Upbeat on Grief?

I do not fear my own eventual death, instead I fear not living and loving today while I have this precious gift of another day. I fear that those who will grieve my eventual and inevitable death will become lost in that grief, and so by these writings I want more people to better understand grief in their lives.

In the darkest months after the death of our son I came to this statement in my private journal started after my brother’s suicide five years before: “If I can figure out how to heal and live with this loss, how to return to loving my life and loving those around me, then the rest of my life will seem much simpler and easier for having well healed this grief.”

When I tell someone that I write about grief, a common reaction is that it must be depressing. The subtle undertone is that I might be depressed. There is challenge writing this openly about my experiences and ideas about grief because this opening of my soul is as vulnerable as a human gets by their own actions. There is also challenge knowing that everyone reading this is somehow broken and seeking answers.

Quite the opposite of depressing, grief can be a great comfort, an affirmation of our own wholeness and personal worth. Learning to consciously grieve towards healing has become a great strength in my life with benefits extending far beyond the death of loved ones. I have visited that thought many times, and eventually stopped seeing grief as an affliction or an imposition, but rather see grief as an evolved opportunity to explore and understand more about what I love and the mechanics of how I love. Through several significant losses, this shift in perspective made grief a friend rather than an enemy, a teacher rather than a torturer.

Grief is a cleansing process of distillation of our own souls, de-cluttering, purifying and concentrating the important parts, often ridding ourselves of the parts of life that hang heavily on us as we seek purpose and meaning in the efforts and trials of daily life.

We are the lucky ones. We have these days, hopefully years and decades ahead of us to build love in our lives.

Having a positive attitude on grief, considering it as a responsibility for having loved someone rather than an affliction will make grief seem much easier, less damaging and much more productive.

Do not discount the pain and confusion that it took me to get here. If my writing is to have any purpose it must be to walk along side you, to help guide you in your grief and help you find the least damaging path through you grief. If I help you find that path which causes you to no longer fear the next inevitable loss in your life, then you will have become stronger and I will have succeeded.

I owe much of my positive attitude and acceptance skills to my late Aunt Jane, the indefatigable promoter of positive attitude from the 100% Danish half of my blood.  A fiery energetic redhead, dark clouds feared her and stayed away from Aunt Jane’s shining light and positive attitude. She faced every challenge in her life with excitement and resolve, and I visit her memory often to fill my soul with her love.

Fabric of Love

The death of a loved one can quickly become very damaging to even the tightest woven social fabric of a solid family, and destructive to already worn thin social fabrics of less close families and circles of friends.

For visualization, I like the metaphor that a community or family is a social fabric woven from the invisible pathways of love connecting our soul to others that we share love with, a group of people of our own choosing (friends, lovers, career and community) and of our blood (relations). The threads we use to weave these social fabrics gather and concentrate the flows of love’s life energy and make us feel secure and accepted, they bring the light energy of love to our community and our family.

This social fabric is alive with the energy of love from many places, sources of love big and small. We weave it where we have safety and security of communal love and it becomes both strong and very elastic. When a member of our community of love gets pulled down or off center, it is this fabric that helps pull us back to the surface or back to center.

The pathways of our flows of love are filled and plumped up when love flows, stabilizing and locking them into our plush comfortable social fabric. When someone dies, their pathways deflate and disconnect, and the pathways we shared our love with them also deflate because they are no longer connected to a living soul but leaking love from our soul into the torn void of the loss.  

The person dies, and all of the pathways of love’s energy that were connected to that person both into us and out of us are now disconnected at that end. Until we, the survivors, collectively anchor and attach these loose ends of our social fabric, our fabric will easily fray and unravel. The more involved and connected that person was, the more our once solid social fabric is torn and threatened by grief.

In this view of grief, we can explain the fear we feel from grief by the instability that we feel when a small or large group of our supporting threads of love are suddenly no longer connected. We are afraid to fall under, have lost our sense of center, and we feel a lack of foundation and stability that makes us uncomfortable and fearful.

The process of repairing our soul’s fabric is akin to darning a wonderful comfortable old sock that we just can’t let go of. We use threads from our own love, we tie down the loose ends, we weave patches across the holes, and we rebuild the fabric to stabilize it for the rest of our lives, and we wear the sock less but know that it’s always there if we want to wear it again.

