The Christian church traditionally celebrates All Saints’ Day on November 1st. The day is set aside for remembering and honoring loved ones who have passed in the previous year. Some cultures, such as Mexico, go further and make the celebration festive as Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, offers a celebration of life and death. As we head into the holiday season, I acknowledge that this year has been quite a year of loss for many of us. Our guest blogger, Heather Campbell, brings a realistic and hopeful perspective to those who are grieving this year. Please welcome her voice to my blog.
-Dr. Andy Brown
A Life Loved, A Grief Lived
The time and space between the living presence of a loved one in the “here” and the finality of the death in the “now” is an imperceptible breath or lack of, and forthwith, one is alone. Grief is considered a normal process and a natural reaction in response to a loss. It is also multi-dimensional impacting one’s emotional, physical, cognitive, behavioural, social, cultural, and spiritual well-being. Kenneth Doka, a renowned grief expert, encourages exploration of the journey of grief and its impact on oneself and one’s loved ones noting, “while the experience of loss is universal, the reactions to that loss are as distinct and individual as you are” (Harris, 2017).
My story is a coming together of my work as a palliative care nurse coordinating palliative care services in my small rural community and my own grief and bereavement journey following my husband, Mark’s journey of an unexpected terminal diagnosis, brief palliation, and dignified death in 2019. Most definitely, loneliness and aloneness are two very different states. I have progressed from the harshness of the emotions of lonely and missing to the desiring, requiring, and enjoying of aloneness. I would say my first encounter with the sense of aloneness settled upon me when I returned to our home from our family cottage where Mark’s death had occurred. I was one month bereaved. At the cottage, I had been sheltered from loneliness with the presence of our two adult children and their spouses along with our then, four grandchildren.
Once I was at home, the memories of the simplest of rituals of the life Mark and I had shared together swept over me like a crashing wave. Where was my barista? Where was my breakfast? Who was going to decorate my toothbrush with toothpaste? While these tangible rituals were so simplistic, it was through their absence that I began to realize I had to adapt my life to self-reliance and problem solving. I responded with the purchase of a Nespresso machine, a decision to routinely skip breakfast and give intermittent fasting a try, and out of necessity I gave into putting toothpaste on my own toothbrush. These small steps were the beginning of my embracing of aloneness.
I am grateful for our shared faith-walk and the deep richness of the marriage relationship Mark and I shared together. I am also grateful for the joyous relationships shared with our adult children, their spouses, and our now, five grandchildren. It is the experience of these primary relationships sustained by other significant relationships with my sister, brother-in-law, and their family, my mother and some treasured family and friend relationships that I can in hindsight appreciate as to their significance in allowing me to embrace aloneness. It is paradoxical that my relationships with others provided the foundation for me to explore the intrinsic resources within myself. It is out of the security and presence of these stable relationships that I was able to courageously move forward in my aloneness. Essential to and underlying all of these situations and relationships has been my Christian faith, which has served to sustain and guide me in this place of aloneness. I experience this place of aloneness as a stable state; it is not the emotion-filled place of loneliness characterized by alienation and desolation.
As I reflect on the early days of my grief walk, so many thoughts and experiences presented themselves in a way that served to make me take full notice of their presence in my life. I have encountered other significant losses in my life with the expected death of my baby brother, Billy when I was ten years old; the expected death of my Dad when I was forty eight years old, and the accidental death of my brother, Sandy through a boating tragedy when I was fifty-five years old. All three losses were life-changing for me. Through those experiences of loss, I learned about, and seemingly survived, the grief and bereavement journey I found myself on. It was however, the death of Mark, my husband of thirty-eight years that toppled my world as I knew it. While my sharing may be too intense for some, I share what follows with the intention of offering some of my experiences which may serve as recognition and validation for those who are finding themselves bearing grief and enduring the state of being bereaved.
When I returned “home” from the cottage I was heartbroken with the realization that the home Mark and I had shared together had moved from being “our” home to “my” home and there was something so sorrowful for me about this change in possessive adjectives. It was during this time that my physical body seemed to betray me with an overall physical pain and acute back pain. I sought out a new mattress, slept more than I could ever imagine one sleeping, and was frustrated with not feeling “well” and “like myself”. It was during this time that I began to re-establish practices to tend to my own spiritual self-care in order to promote self-growth and well-being (White et al., 2011).
