Grieving a difficult relationship

IrisGrieving difficult relationshipsby Julie Lockhart, Executive Director, © WinterSpring

The writings about grief and loss so often speak to missing the person who is gone, and perhaps longing for their physical presence again—especially during birthdays, holidays and anniversaries.  Yet, more often than we might guess, a relationship may have been difficult.  For example, a parent might have been overly critical, and perhaps behaved badly at Thanksgiving dinners.  Difficult relationships bring complex and conflicting emotions to the surface, including shame for not feeling “what you are supposed to feel” about the person who died.  And especially as we go through special occasions, these difficult emotions may get in the way of simple pleasures.  Sometimes our grief isn’t as much about the death as it is about a relationship that will never be how we would have wanted it—a connection that never was loving and now that person is no longer here for us to find some reconciliation.

Writer Andrea Heeres shares that expressing the truth about difficult feelings in a safe setting can help the healing process.  “A journal is a safe place…you might write a letter to the person who has hurt you…” (Grieving the Difficult Relationship, Bereavement Magazine, January/February 2004).  She also suggests exercise, healthy eating and getting rest, because moving through the long-standing pain takes strength.

Participation in a WinterSpring support group can help individuals process such difficult emotions in a safe environment.  “I experienced such relief when my father died, because he was always so mean to my mother and me,” said a recent group participant, almost in a whisper because of her shame for feeling that way about her dad.  Her brave comment opened the way for others in the group to share similar difficult emotions.  The facilitators reported afterward that because of this honest sharing, the energy of each of these participants seemed brighter at the end of that group session.  Many of the participants expressed relief that they could share such heavy emotions.

If you have experienced difficult emotions around the death of a loved one, seek a safe place to share your truth.  And if you are supporting a bereaved person, be aware that the emotions they express may be unexpected, even shocking, as they grapple with the complexity of their grief.  Most important is kindness and compassion for yourself and others who have endured these difficult relationships with those we love.

What do kids in grief really feel?

New York LifNyl_con_griefjourneye is doing great work for understanding kids in grief.  They say in their recent study: Kids value communication about loss, but feel it’s lacking: Many say “most people don’t know how to talk to you after a loved one dies.”   The study also says that schools score poorly in helping these kids cope. That’s why programs like WinterSpring’s Teen Grief Groups are so important.  As school budgets get cut, kids get less and less support from staff and thus the nonprofits like us who go into the schools become even more important to the health of children, teens and their families.

And see this short video on how children feel:

Give yourself the freedom to grieve in your own way.

I really like Dr. Nancy Berns’ article on grieving, especially this quote:  “Treating grief as a disease threatens our freedom to grieve.”  She supports people grieving in their own way and debunks the commonly accepted idea that grief needs to follow five stages:  denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  At WinterSpring, we’re not afraid to be with loss for as long as it takes people to embrace life again.

Children are resilient when given a safe space to grieve

As I looked through a file this morning, I ran into this quote from our volunteer, Liz Axness:

WinterSpring allows me to see the beauty, empathy and precious resiliency of children travelling their grief path. The children become a family of survivors that are connected through their losses. And yet, WinterSpring’s Children’s Group is joyful, sometimes wild, and often contemplative and deeper than any adult could devise.  (May 2011)

Each day that I learn more about this place I get to work, I am amazed that the wonderful volunteers are moved to support children, teens, and adults through their grief process.  When adults can make a difference in a child’s life, the world is truly a better place.

The fascinating path of surviving grief

(This essay was published on April 9, 2012 in the Ashland Daily Tidings.)

Even now, eight years later, I can still conjure up Michael’s voice on the other end of the phone line:  “How’s our little Bunny?” he would have said, checking in on our six year old daughter after returning from his surfing trip to Mexico. 

But his call never came. He died of heart failure on the beach.  And I still expected that call for days, weeks and months afterward.  Even though we had divorced the previous year, we remained close friends with a commitment to raising Emma together.  And now he was gone.

I had experienced other losses – a favorite aunt, two grandmothers, and a second-trimester miscarriage. But Michael’s death changed my life forever and I was shocked by the maze of complexity as I learned to navigate as a “widow” without any widow’s rights. 

I faced a community of folks who blamed me for the divorce and a daughter mired in the loss of her beloved daddy. 

No rights to his things, bound by a will he wrote without a lawyer, hounded by his unfinished business:  a life insurance policy still in my name that the estate lawyer said wasn’t rightfully mine and my basement filled with his tools and miscellaneous junk.  The callousness of his friends astounded me as they vied for his outdoor gear and personal effects. Even though I was left to raise our daughter alone, I felt invisible in the process of settling his affairs.

Where was my support system?  I had many friends who rallied around us.  And thankfully we could afford counseling.  Mostly, we limped through without a roadmap to grief and survived it.  But the dreary climate of Bellingham, WA, where I had lived for 26 years, became a heavy reminder of our tragedy. I needed a change.

Four years later, we moved to Ashland for a fresh start. I’ve watched my daughter thrive in this community.  Me too…but I never could have guessed it would take me three years to find a job here.  And yet, the waiting now makes sense.  When I interviewed with WinterSpring last November, I felt like I had found “my people” in this small nonprofit providing group bereavement support for kids and adults.  I sat with three passionate Board members, each of them drawn to WinterSpring because of their own deep losses, and I felt my heart open as we discussed bereavement and how to pull the organization out of financial stress.

I wish we had found a similar organization eight years ago.  Group support would have helped me make some sense of the chaos and to feel less alone. My daughter would have had a place to access her grief in a healthy, supportive process.  Currently, Emma is attending a teen grief support group at Ashland Middle School and appreciates the opportunity to share with peers.  We both took the recent WinterSpring volunteer training, because there’s always more to learn about travelling through grief toward the joys of living fully again.

This job gives me an opportunity to offer bereaved people the very thing Emma and I needed most.  My compassion grows daily for those who stumble through grief when a loved one dies, and I hope to expand our reach into the community to help more people find joy in life again. I am passionate about serving such a worthy cause and honored to be their new Executive Director.