Losing four family members within nine months has been, and continues to be, the most challenging experience of my life. My daughter and father-in-law died the same weekend. Several months later, my brother died and several months after that, my former son-in-law died. The grief of multiple losses was so painful I could barely move or think.
Of all the deaths, my daughter’s death was the most painful. Family members and friends rallied to help us, but my husband and I knew recovery was up to us. We also knew we had to confront the pain of loss. For weeks, we sat on the couch, telling stories and crying, telling stories and crying. We cried until there were no tears left.
It was winter in Minnesota and so, in addition to grieving, we had to face sub-zero temperatures, frightening wind chills, blizzards, and travel warnings. When the television weatherman said, “No travel is recommended. Please stay in your home and off the roads,” we believed him. Grief, by itself, can be isolating and being forced to stay home increased our isolation.
But being home forced us to confront issues and consider solutions. We were a mutual support team.
One afternoon, when I was sitting in the family room and lost in my thoughts, I looked out the west windows. The sky was as gray as an old flannel blanket. The pine trees and elms in the back yard were laden with snow. Nature’s painting was monochromatic until a cardinal suddenly landed on a branch, fluffed his wings, turned his head, and looked at me.
Eyes locked together, he was perfectly still and I was perfectly still. I didn’t move a muscle. The sight of the red cardinal against the gray sky, perched on a snow-covered branch, brought tears to my eyes. How did the cardinal survive? Where was his mate? Why did he land on the branch at that moment? Several minutes later, the cardinal flew away.
During my grief journey, I have turned to nature time and again for comfort. The first rain comforts me because it means spring is near. When the rose bushes start to bud I am comforted by the cycle of the seasons. But nothing has comforted me as much as the sight of the cardinal in wintertime.
I see him still in my mind, a symbol of life, a symbol of hope. It was as if the cardinal was saying, “Everything is going to be all right. You will survive. A new, happy person will emerge from grief.”
That is exactly what happened. Today, I am a happy person, living a new life, and the image of the cardinal is always close to my heart.
Harriet Hodgson 2011