Experts and survivors agree—use rituals to ease the anguish of loss. Then practice acts of love to move forward toward a sense of peace.
Near midnight on Good Friday, 1990, just hours after Jenard and Gail Gross had arrived in Lyford Cay, Bahamas, the phone rang. Jenard answered groggily. Then, after listening for just a few moments, he fainted.
Gail tentatively took the receiver. “Is this Mrs. Gross?” asked a male voice.
“Is Dawn Gross your daughter?”
Even before he spoke the words that came next, Gail knew.
The room began to spin. The coroner was saying Dawn had died in her sleep. Gail slid to the floor.
The rest of the week, she says, is a blur of emotion and pockets of memory. The couple boarded a plane that night, flew to Nashville, Tennessee, to meet their son at Vanderbilt University, where he was a student. Then the family traveled together to Los Angeles—and the morgue.
“We cried the whole time, on the plane,” Gross said.
The family would later learn that Dawn, who’d been treated for mono-nucleosis after complaining of fatigue for months, died of an undiagnosed viral infection that had spread to her heart.
The day of her trip to the Bahamas, Gross had checked in with Dawn. “I’ll call you when we arrive,” she told her daughter. After their plane touched down late that afternoon, she left her daughter a voicemail. Dawn was in bed. Her heart had already stopped beating.
A Human Capacity for Grief
I interviewed Gail Gross on a hot day in July, years after Dawn’s death. We had never spoken before, and I hadn’t known her daughter. Still, tears blurred my vision as I typed my notes.
Indeed, even when a loss is not our own, we ache. Researchers have found that “mirror” neurons in our brains reflect the emotions of others, allowing us to experience some shadow of their pain, which is why faraway tragedies—like last year’s massacre of 20 first-graders and six adults at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut—can cut us to the core, even when we’re not directly affected.
Witnessing grief, even a stranger’s, also reminds us of a dark reality: no matter who we are or what we do, each one of us will eventually lose someone we love. Grief is coming for us all.
For me it came earlier this year, when I had to say good-bye to my beloved Doberman. For weeks before his death, I’d hand-fed Rhodes ground beef, pulled pork, hot dogs, and anything else I could get him to eat. Still, his cancer robbed him of every calorie, until he was so weak he no longer enjoyed even the shortest of walks. Finally I knew it was time. As we waited for the vet to arrive, he whimpered and nudged me with his nose. “I know,” I whispered, stroking him. “It’ll be over soon.”
As the vet slid the needle under his skin, I expected to feel relieved. Instead, as his body grew heavy in my arms, and I felt his great heart slow, then finally stop, a searing anguish welled up, then overflowed. “I’m sorry,” I croaked between sobs. “I didn’t expect it to be this hard.”
The vet gave me a gentle smile. “No one does.”
It’s common during the throes of grief to experience a confusing storm of feelings—intense sorrow, terror, a painful yearning, a sense of helplessness, even anger, says Kristine Kevorkian, an expert on death and dying and a former hospice social worker, who is not related to the late assisted-suicide advocate Jack Kevorkian.
These emotions ebb and flow, she says, like waves washing upon a beach. Sometimes the waves may be huge and scary; other times, small and gentle. They may come close together, or far apart. Kevorkian challenges the popular belief that grief progresses through the same, predicable stages for everyone. And, she says, it never really ends.
Kevorkian’s grandfather died when she was a teen, and she still feels the ache of his loss, 28 years later. A survivor of the Armenian genocide, he’d taught her about her heritage, and it was watching him reflect on his own loss that inspired Kevorkian to work with the dying and grieving.
“Everything he taught me, I still hold on to dearly,” she says. “I think of him all the time.”
That’s why “getting over” grief is not going to happen, she cautions.
“Learning to cope with it will,” she says. “Grief is painful, but it’s part of our growth as humans. Hold death’s hand and walk with death. That will help you appreciate life that much more.”
Through Grief, a Path to Love
So how do we grow through grief? Can we really use our pain to make us stronger, rather than weaker?
During the days and weeks after Dawn’s death, Gail and Jenard Gross found comfort in the rituals of their Jewish faith. They tore their clothing. They covered their mirrors. They lit a memorial candle. In the period of intense pain immediately following a loss, such rituals help mourners face the reality of mortality and give them a pathway to feel their pain rather than deny it, Kevorkian says. The ancient rituals of death—from Hinduism’s ritual washing of the body, to the Jewish custom of sitting shivah, or the Buddhist powa—shift us from a place of isolation, pain, and despair toward acceptance, connection, meaning, and wholeness.
Over time, rituals can also help us complete one of the most important tasks of mourning: moving on with the rest of our lives. Loss brings us to a confusing and difficult crossroads—will we sink into negativity (blaming, raging, withdrawing, why-me-ing)? Or will we choose, instead, to pull ourselves up, toward love?
“When a crisis happens, we have to call ourselves to the better angels of our nature,” says the psychiatrist Dr. John Woodall, a former Harvard Medical School instructor who now leads trauma response and resilience-building programs around the world.
“Grief is a measure of how much you love the person who is gone. A strong grief response is another way of saying that you love that person very much. But that love needs to evolve into a new expression, one that brings you back toward wholeness, connectivity, and unity. The work of grief is to find a new way to love. It’s an act of real faith to say, ‘Despite my suffering, I will remain loving.’”