The healing process of grief is where we repair all of the loose ends of a connection of love that was valuable to our life. We will seek out the ends of our connections, anchor them as memories, and tie them together. We weave the loose ends and our own love into a repaired fabric that our soul will grow around.

This process of metaphysical healing mimics our body’s healing, and there will always be a scar left behind, the repair will never be perfect. When I say that grief must change us, the scars it will leave behind and our reaction to them is a representation of how well we have healed. Some will remain fragile and tear again and again, some will be more visible and some will be invisible to those around you. The ideal repair allows us to visit comfortably, without pain, without fear of falling, so we may sit at the center of all of those connections and feel the love that we have shared and the love that we still share for that life.

The denial of changes that grief brings will make you resent those scars, but ultimately you will resent and become more diminished if you leave those loose ends to fray further, to leak more of your love, to destroy more of your own love’s fabric. The damage that you don’t repair will slowly spread towards your own center and continue to destabilize your own reservoirs of love.

There are points in the journey of grief where we are precariously walking around the hole left in our love, picking up and anchoring loose ends. At some point, we have walked around the entire damaged part and we then start to build bridges between the loose ends that we have now firmly tied and anchored.

There is great fear in grief that we will forget the loved ones we lose. If we don’t build those bridges across the holes in our soul’s fabric, we will one day fall into them. Sinking back into the sadness and pain, we will struggle every time we seek to visit the central part of the love that we shared so well in life. If we fall and struggle enough, we will stop visiting the love that we shared, we will begin to forget.

While we are tying down the loose ends of our grief, we will naturally connect with the loose ends of other’s grief. Some of these new common connections are important, because once tied together love can flow between our two living souls always flowing through the love that each of us shared separately. Through these connections we continue to learn about the person that we have loved and how their love has enriched other’s lives as well as our own.  

Humans are not solitary animals; we are lovers of community and the sharing of love with those of our choosing. These flows of love become essential to our feelings of well being, of wholeness, of comfort, and are central to the great joy of loving life.

The invisible fabric we weave with shared love is the essential difference between existing and loving living. A death has damaged that fabric, grief warns you of this by fear of greater loss, and grief is the call to action to begin the repair to that fabric comfortably.

Healing is a conscious choice. We must give our soul permission to heal, to become strong and comfortable again. We will repair this hole in our soul using our own love to anchor and connect the loose ends of loss. This is the magic of a soul, in the worst loss; all your soul needs to begin is love and your permission to heal.

Start visualizing the fabric that you had woven with the one you lost. What love flowed to that person from you, what loved flowed from them to you? Then begin seeking the loose disconnected ends of that love. You will connect some of the broken pathways back to your soul, and some to others who also loved this person. You will weave more of your love into this repair and form a beautiful scar that somehow makes you comfortable when you see it or feel it. The comfort comes from understanding how you loved and knowing how your soul heals. Future losses will bring less fear, and you will become expert at weaving repairs to your soul, from big losses, but also from the inevitable small wounds of daily life.

Be well, seek peace and weave or re-weave your social fabric of love each and every day.


What do I say?

When someone you know suffers a loss, many people just don’t know what to say, and this discomfort surrounding grief brings deeper silence and isolation to those grieving. So, here is my not so short guide attempting to help you to speak more effectively to grieving people, mostly by understanding things not to say.

There are two basic rules:

Rule 1: Saying nothing is always the wrong answer and will likely be misinterpreted as a lack of caring and compassion on your part.

Rule 2: Slow down and think. Think about what you say or will say, because saying something is also very risky, a literal minefield full of explosives and quicksand, because grief is very emotional and extremely personal. Unthinking is unfeeling, so think before you speak and speak with considered feeling.

From here on, most of this post will be exclusions, generalities of things to not say. If you respect those boundaries, you have a better experience as you acquire more experience and comfort.

I am blessed with the curse of a near photographic memory. In the public visitations after our son’s death, a big event in life of a small town, a Civic Funeral for a Fallen Firefighter, we saw and spoke to many more than a thousand people.

