Grief in Community

"The door is locked! Why won't they unlock the door and let me in?" Peter was dying of prostate cancer, but the "door" was closed to him.

Fortunately, the hospice social worker understood the symbolic language of the dying. She gathered the family and friends who were immediately present and simply noted: "Peter is very near death, but there is something holding him here, and it sounds to me like someone has not given Peter permission to die. That needs to happen so Peter can let go to travel on to meet his God."

The youngest son emerged from the group discussion, went into the bedroom, and gave his father permission to die. Within a few hours, Peter went through the door!

Murray Trelease has noted in his work with natives of Alaska that "community is the key to the liberation of the dying" (found in On Life After Death, by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross). That was certainly true for Peter. It is true for so many who have the opportunity to make a gradual exit from this life. But I believe it is equally true for those who are left on the sidelines-the bereaved. At least it was and is true for me.

As my wife, Dawn, was going through the difficult process of decline in health, diagnosis of cancer, the many futile treatments, and the wait for her own door to open, it was the community that provided the key to liberation for both of us. We had been meeting with our Christian Life Community, Siloam, every two weeks for six years. While their very existence was an important support to us, their agenda came to include the specific question of "how are you doing with it all?" The "it" could include anything from one of the many pending surgeries or treatments, the decision to do no more, the funeral plans....

Many were the nights when I would go from the hospital to meet with the community. They listened as I shared with them: how I had crashed earlier one day realizing I needed to tell Dawn she need not hang on for me; how we had purchased a cemetery plot; what it was like to watch the woman I loved writhe in pain while undergoing the administration of chemotherapy; that I was becoming exhausted with the drain of not knowing if I was doing the right thing as caregiver; that I needed the help I thought hospice could provide.

To the community the critical concern was that they might reside at least temporarily in the pain of one of its members. They just listened. Never once did anyone attempt to "solve" my "problem" or attempt to apply "salve" to a wounded heart. No one ever "knew" what to say, and that was OK. They were there, and that was more than enough!

AFTER DAWN DIED, the community support continued. They often mention her name, recall things she said and did, and muse over what she would say today. I need to hear that. As the bereaved, I need more than anything else to know that the person who meant so much to me is remembered and valued by others (even by those who didn't know her). A few months after her death, on a community retreat and at their request, I shared with them an album I had put together devoted to Dawn's life. Nine months later on another weekend community retreat, we focused on what we had learned from Dawn's death.

What I value most about the community's supportive presence is that they have listened and listened well. They have also avoided the old and tired clichés. No one has told me, "I know how you feel." While they have all experienced loss, they each know they do not know what it is like to lose my wife, mother of our children, Ron's best friend. No one in the community has ever told me that Dawn "has not died, she is just at rest." This community, unlike other well-meaning folks, has accepted our loss and my loss. Never once did they attempt to avoid the issue by talking trivia. We have talked openly and consistently about the death of a woman who was so important to the life of the community.

Finally, to the extent that I have been able to adjust so well through my own grieving process, it is because I have not been alone in the loss. My loss, although different, has also been the sojourning community's loss. The community has grieved along with me. Together, we have accepted the fact that our task is to go through the door of grief rather than around it.

RON GREEN is Kelly Green's dad. He is chaplain for Community Hospice of Iowa and Immanuel Medical Center in Omaha, Nebraska. With his late wife, he worked for the Catholic Dioceses of Cheyenne, Wyoming, and Omaha in adult spirituality.


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