Memories of the dearly departed promote healing

Posted: Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Mary Cook Hospice & Home Care of Juneau

Our spring bereavement group at Hospice and Home Care of Juneau met for the last time on April 5th. As always, saying good-bye was bittersweet. Our time together had been an amazing journey, and it was strange to think we wouldn't be seeing each other regularly anymore. We had shared so much. Sometimes I find it challenging to bear witness to the deep, deep sorrow of those who are actively grieving, as it brings up my own sad memories. But I have never walked away from a group or a counseling session feeling like I've given more than I've received. Above all else, I feel blessed.

We always hope that participants will leave our groups feeling a little lighter, a little more informed about the nature of the grieving process. Each session is designed with those intentions in mind, and we always allow time for stories and personal sharing. We ask people to bring photos of their loved ones, and mementos that symbolize them or their relationships with them. It is with the photos and mementos that the transformations take place. A woman who lost her husband tenderly passes around a simple, candid snapshot and tells us a story. But this time it is not a story about death; it is a story about life. For one brief and shining moment that woman's face is alive with the memory of the love that defined their life together. It is a moment so beautiful it takes my breath away.

When we feel swallowed by our loss, we sometimes have trouble finding the joy in our memories. We get stuck on the details of a lengthy, painful illness, or feel only the ache of yearning when we think of the once-happy past. Yet, the stories are what make our lost loved ones immortal. It is the stories that can lead us back to ourselves as we stumble along the path of healing.

The night my partner, Jon, died I sat in our living room with a group of friends, laughing and crying as we told story after story. I was grateful Jon had been such a colorful character, because the stories seemed endless. I was amazed I could laugh so hard at a time when I was utterly saturated with pain. That laughter felt like a lifeline, to my friends and to the world. I held on tight.

Even as a group facilitator, I look forward to sharing one of my favorite photos of Jon, taken on his boat on one of those spectacular sunny days in July. Five-and-a-half years after his death, that picture never fails to make me smile, but I still remember a time when I had to put it away because seeing it hurt too much. Now I appreciate how each person takes the time to really study his photo, how they look at him, then at me, making the connection. While they pass the picture, I tell them this story: One spring day, Jon decided he'd grade our road in preparation for taking his boat to the harbor. We were thick into mud season and he needed as smooth a surface as possible for the boat trailer to travel on. He hitched an ancient metal bedspring to the back of his truck and started up the road. It wasn't long, though, before he was back. "Babe!" he shouted. "The springs aren't heavy enough, I need about another hundred pounds to make it work." Can you see where this is going? "I want you to get on top of the springs to weigh them down." Needless to say, I didn't find this plan inspiring. Foolishly, I asked him, "Isn't there anything else you can use that weighs a hundred pounds?"

"Nothing that's gonna walk on top of those springs themselves." So, I donned rain gear and sat on the rusty old springs. Jon issued his final instructions, "The only problem here is that the tow rope could break and put your eye out. You need to kind of avert your face, so that won't happen. Okay? Hold on!" And off we went.

I know what I look like when I'm telling this story - the pleasure I feel in reliving this memory is reflected in the faces around me. No one ever asks why I got on the springs (although I have noticed people scrutinizing his photo a little more closely). Everyone simply drinks in the joy of the moment; it is a lifeline, and we're all holding on.

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

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