Cascade of Losses
One July day, just ten days after his twentieth wedding anniversary and two days before his oldest child’s eighteenth birthday, my brother fell from the sky. I imagine him screaming—calling out in terror to God, to Mom, to. . . ; there was no time to call to others. The plane shattered to tiny, toy pieces. His pen, a Father’s Day gift, was scattered with his watch, his shoes, his plane. We, too, screamed with pain, shock, and grief.
A little more than a year after my brother died, my ninety-year-old grandmother died. She had suffered from Alzheimer’s disease for many years and didn’t take easily to it. In the early years, she just gave away her possessions to those hired to help her, and in the later years, she fearfully fought her caregivers. We were relieved that she, once robust yet fragile and tiny at death, was at peace. Well, my aunt wasn’t relieved; her mom had died.
One month later and just before Christmas, my father died in bed, not waking his wife, my mother. But, oh, it couldn’t have been an easy death. His face was contorted, grimacing, shattering any myth we might tell of suffocation as a peaceful sleeping death. Mom was truly angry. Their retirement was just around the corner. If only he hadn’t been too vain to use a CPAP machine, if only he’d lost weight, if only. . . .
When the Losses Mount
Ten years after our brother’s death, my sister died quietly in hospice, breathing her last breath as my mother and living brother watched. Having given birth to her, Mom was present full circle for her death. Our mother sat, stilled by wonder and sadness, much of which she kept close to her heart. Why did her daughter die? Simply, after many years of intensive drinking, my sister reached her stated, desired goal. But why?
My mother lived sixteen years after her son’s death, fifteen years after her mother-in-law and husband’s deaths, and six years after her daughter’s death. She was often perplexed about why she continued to live when they were gone. She’d ask, “What’s my purpose? Why am I still here?”
A year and a half after brain surgery gone wrong, she died. Her five days of coma-like sleep looked peaceful, but morphine can ease the way. She didn’t wake, talk, mumble, or groan—not in pain or in dreams. She opened her eyes, though; she turned her head and listened carefully when her priest, her pastor who had confirmed her as an RCIA candidate, began the Anointing of the Sick. He touched her gently. She closed her eyes again and died fifteen minutes later.
Those Left Behind Will Mourn
Who is left when people die? Their loved ones, who often don’t know what to do, what to say, and how to express their deep grief. Grief is a powerful internal process that calls for serious, soul-level response, giving the loss meaning and empowering it to transform us—for the better if people so choose. Mourning is an externalized response to grief. It’s an active experience of acknowledging, expressing, working with, and integrating grief.
Mourning is a time of self-reflection and introspection regarding the meaning of life and one’s place in it; mourning allows people time to say a true goodbye to former life and a hello to what is new. Grief enables humans to feel loss connected to the love for who or what is gone; mourning leads to transformative meaning-making.
Because people can’t insulate themselves from loss and grief, they must mourn. Mourning is as natural as grief, but it requires intentional work to express the grief. Among the most common ways people mourn are crying, having funerals, and talking about who (or what) has died and has been lost.
Telling grief stories, which are love stories, is crucial to processing and integrating loss. Mourning is something that cultures teach people to do or not do. Sadly, death-exploiting, mourning-avoidant cultures like those within North America suppress mourning. In such cultures, people often need support to mourn and then to tolerate—no, to embrace—their pain throughout the healing that mourning enables.