The Healing Season: Grief Is A One-Way Road And There’s No Turning Back

Tragedy strikes us all now and then, once in a lifetime, maybe a few times. When it does, we are sent reeling for quite a while, longer than seems reasonable, longer than we ourselves admit. The landscape itself seems slightly off, unfamiliar. The daily road is rocky. Even the beauty of sun and friends leaves us unwarmed. Ultimately, the reeling slows; life resumes some familiar terrain.

In late March, my grandchildren lost their beautiful 45-year-old mother unexpectedly, within a few hours, due to pulmonary hypertension. One minute she was alive and thriving; the next she awoke in the night, noting “something is terribly wrong.” Within six hours, she lay dead in the local ER. Jean was an RN, she knew health matters, she understood her condition diagnosed several years before. We all knew it was serious, but she didn’t complain much and she looked healthy. No matter. She died, and in one day the lives of my grandchildren, of all five of Jean’s children, changed forever. Several weeks later, Jean’s mother died too. She had been fighting cancer for two years. The children lost mother and grandmother just like that.

The three older children from Jean’s previous marriage – Kyle, Lexi and Amanda – moved into their biological father’s home nearby. The smallest ones – Cassidy, 2, and little Brennan, 5 – lost not only their mother but also the daily proximity of their beloved siblings as well. My son Brennan – 45, tall and strong – lost his wife. His life was upside down. Everyone was knocked askew.

Family and friends arrived from around the country within 48 hours of the great loss. Even strangers stepped in to help the first week and weeks thereafter as well. I returned to Jamestown exhausted and heartbroken. In June, my mother passed too. It was a season of loss all around.

I can recall going to teach classes at JCC in June and July with deliberation and grit alone to lean on for a while. Sometimes you just keep going, putting a foot in front of the other, day after day until the ground stops quaking. My son did the same. Busy with the details of death and loss for months, he just kept moving forward. He took a long time off from work. He spent every moment with the children. In early summer, he returned to his job and kept going at it week after week. It was robotic. But after a while, you come back to yourself again. If you asked him how he was doing, he would say, all right. I’m all right, Mom. I’m moving forward.

When we all gathered in July for my mother’s memorial service, Brennan looked gaunt. New lines had shown up on his handsome face. He didn’t smile much. When he pulled into the driveway and slid open the van door, little Cassidy appeared in her kid’s seat. Her arms were wide open. Her face was full of light and love. GRAMMY! She called out. Little B, an introvert at heart and always more reserved, poked his head out from the rear seat. Hi Granny, he whispered with a smile. My older son, Aryl and his wife, Pati arrived soon after. It was a homecoming of joy.

We spent a few days loving each other, caring for one another. Loved ones from a lifetime past showed up at the memorial service to support the family. Lunch at the Casino was a feast of family and friend support. The entire weekend was a feast of love and healing as well as saying goodbye to my mother and also to the grief of the previous deaths.

On Saturday night, my sons went up to Bemus for a drink and brotherly talk. Pati and I stayed with the children. At some point, little B woke up and shook me awake, gently. I said, what is it, little B? In the same tone, and all in one breath, he said simply: “Granny, I miss my mother. And I have a sore throat.” With that I set him up with pillow and comforter at my feet on the sofa, and we watched TV until he fell sound asleep. The grief was still there, right under the surface.

The next morning, we sat on the back deck and basked in each other’s company. The children played and ran with the dogs. We swam at Long Point later that day. We drove the back roads of Chautauqua County and talked and talked until we were talked out. We hugged each other goodbye with such tenderness it has lasted this long.

Now in autumn, Big Brennan confides he is sleeping through the night again after all these long months; the kids are sleeping through the night again. The house felt more like home too, he said – warmer, free of shadows. I’m writing this because really this is everybody’s story, not just my story. It is a long journey from grief to healing. Loss and grief are earthquakes. The ground rumbles. Nothing feels safe. Then, slowly, the ground is solid again. The sun comes out. The leaves start to change.

The little ones are in school. Cassidy, who has turned three, is in a day care program and taking gymnastics too. Little B has started first grade and is playing soccer and taking judo. The children are smiling again. Cassidy no longer awakens in the night, weeping like a lost child for her mother. So now it is late September, well along the healing road. We are moving forward. On most days, life is sweet again. The taste of grief is past. The stone on the heart is gone. It’s a season of healing. And that is how the story goes.