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What I’ve learned about Grief

SHREWSBURY – Today is a day of mourning for many Shrewsbury residents. Our community has lost another friend who was taken away too soon. This kind of tragedy leaves us feeling so much shock and desperation; it is hard to imagine the depths to which it affects each person. Though our rational minds know that death is a natural part of life, no one ever seems to be emotionally prepared for it. It is the same whether the loss is expected or is not. I studied grief counseling and worked with many grieving families, yet, losing my father hit me like a ton of bricks. I completely forgot all of my learned “skills” and thought I’d never get past the hurt. That was five years ago, this month, and I am still not completely over it. I am coping, though, because I found ways to manage my grief and embrace a ‘new normal’ in life… one without my father.

So what is grief beyond the obvious heartbreak and tears? It’s a very delicate process that takes time and strong methods of coping to get through. I’ve recommended some of my own ‘tools’ for dealing with grief to help clients through their healing processes and I thought that it might be beneficial to share them again, now. If it helps even a few of people, my job will be done. It is important to remember that what helped me may not work for everybody. Grief is as unique as we are people.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross developed the “5 Stages of Grief” in 1969 and wrote one of the first books about grief and loss called “On Death and Dying”. This model is still used to describe the process of grief and includes; Denial, Anger, Sadness, Bargaining and Acceptance. What most people don’t expect is that the stages may not be in order and that they may be repeated. Time and tools are the two parts of the process. Time we can not control, but the tools we can.

Whether it gets stuffed down or reacted to immediately, grief gets processed one way or another, at one time or another. Since it can sometimes be an emotional, all-encompassing and unpredictable process, it can be hard to move on from. I remember thinking how unsympathetic it was of people (bosses and senders-of-bills) to expect me to be responsible for anything after my dad died. Didn’t they understand my father had just died? Yes. Yes they did, but life, unfortunately, had to go on. Bills needed to be paid and my responsibilities needed to take priority.

Since my 1st challenge in grieving was having the time to do it, I scheduled it. I knew I had to go back to work right away, so I needed a way to ‘turn off’ my grief for that 8 hours a day. I promised myself that if I ignored it and made it through work, I could cry the whole rest of the day… and for a while I did. It was hard to separate myself from it and I felt guilty about intentionally trying to forget my father, but knowing that there was a reserved time for it later really helped. It actually gave me the motivation to get through the day.

Over time, I weaned my grieving down to 1 hour a day. Since I usually picked a time like my ride home or just before bed to remember my father, I kept a shoebox with pictures, letters and various other memories of him and made a play list of his favorite songs. Having these items helped me process and focus. I learned that I could never forget him. Eventually, I knew the memories were secure in my heart and I used the tools less and less. I became emotionally stronger knowing those things were there for me when I needed them.

Another way I dealt with my loss was by memorializing my father in my own way. I wanted to honor his life. I named my son after him. I donate to charities and sponsor a “Spirit of Shrewsbury” banner in his memory. I arrange a yearly memorial mass on the anniversary of his death. Doing these things helps me to feel like his life still has meaning. Finally, since my children were born 2 years after his death, they never met him… but, they sure do know him! I keep photos out, bring them to his grave every so often and tell them stories about their grandfather. I know it would make him feel good to know that they can point him out in a photograph and it makes me feel good knowing that.

The one piece of advice that seems universally helpful in coping with death and dying is to have no regrets. Once my father was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer, I made the best decision I had ever made. I decided that I had the rest of my life to grieve over his death and not much time to celebrate with him in life. I refused to mourn for him while he was still here. It was for one year and one month, as it turns out, but it was a great year! I spoke to him everyday to let him know I was thinking of him. I visited with him every weekend and watched movies. Instead of dinner, I brought him brownie sundaes. I told him that I loved him all the time and I thanked him for all he had done for me. Remembering these things has brought me more peace of mind than you can imagine.

I am blessed to have said all that I needed to say to my father. Luckily, I was able to prepare for his death- somewhat. In many cases, however, death is unexpected or tragic like the one we face today. Be sure to tell the people you love that you love them. Go back for that hug if you forgot to when parting with a loved one. When people make you feel happy, grateful, special or have any other positive impact on your life, let them know. You’ll never know if it your last chance.

I wish peace to all those with heavy hearts tonight. ~ Sarah Cole Camerer
(dedicated to RC, ES, and JT)

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