I was recently asked by the Hospice agency I work for to deliver the keynote address for our annual Wings of Hope Butterfly Memorial. As one of the Spiritual Care Counselors on our Hospice team, they wanted me to speak about grief and bereavement. I’ve been asked several times to share the address so I’ve decided to post it here where it can be easily accessed. In the interest of transparency, I did my due diligence in trying to find and request permission to share Ms. Frankel’s story of the seaglass, but was unsuccessful. I hope that since she has written and shared it with others as a means of healing, she will not be unhappy that I have used it for the same purpose.
Good afternoon friends.
I am humbled by the privilege of speaking to you about your grief. I honor the love and commitment that brings you here today. It is no easy thing to come and listen to poignant music, reflections about life and death and hear your loved one’s name spoken again. Thank you for being brave and being here.
In his play, Macbeth, William Shakespeare said, “Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break.”
We have gathered here today to give grief words. And names. And a symbol. The butterfly. We have come to share in an experience that is common to us all, in one form or another and yet, we have probably spent more time trying to hide it, or pretend we’re not feeling it or try to carry it stoically, so as not to burden others.
I’ve spent the better part of my professional life as a nurse and chaplain dealing with loss, death and grief. I have also experienced it personally in the death of treasured pets, dear friends, a brother I never met and other family members, including the parents that brought me into the world.
I have felt the loneliness and fear that comes through a death that no one wants to talk about because it is too painful and yet, at ten years old, you know that something really bad happened and that the little brother you were expecting to come home, won’t be. I have offered my share of platitudes about my loved ones being in a better place while at the same time being angry that they left me. I have woken up in the morning wondering how to get through the day. I have borne my grief in silence to be strong for others. Does any of this sound familiar?
Of course it does, because you have also felt the sting of death and had to respond in ways that may have been uncomfortable, unfair or even unhealthy. For today let’s be real. Let’s think about grief in real terms, not pessimistic, necessarily, but in an authentic way that honors our feelings and identifies ways in which we can navigate the bereavement journey with a little less loneliness.
By definition, grief is suffering or distress over affliction or loss; it is sorrow, pain or regret. We grieve many losses in our lifetime from the time we are born until our last breath. So everyone here, even if you are not honoring the death of a loved one, has experienced grief in one way or another. The butterflies we release soon could be a metaphor for that person and that loss, for you are holding in your hand a beautiful, fragile life; a gift of nature, here for a short span of time and then released to death.
The goal of Hospice is to help individuals who are nearing the end of life but also to help families and friends who share that journey.
For the hospice patient, the focus of care is on the medical needs to assure comfort and dignity, the emotional impact of realizing that time is shorter than expected, the practical work of funeral planning and financial challenges and the spiritual concerns of one who is facing their mortality.
This focus on the patient is only part of the role that Hospice plays in the lives of families at end of life. As important as the patient’s needs are, the needs of families facing a new reality that they neither expect nor want is equally as important. Grieving begins for everyone the moment a terminal diagnosis is given.
Spouses, children, siblings, friends and even colleagues immediately start asking the question: what happens to me?
Hospice team members expertly begin assessing the needs of everyone in the dying person’s life and help find answers to the questions about what happens now? Often the first step is to assist families in coming to terms with the patients’ decline and movement toward death. Acceptance is a journey that begins on day one and may not find fruition until long after a loved one has died. Part of the work of the nurses, social workers and chaplains is to help you reach that place of acceptance and peace.
By facilitating a life review that often includes family members, we can help people see the deeper meaning of their life and legacy. We can help families identify strengths that will help them grieve, create supportive networks, plan for funeral arrangements and prepare for a new reality of life.
Encouraging the patient and family to live as fully as possible, to participate in the social and spiritual practices that have always been a part of their lives and to reflect on and deal with any loose ends is important. Sharing the deep things of the heart may also bring hope and peace to the patient and family.
This grieving process, begun in the early stages of hospice care, continues on formally through the bereavement program. By talking with our chaplains, attending grief support groups and connecting with caring people in your communities, healing occurs. It may take time, but it will happen. I don’t mean to say that you ‘get over’ it. You don’t. A mistake too often made by well-meaning people is to say something like “It’s time to move on.” While moving forward with our lives is the goal; getting over someone’s death is not realistic. The goal is to learn to manage the feelings of fear, sorrow and anxiety in ways that help you adjust to a new way of being in the world.
