October used to be my favorite month. There were so many things to look forward to – fall foliage, the taste of the first apple pie of the season washed down with a flavorful cup of hot mulled apple cider, and the joyful sound of children’s laughter as they trick-or-treat through neighborhood streets. Then the calendar turned a page one year and my Octobers became something to dread.
It started one year on October 20 when my best friend, Aimee, lost her six-year battle to breast cancer at age 36. Eleven days later, on Halloween, my brother Michael, 37, was murdered during a house invasion at his home in Portland, Oregon. They were two of the most significant people in my life. Losing them in such a short period of time was a devastating blow that took me a long time from which to bounce back.
But bounce back I did. There was anger for sure, mostly at God, who loved me enough to fight for me, and, in the long run, strengthened our relationship in ways that I could not have imagined. There was also emptiness, lethargy, loneliness, worry and a seemingly constant fear of who I would lose next. I couldn’t imagine a day when those feelings wouldn’t be my constant companion.
It took time to do the uncomfortable work of grieving, of ‘leaning’ into feelings and not numbing them, of letting the tears come, of trying not to let others minimize my grief when they said, “You should be over this by now.” I got involved in the support group Survivors of Homicide and learned to turn my anger and pain into power and action. It eventually led me to earn a teaching certificate so that I could instruct children in solving their disagreements in nonviolent ways.
I realize now that I did not let my experience during those painful and life-changing months break me. Instead, I allowed the experience to break me open, as described by grief experts Khris Ford and Janie Cook in their grief support program Through Loss to Life.
In a guidebook accompanying their program, Ford and Cook write: “In most cases, we are given no choice with regard to a significant loss. Loss happens and we grieve. But we do have a choice about what we do in these situations and how we respond to the heartbreak of the death of a loved one…The person who is ‘broken open’ does not hold on to the broken pieces of their life out of fear. The one who is ‘broken open’ leans into the mystery of the experience, allowing the uncomfortable place of not knowing and not understanding. The ‘broken open’ person has a gaping wound with room for the fullness of the grief experience. That is, in the depth of the pain there is something more, and often it is joy…right alongside the pain and the sadness.”
November is the month the Church sets aside for remembering those we have lost. We celebrate all our saints in Heaven on November 1, and on November 2, all the souls of the faithful departed. We believe in the resurrection of the dead and that as Jesus promised His disciples, “I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you.” Jesus wants us to know the joy of life. He wants to give us all the courage we need to be ‘broken open’ and use the difficult losses of our lives to become more compassionate, merciful, and giving of ourselves to others.
Consider these few resources to support you on your grief journey: whatsyourgrief.com has several articles, courses and webinars on topics related to grief, grief support and coping. They are offering a free online self-paced course by grief professionals on grieving a death during the coronavirus pandemic. The book Send my Roots Rain: A Companion on the Grief Journey by Kim Langley is a collection of 60 poems followed by brief mediations, quotations, and questions for journaling. The Diocese of Norwich has a Memory Page on its website for the names of loved ones who have died. You can email a loved one’s name, birth and death date to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I still dread Octobers. That month will never have the same fondness for me. But, when the calendar turns to November, I take comfort in the support and gifts of my faith, and my Church in helping me to become ‘broken open’ rather than broken by the scars of a past October.
By Mary-Jo McLaughlin