The grieving process

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By Bob Mueller

 Years ago when I served in parish ministry I used to visit all of my parishioners’ homes.  It was a great way to get to know people, do a parish census and find out what the real needs were.

I remember a lady named Nola whose daughter answered the door. The daughter asked me to visit her mom, who was in the kitchen. Nola was an older woman whose husband had died unexpectedly two years before. Withdrawn and distant, she had not cried or spoken of his death to anyone in all that time. She no longer cooked or looked after her garden or her house. Most of the time she sat in her bathrobe, looking at the window at nothing at all.

Nola had been given antidepressants by her doctor but they had not made much difference, and after a while she had simply stopped taking them. “They won’t bring him back,” she told me. 

Her daughter told me, “I lost both my parents the day my father died.”

At first Nola and I just sat and looked at each other in silence. She was a lovely woman in her early 70s, but she seemed as lifeless as the chair she sat on, as if she were only the wrapper that had once enclosed a life. She seemed so fragile that I wondered if she would have strength to even talk to me.

She finally said, “My daughter would like me to talk about it, but I do not think that I care to.” When I gently asked her to say more about this she said simply, “Talking seems a waste of time. No one could possibly understand.”

I nodded in agreement. “Yes, of course,” I said.  “You have lost your life. Only your husband could understand what you have lost. Only he knew what your life together was like.” Her eyes were gray, like her hair. There was no light in them. I nodded again.  “If he were here, Nola, what would you tell him?” I asked her.

She considered it for a long moment. Then she closed her eyes and began to speak to her husband aloud, telling him what life was like without him. She told him about needing to learn to do the little things he had always taken care of, things she had never known about. She reminded him of times that only he would remember, old memories that no one else had shared. And then for the first time since he died, she began to cry. She cried for a long time. 

“He was a teacher of love for me,” she told me. She told me story after story of his generosity, his kindness, as her eyes were looking beyond me to the past.  

I was deeply touched by her husband and by the woman he had loved. “Nola,” I asked her, “if he were here, what would he say to you about the way you have lived the last two years of your life since he’s been gone?” She looked startled. “Why, he would say ‘Nola, why have you built a monument of pain in memory of me? My whole life was about love.’’’ She paused. Then for the first time I saw a hint of a smile. “Perhaps there are other ways to remember him,” she said.

Afterwards she told me that she had felt that if she let go of her pain, she would betray her husband’s memory and diminish the value of his life. She now saw that she had indeed betrayed him by holding on to her pain and closing her heart.  

Every great loss demands that we choose life again. We need to grieve in order to do this.  The pain we have not grieved over will always stand between us and life. When we don’t grieve, a part of us becomes caught in the past.

Grieving is not about forgetting. Grieving allows us to heal, to remember with love rather than pain. It is a sorting process. One by one you let go of the things that are gone and you mourn for them. One by one you take hold of the things that have become a part of who you are and build again.

Many of us repress our losses and carry our own pain un-grieved, often for years. We have become numb, not because we don’t care, but because we don’t grieve. Grief is the way that loss heals.




Bob Mueller is the Vice President of Development for Hosparus and a guest columnist for The Oldham Era. For more, visit bobmueller.org.