Out of all the self-care practices I have embraced and incorporated as part of my own self-care regimen, it is my commitment to a morning quiet time which has been the most profound piece of self-care for me. Praying, reading the Bible, alongside a devotional book, and practicing with an intentional presence through mindfulness, has nourished me and serves to sustain me throughout my day. While I have been in quest of habiting this practice throughout my adult life, I now earnestly yearn for this time set aside in the early morning, realizing the uplifting effect on my heart, mind, and soul as a gift carrying me through my day. Giles (2012) observed that spiritual beliefs were a sound resource for enhancing self-care and preventing burnout in one’s life facilitated through the integration of a blend of prayer, spiritual purpose, spiritual meaning, mindfulness, meditation, nature, music, and participation in a faith community. During this time, I joined the network of “she works His way” which is a Christian discipleship community of, and for, working women who love Jesus (Myers & Phoebus, 2021). This online community has provided me with loving care and encouragement in refining my purpose, acknowledging God’s calling on my life, and guidance to make the most of each day of my life by doing what matters and has served to rekindle and flame my personal resiliency. The she works His way network has helped me through its supportive nature. It has also helped me to remain accountable to my faith and my newfound personal and professional goals as part of my own bereavement journey.
While my professional bookshelf had plenty of books to pick from on the topic of grief and bereavement, nothing seemed to suit my needs or answer my questions. As a result, my home became a regular stop for Amazon as they visited often, dropping off countless books related to grief and bereavement. I soon found myself wanting to apologize to all the patient families I had been alongside offering support through their own personal grief and bereavement. The stark reality was this: I hadn’t a clue at the time what they were facing for those trying to reconcile with the death of their spouse. As I reflected I could only hope and pray that I had not added to their distress through their bereavement. What I was most troubled by was my lack of energy and zeal to press on with motivation toward my “next thing”; this new adventure with bereavement was not of my own choosing. My thoughts and feelings offered a simplistic solution for me: a longing to join Mark, to be heaven-side with him. While I was able to elucidate the pain that would be created for my children and grandchildren if I, too, was heaven-side, there was something peace-giving in those thoughts. I was feeling broken; these thoughts became frightening and confusing for me as I tried to self-assess as to whether my thoughts were suicidal or not. Even without any ideations, I was too overwhelmed and ashamed to possibly consider airing these concerns with another human being. My relief came through a small book, Letter to a Grieving Heart (Sprague, 2018). On page 14, in print, were words that eased my heart and soul and removed my shame: “I even wanted to die and go to heaven, mostly to stop the pain, which I thought would never cease.” These twenty words normalized and validated all of what I had been feeling and for this, I was truly grateful and so relieved.
Another dimension of bereavement experienced was the intense longing and craving for the intimacy Mark and I had known and shared. While little is written about this, I found what is available is not particularly helpful, tending to summarize this physiological and emotional response as being a route to mask the pain of loss through sexual gratification. I received this explanation as harshly flippant. Though I sought and would have appreciated “an answer” that would have helped to validate what I was experiencing, I processed the actuality of my feelings and responses as a normal place to find oneself. These are the cherished pieces one would normally share with our life-mate and so the pain of loss is intensified with these intimate yet taboo topics that most would find “undiscussable” and for that reason alone I have chosen to include this real and unspoken quandary here. Grieving one’s spouse is definitely not the time to brush up on the Songs of Solomon!
One’s world changes and therefore how we exist in it with the loss of our loved one also changes, as do we, the bereaved survivor. Our relationships with our family, friends, and colleagues change also; some become richer, some become new, and some become lost to what they once were as everyone grapples with the art of presence with the grieving person. I expect the journey with grief over the loss of Mark in my earthly life to last throughout my lifetime. Being two and a half years out in time from his physical death, I am reassured in my everyday life which holds love, hope, joy, and gratitude for those who love on me here in the present. While I fully appreciate the phrase “homesick for heaven” and anticipate my own heavenly journey and our heavenly reunion, God is not finished with me yet. Nor is He finished with you! It is my hope and prayer that you will know hope, feel its warmth, and see its glimmer as you venture forward, toward your own embracing of aloneness.
Giles, J. (2012). The role of spirituality in therapist self-care: An exploration of students beliefs and practices. North Dakota State University of Agriculture and Applied Science.
Harris, H. (2017). Grief is a journey: Finding your path through loss. Omega: Journal of Death & Dying. 75(2), 207-213. https://doi.org/10.1177/0030222816673489
Myers, M. & Phoebus, S. (2021). She works His way. Bethany House.
Sprague, B. (2018). Letter to a grieving heart. Harvest House Publishers.
White, M. L., et al. (2011). Spirituality and spiritual self-care: Expanding self-care deficit nursing theory. Nursing Science Quarterly, 24(1), 48-56. https://doi.org/10.1177/0894318410389059
About the author:
Heather Campbell is a seasoned palliative care nurse who makes her home on the north shore of Lake Ontario in Prince Edward County, Ontario. She is currently enrolled in the Master of Arts in Counselling Psychology at Yorkville University. She hopes to continue to use her faith, education, and life experiences to help others through grief and bereavement.