Whenever we open a support group meeting, we share in a tradition that is almost a ritual. We ask the group if someone would like to volunteer to light the candle on a table , the center of the circle. We explain that the light from the candle represents the memory of each departed loved one and that it shines for all of them. We are always confident that someone will come forward.
One of us will introduce first-time visitors, saying that we all are sorry they have to be here, but we are glad they found us. We then introduce the other facilitators and go on to explain how the individual groups will break out and where they will meet. We explain what we call “ground rules” for the sharing sessions that follow. We stress that the most important rule is that no one is required to say anything unless they want to. If they choose not to speak, their silence will be respected. This is reassuring to many because no one really knows how they will react at first, and, even after attending many times, some might still find themselves not ready to share.
So, listening is important too. Mourners hear what others have felt or done, and they compare other stories with their own. If, as often happens, someone else made an opposite choice, they may speak up, explaining that they had a reverse experience. Then one of us will affirm the differences, explaining that grief is wide enough so that both options are valid and normal responses to grief. Often then, others join in to share their points of view, and a sense of safety and calm comes over the room.
Not long ago we witnessed a good example of such an affirmation. A father brought a photograph of a project he had put together in his yard as a memorial to his son. He explained how he had trouble making the design work and that no matter how hard he had tried, he could not make the circle as round as he thought it should be. Frustrated, he put his tools away and went on with other things. During the night, he woke and understood that he was to make the design in the shape of a heart. The next morning it went together perfectly on the first try. When this man told his story, smiles broke out around our circle, and his triumph became a comfort for us, too. Soon others shared what they had done as memorials to their loved ones. While support groups are instructed to keep confidential what is said at meetings, we are able to share this story because the father gave his permission. He sees it as one more way to keep his son’s memory alive. So do we. His son seemed to come alive for us as his father told the story, giving each of us a
moment of joy.
When we are faced with the death of a loved one, we enter into a new time that we usually mark as “before” and “after” the death. These authors have lived over twenty-five years with the understanding that there was life before and life after their daughter, Marlys. Our time now is full of memories, and we consciously seek more of those recollections.
Recently, Jack attended a funeral for a woman who had been very active all her life, but who died less than a year after a terminal illness had been diagnosed. The minister who was giving the meditation had offered Jack words of comfort from time to time, so Jack wanted to see how the minister would deal with this tragic death. In our opinion, a good clergyperson should relate to the family and speak directly to them during the meditation.
Almost at the beginning of his remarks, the minister said, “Death is the end of life; death is not the end of love.” While many of those in the congregation who had not been as closely bonded with the deceased smiled and nodded their heads in agreement, the husband just sat stone still. Most who attended the funeral felt comfort in being reminded that love had not ended, but her husband and others who were very close to her still needed time to just accept that death is the end of life. The lesson that love lives on after death is one that takes time-perhaps years-to appreciate and fully understand. No longer will this gifted woman be able to do the many good things for others that she had done during her life. No more will she sit with her husband at breakfast to plan a day of projects or reflect each evening on the events of the day. Now, her loved ones who miss her so much need time to mourn her and adjust to their new lives.
The process of surviving bereavement and then reaching a time when we can accept the loss is called mourning. Over some period of time, as we mourn, the choices we make will shape how we emerge from this most devastating loss. If we do our grief work appropriately, someday we will be able to remember the love much more than the death. Eventually the pain we feel will be softened by a calm acceptance that our memories do mean so very much to us and they always will.
In early grief, many fear they will forget specific memories of their loved ones. It isn’t a rational fear, but it needs to be faced. They may worry that the special smile, the loving words, the physical presence will fade somehow, and all they will remember is a name. Fortunately, that is not true at all.
Those we love and miss remain in our hearts and minds and souls as long as we live. Fran, whose
father died when she was only nine years old, still remembers him helping her with piano lessons, and both Fran and Jack remember Marlys as vividly as ever.
As new mourners begin their lifelong journey, it is important for them to know that the memories can stay with them forever. Death is not the end of love.