Practicing the art of patience

Posted: Friday, January 28, 2005

Hospice and Home CareBy Mary Cook

Nine months after my partner's unexpected death, I found myself at the end of my emotional rope. I still woke up with tears in my eyes more often than not, a truly disheartening way to start the day. I had tried sitting with my grief, honoring my grief, embracing my grief - I was sick of my grief. Clearly, it was time to take action.

I decided I would try to find a bereavement facilitator training session to attend somewhere down south. It seemed like the perfect trajectory: combine my personal loss with formal instruction in grief counseling and get a longed for change of scenery at the same time. I searched the Web for days and found lots of potential sessions, but timing, plane tickets or accommodations failed to fall into place.

It was time for Plan B. I would fly to San Francisco, my home away from home, and be trained as a hospice volunteer. I'd be good at that, plus I had lots of friends there! Unfortunately, none of the hospice volunteer programs accepted people who had experienced a significant loss during the past 12 months.

Why was this so hard? I shared my frustration with my friend, Jozee.

"Maybe nothing is working out, because it's not the right time for you to do those things," she gently suggested. Her words rang true, though it broke my heart to admit it. As much as I wanted to move on, I still had many miles ahead of me on my journey through grief.

And so it is for most of us who have experienced a significant loss. We want to feel better, to breathe without pain, to wake without tears. We are only human. It often feels counterproductive to sink down into our pain, to sit with our sadness for as long as it takes. Wouldn't it be better if we kept ourselves distracted?

It is important to remember that there is a big difference between fully feeling our feelings and being "stuck" in our grief, between engaging in self-healing activities and just staying busy. I spent a good year hugging my worn, gold sofa, but that didn't mean I wasn't also taking short walks, spending time with understanding friends, or writing in my journal. What it did mean was that I did not pretend to be OK when I wasn't, and that I respected my limited amount of energy. It helped to have people in my life who reinforced my belief that I was working harder than I'd ever worked in my life. Still, after nine months, enough was enough.

"Everyone keeps telling me that beautiful things are born out of pain and catastrophe, but I feel like I'm just stumbling around trying to pretend that what I'm feeling is something other than this endless sadness!" I wailed to my friend, Karen. "Maybe I need to move to a city, maybe Gustavus isn't where I'm meant to be anymore."

Karen said, "Mary, you keep telling me that you're looking for meaning. Well, if you want to find a burning bush you don't head to the Shop-N-Save!"

Her words stopped me in my tracks. If I wanted to do more than just spin my wheels, I needed to continue to trust the still, quiet place.

Soon after this conversation, a friend called to tell me about a spiritual retreat that would be taking place at the Shrine of St. Therese in a week. Would I be interested in going? Not surprisingly, everything I needed to do in order to attend fell easily into place.

The retreat was exactly what I needed - a change of scenery, but one that involved meditation, chanting and spiritual communion. When I shared with the group my desire to move on, the facilitator offered that instead of asking for help in moving forward, maybe I should ask for help in finding acceptance. Then he talked about my need for patience. Hadn't I heard that somewhere before? It was becoming obvious that I would need to hear it again and again. ...

On our last day together, I asked the group if I could place the box with Jon's ashes into the center of our circle. The power of that small, blue box was palpable, reminding each of us of how precious life is and how quickly it passes.

Being patient is never easy when you've lost someone you love, but it may be the only way to recover what has been left behind - your precious self.

• Mary Cook is a volunteer with Hospice and Home Care of Juneau, a program of Catholic Community Service. CCS serves all persons regardless of their faith.

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