“We Are Sandy Hook”
Woodall was watching TV last year when Robbie Parker gathered all his strength to stand before a panel of cameras to talk about the loss of his six-year-old daughter. Emilie had been gunned down in her classroom at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, just a day earlier. Woodall was stunned when Parker paused to acknowledge the family of the shooter, Adam Lanza, expressing condolences to his father and brother.
“Let it not turn into something that defines us, but something that inspires us to be better, to be more compassionate and more humble people,” Parker urged. “The best thing that I can think of to move on is to help other people.”
Woodall turned to his wife. “That guy,” he said, “is my hero.”
Woodall’s organization, the Unity Project, had overseen grief and recovery workshops for children in places as troubled as Bosnia, Uganda, and post-Katrina New Orleans. But this tragedy struck closer to home: Woodall lives in Newtown. After leading grief workshops to help his friends and neighbors in the aftermath of the shooting, he says his community has a lot to teach the world about recovering with grace from a devastating loss.
One family took the simple step of buying cupcakes for every customer of a local restaurant on the day of their daughter’s memorial. Others have created foundations to support causes that were meaningful to their children—like Newtown Kindness, an organization that encourages children to perform acts of kindness, founded by Joel and JoAnn Bacon in memory of their daughter, Charlotte.
And following the example set by the grieving families, Newtown today reverberates with public expressions of resilience and wholehearted grief. Stones placed along a riverbank are etched with prayers for those who died. On each child’s birthday, residents display balloons in their favorite color. Signs around town proclaim: “We are Sandy Hook. We choose love.”
“In the midst of whatever crisis we’re facing, there’s a capacity for love,” Woodall says. “I’ve seen it in Bosnia. I’ve seen it in Uganda. I’ve seen it in Newtown. If it can happen in these situations, it can happen in your life.”
Other grief experts agree. If pain is the question, they say, love is the answer.
Kevorkian suggests honoring the person you lost by making a positive change in your life.
For Edie Weinstein, that meant finding a new calling. Weinstein was only 40 when she lost her husband to liver disease. To honor his memory, she decided to complete one of his lifelong goals on his behalf: becoming an interfaith minister. She’d been informally following along with his coursework in the two years before he died, but after his death she decided to officially enroll as a student. On the day she walked down the aisle for her ordination, Weinstein wore a silk prayer shawl her husband had sewn before his death and placed a photo of him on the altar as a symbol of his presence. She now works part time as a minister and has found a special joy in officiating at weddings.
“I encourage people to look at the upside of grief,” Weinstein says, “to find the gift that comes along with it.”
In the days after my dog Rhodes died, every reminder of him seemed to bring on a new round of tears—his old leash, his bed, that dog coat I wrangled him into every winter.
Seeing my struggle, a monk I know suggested I try powa, a Buddhist practice for the dead and dying. The monk told me to try a meditation in which I imagined Rhodes in a pure land, free from suffering. For 45 minutes, I visualized him running through meadows, lapping water from lotus-covered ponds, and experiencing doggy happiness. I emerged feeling peaceful. Now, whenever I feel the tug of loss, I imagine my big-hearted Doberman happily running through that meadow, and the ache subsides.
After spending time meditating and writing in her journal to process her grief, Gross eventually decided to go back to school, earning a doctorate in education and, later, psychology. For the past 23 years, she has used her knowledge to counsel and comfort others facing emotional pain.
“If I were in an airport and I noticed a woman in emotional trauma, I would stop and support her even if I didn’t know her and even if my plane was boarding,” she says. “That’s what has changed since Dawn’s death. I am forever wounded, but from that wound, I can help others.”
Alisa Bowman wrote about a vegan diet for healthy bones in the May/June issue of Spirituality & Health.
While spiritual practices can help you work through grief, here are five common mistakes that get in the way.
Don’t rush it.
People might ask if you’ve “gotten over” your grief. “It’s not a virus, and it’s not something you can get over,” says Dr. John Woodall, founder of the Unity Project. Give yourself time to move forward at your own pace.
Don’t judge yourself.
“Everyone grieves in their own way, and there is no statute of limitations on it,” says the interfaith minister and bereavement counselor Edie Weinstein. “As long as it doesn’t hurt you or someone else, it’s OK.”
Don’t try to be your old self.
“That person doesn’t exist anymore,” says Gail Gross, a psychologist and educator. “By allowing yourself to feel your grief, and listening to your inner voice, you can grow and transition into a new normal and a new you.”
Don’t minimize it.
Whether you’ve lost a pet or a parent, it’s still loss. “I’ve known people who have lost animal companions who were so devastated that they ended up on disability,” says Kristine Kevorkian, a hospice social worker. “A lot of people might think that’s nuts, but that’s only because they don’t have the same relationship.”
Don’t try to control it.
Grief will come and go, sometimes taking you by surprise. That’s normal. “As a child, I couldn’t control how quickly my bones grew,” Kevorkian says. “Grief is the same.”
Pause to Remember
Rituals—religious or personal—can help you feel connected to your loved one long after they are gone. Need help getting started? Try one of these ideas:
- Lay an extra table setting for your loved one during the holidays or on their birthday.
- Take up an activity your loved one enjoyed in life. Use the time you spend doing this activity to remember or feel your connection with them.
- Write a letter to your loved one. Burn the letter, and visualize the smoke carrying your message to them, wherever they are.
- Light a candle in a special place.
- Plant a tree—or an entire garden—and dedicate it to the special person you have lost.
- Make an annual gift to your loved one’s favorite charity on their birthday.
Perform simple acts of kindness and dedicate them to the memory of your loved one.
Previously published as "Out of Grieving, Grace" in Spirituality & Health Nov/Dec 2013