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Question
The July 4th holiday was always a big extravaganza for my family on Lake Erie where my parents had a cottage. All my life, the ever-growing family of aunts, uncles, cousins, and friends gathered as Dad put on a fireworks spectacular, including shooting a wooden missile into the lake with his small refurbished antique cannon! Then we swim­mers would race to retrieve it. He was an exceptional person, and I treasured time with him. As his only daughter I am still shocked by our loss and stuck in my grief as the second July 4th since his death is coming soon. Will I ever get beyond my sorrow?

Answer
My sympathy as you continue, understandably, to actively grieve the death of your father. The July 4th holiday is definitely a trigger event for grief as it evokes mem­ories of family get-togethers. In fact, all holidays are like trip wires across the path of our journey in grief. So, I am glad that you brought up this topic since others, too, might notice the trip wires ahead of time to hopefully avoid a major stumble.

You mention shock, stuck, and sorrow. These are three big “S” words that describe the experience of many grievers. Whether we have lost a parent, a spouse, a child, a friend, or another relationship, it is shocking, even if the loved one was a hospice patient, and our mind knew they would die. It is our heart, our emotions that react with shock. Even though you have lived with this loss for over a year, the enduring reality of it can still startle when you think of it each day. A friend told me how shocked he was at how often he thought to pick up the phone to call his mother even long after her death.

In my view, the sorrow of grief has no precise end point or conclu­sion. It is more a matter of intensity or intrusion. Many grievers find that the sorrow of a loss accompanies them from time to time even as they move forward in life. Sorrow ebbs and flows, while life finds a way to move forward.

For most grievers, the overwhelming longing that characterizes early grief diminishes in frequency and intensity as ordinary life proceeds. Recollections of details and circumstances of the death dominate less, while moments of pleasure and times of productivity increase. Grievers move from feeling lost to discovering they “feel like themselves” again, at least now and then. If you take stock and conclude you are not able to function in ordinary life tasks or find connection to other loving relationships, it is time to find a counselor with expertise in grief and recovery. Your hospice can help with that.

The American Psychiatric Association recently noted that many grievers, isolated due to C0VID-19, may suffer from Prolonged Grief Disorder whether a death is due to COVID-19 or natural causes. Indeed, many individuals and families are coping with both types of death and grief concurrently. A bereavement or counseling profes­sional will help you determine if you are stuck in grief in a prolonged unhealthy way or whether you are expectably revisiting the emotions and thoughts that accompany such a life-altering loss like the death of a parent. It will be helpful to know, especially as you anticipate a holiday with such a special tradition in your family.

This reminds me of an exchange in Season 3 (Episode #5) of the BBC drama series “Call the Midwife.” Mrs. Rubin, an older woman who survived the Nazi concentration camps along with her daugh­ter but lost the rest of her family, tells a younger woman who just suffered a traumatic death of her partner, “You will feel better than this, maybe not yet, but you will. You just keep living until you are alive again.”

The character of Mrs. Rubin speaks with an age-old wisdom that offers both solace and encouragement. Loss is inevitable in life, but so is the striving for new life and hope.

 

– The Rev. Paul A. Metzler, DMin, an Episcopal priest and psychotherapist, is semi-retired following over 40 years of service as a clergy member, therapist, and hospice-based grief counselor. An excerpt from the July 2022 issue of Journeys Bereavement Newsletter.

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