak tree just a few feet from Linda’s unmarked grave. A hawk perched on a branch overhead.

Everyone arrived with open hearts. We spoke about how much time had passed, and how Hannah could now find hope and allow meaning to emerge from her decision to relinquish Linda. Her willingness to return to this profound loss came slowly, like tiny shoots of green pushing frozen earth aside. And then her love would not hold back. Hannah spoke to our circle gathered that day: “Though we lose those we love in death, the relationship with our loved ones continues on in our hearts and mind.”

We Can Find Peace

Hannah found courage and strength to be with Linda in a new way, and it helped her move from loss to peace. Hannah could feel and know that love does not let us go. While suffering breaks the heart, it also makes the heart whole again.

Almost everyone who was at the gathering was touched in unexpected ways, too. Hannah’s sister, Joyce, wept as she spoke about taking care of Linda and then not knowing what happened to her when she disappeared.

A teacher from the State Hospital showed up and shared stories about Linda. She told of holding her closely, and described Linda’s gentle and compassionate soul. The man who buried Linda spoke with deep reverence about the way in which he handled Linda’s body and gently lowered her into the ground.

Never Too Late to Move from Loss to Peace

In the weeks after the service, Hannah wrote, “I became aware of a new feeling when I thought of Linda. An opening had occurred, and I could finally, after all these years, feel love for her. Truly an upwelling.”

All of us, like Hanna, can remember and hold in our hearts the possibility of meaning and healing that is born from our own deepest losses. It’s never too late!

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To read more from Claire B. Willis: Our Aching Earth: When We Grieve About Our Natural World – Open to Hope

Claire B. Willis is a clinical social worker who has worked in the fields of oncology and bereavement for more than 20 years. A cofounder of the Boston nonprofit Facing Cancer Together, Willis has led bereavement, end-of-life, support, and therapeutic writing groups. She has co-taught Spiritual Resources for Healing the Mind, Body, and Soul at Andover Newton Theological School. She maintains a private practice in Brookline, Massachusetts. As a lay Buddhist chaplain, Claire focuses on contemplative practices for end-of-life care. She has co-authored Opening to Grief with Marnie Crawford Samuelson, and is the sole author of Lasting Words: A Guide to Finding Meaning Toward the Close of Life.




Claire Willis Claire

As a child, grief was the wall paper in my home. Unspoken traumatic deaths and losses swirled through the lives of both my parents. As a child I felt the unspoken sorrow in my home. I made a vow at that time to live differently. After college I went to social work school to become a clinical social worker. Initially my work was focused on working with those at the margins - the voiceless ones - and when my mother's health failed, I switched the focus of my work. I started working with people living with cancer when my mother was dying in the late 80’s. Before she died but with death clearly on the horizon, I had conversations with her that I had yearned to have my whole life. I saw how rich and healing these weeks could be in people's lives. I wanted to have conversations with people that were meaningful – that were open, honest and heartfelt. I found a place where my intensity was welcomed. About 12 years ago, I developed pulmonary emboli and had a near death experience. At that point, my life took an unexpected U turn. The first book I read after my hospitalization was called Living Fully, Dying Well. As it happened it was written by someone who had also had a near death experience with pulmonary emboli. He had experienced, as I had, that coming to terms with death enhanced his life. I felt even more deeply called at this point to working with people who were dying and grieving. Having come to that edge of life and death shaped my work going forward. Shortly after, I was drawn to a Buddhist practice when i met my teacher at a workshop. Buddhism emphasizes the impermanence of life and the inevitability of suffering. But I also came to realize that coming to terms with what is instead of what or how I wished things to be was essential to lessening the suffering in my life. I have had a daily practice ever since.

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