Ellen Frankel, an author and bereavement counselor, shared a poignant story with a bereavement group about the nature of grief. The specific question posed to her and one that has been asked of me many times is this. Does grief ever get easier? This is Ms. Frankel’s response.
When you break a glass on the kitchen floor, you have to be careful when you go to clean up. The glass is sharp — so very sharp — so as you pick it up, piece by piece, you have to go slowly, touch the glass cautiously, because even the slightest encounter with the edge can pierce your skin and you hurt and you bleed. The shards of glass are harsh and the edges cut deeply.
Now imagine that those broken pieces of glass have been thrown into the ocean. They are at the mercy of the current, and have to let go into the forces of nature. Some days the ocean roars with big forceful waves and the glass is tossed and churned and thrown along with the rocks and sand. Other times the ocean is gentle, and the glass is stroked by the rhythm of the tide. Yet just as the gentle ocean lulls the glass with its soothing melody, another storm hits and the glass is once again pushed against the force of currents, the force of the moon and the heavens. And yet again, at some point the ocean quiets, the flow is once again soft, the waves flow like the inhalation and exhalation of the breath, arriving at the shore, hugging the sand.
And at some point, there you are, on a warm, sunny July day, walking along the seashore when you stop because just in front of you, sitting amidst pebbles and rocks and periwinkle shells is a piece of sea glass. You bend down to pick it up, marveling at your good fortune to find this treasure. Holding it in your hands you feel its smoothness and the places where the sea glass might have a slight ridge. You can rub it on all of its sides, for no longer are there sharp edges. Instead, the edges have become solid and smooth and you can hold it tightly in your hand without fear of injury. In fact, holding it in your hand feels fortifying and strengthening. We actively seek these brilliant pieces of sea glass precisely because they echo the beauty of survival, of resiliency, and of hope.
With tenderness and love you are able to hold this piece of sea glass and learn its unique features. Where once the edges of the glass were jagged and sharp, now the edges are ever softly rounded, so that you can run a finger over them repeatedly, and it will not take your blood.
That is how grief can change, Ms. Frankel told group members. Those are the edges of grief.
Grief is a journey with ups and downs too difficult, too surprising and at times too marvelous to imagine. It is the ebb and flow, the high and low tides of day to day emotional changes. But with time, good support and self-care, the edges do soften and the sharp and unbearable pain of initial loss becomes bearable and even life-enhancing. Grief is hard but it is also a great teacher and gift giver. Growth and wisdom are the treasures to be found among the sand, shells and seaglass on the shores of grief.
We tend to imagine grief as a monster who threatens to tear our bodies into shreds and steal our souls. And it does, at first. But the truth is that that same grief, over time, is often the very teacher, healer and friend that transforms our sorrow into wholeness and peace.
Great books have been born out of grief. Our souls have been moved sublimely by music written from a grieving heart.
One of the women who attends my grief support group said a few weeks ago, “Sometime when you’re sitting in despair, it is not an answer you need. It is a new question.” It is the new questions that provide the roadmap out of the darkest days of grief into new life.
One of the joys I’ve experienced as a bereavement councelor is to witness the flourishing of people who have learned to ask the questions and wait for the answers in order to manage their grief and grow from the experience. I think of a man who, when his wife died, believed he would never again see a blue sky and yet, after a period of time became a minister and found love a second time.
I have been humbled by the resiliency of people, just like you, who soldier through grief to become involved in helping others along the journey.
When people say that my work must be hard or depressing, I am quick to assure them that it is not. It is inspiring and fulfilling to be with people at the most sacred time of their lives, to be with them when they grieve and to celebrate when they, like the butterflies we release today, soar into new life, whole and grateful for the gifts or growth and strength their grieving has brought them.
I close with another quote that you may think came from the pen of William Shakespeare. It did not. Lord Alfred Tennyson wrote these words as part of a VERY long poem entitled ‘In Memoriam A.H.H.’ about a friend who had died. Tennyson wrote:
I hold it
true, whate’er befall;
I feel it, when I sorrow most;
‘Tis better to have loved and lost
Than never to have loved at all.
I believe these words to be true. I do not regret having loved one pet, friend or family member because they died. I hope that if not today, then someday soon, you may say the same. I hope also that being here with people who share in your sorrow helps you find strength and peace as you continue your journey.
Go in love and peace, dear friends.