I don’t really know a thousand friends, so the majority of them were not close friends or family. But, eighteen years later, I probably still remember every comment that, in that painful moment, I found insensitive or painful rather than comforting or considered. I remember the look of dread on some faces as their turn in the line approached us, the time they would feel compelled to intelligibly speak some form of compassionate wisdom, coupled with the horrible realization that they were now too close to just turn around an bolt for the nearest door.

If you won’t want to be here, imagine how I feel. I am trapped, wounded and cornered by convention and circumstance. Approach me carefully but confidently, because I am looking for things to be angry about, I am a bomb of emotions waiting to explode.

Keep your beliefs out of it

In the aftermath of a death, even lifelong rock solid beliefs can easily turn to quicksand, they can become unstable quickly. Before this death, we have probably never had a conversation on what you believe and what I believe.

This is not the time to offer your faith, unless your faith is certain to be their faith. I admire and accept all compassionate faiths, I understand that faith is a good thing for many, but faith, organized or disorganized (I am mostly agnostic, but believe in some major things common in most religion) is the most personal choice of any life. But this gathering is not the time or place for either faith or politics unless you are close enough to them to know for certain.

Platitudes hurt more than silence

Leave the greeting card phrases and platitudes at home. “He’s in a better place” is, for me, the killer unthinking platitude when someone has died. It’s a greeting card based in belief that there is some place we go after death, and that place is better than here.

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is an insensitive thing to say to someone currently feeling like they are being slowly killed by grief. We’re drowning, choking on life here, gasping for breath and you want us to see the bright side, which is that we’re getting stronger?

This is our experience; make this time about us, not you.

“Just give it time”. Please don’t tell me that you understand our grief because your 93 year old Aunt Edna died six months ago and now you are healed just fine. Also, I fully respect the very real challenges of grieving a beloved pet, but bringing that to our grief for a related human is just not helpful. There are orders of magnitude between them.

“Call me if you need anything”

 We heard this hundreds of times; we never called anyone for help. Because of good people around us, help just showed up, sometimes in the most wonderful ways.

We are broken, we are vulnerable, and we are very unlikely to call someone for help. Part of that is that we avoid sucking people unwillingly into our downward vortex, our days have been ruined and we avoid dragging innocent people into our tragedy. Yes, that’s perhaps stubborn and insensitive of us, but it’s how we responded to a loss of a loved one.

Asking me to call is passive support: it puts the onus on me to request your help. If you really want to help, check back later I will be doing another post on ways to actually help.

“How are you doing?”

If that’s not obvious, you really have little business here talking to me. It’s probably much better to visualize me without an arm, the wound still bleeding profusely, and then speak about what you don’t see. Avoid the obvious, the wound and blood; we’re here to dig much deeper and to talk about the missing arm. Stick with me; I’ll talk more on that later in the post.

How and what to say

I could go on for days with examples about what not to say, so let’s pivot first to how to speak with those wounded by grief, and then give you some practical pointers on what you might say.


Make eye contact, even if your eyes are filled with tears, especially if your eyes are filled with tears. It’s said that the eyes are windows to our soul, so looking people in the eye when we speak to them makes a magical connection with their soul, and presents your thoughts as honest and soulful. Tearful eye to tearful eye is the most direct and soulful connection, in many ways it’s exactly what those grieving need.

Without eye contact the most profound statement is diminished to irrelevance and background noise. If they are reluctant to make eye contact, please keep looking at their eyes while you speak, they may furtively glance back seeking a connection and if you have turned away they will judge the veracity of what you say by your lack of commitment to making eye contact.

My pain was so visible that it took me about two years to look myself in the eye in a mirror, so understand that you will see pain before you engage.

Physical connection is good, but respect boundaries and usually approval. If offered a handshake, be firm but much gentler than usual. Shaking a thousand hands over a few days gets painful. Let the receiver choose when to break the handshake.

I am an unstoppable hugger, but with acquaintances I preferred someone asking me before they launched into a hug. Hugs create the intimacy for deeper connections, mouths are closer to ears and there is opportunity for more privacy and short quiet thoughts. Hugs need to end before they might get creepy, but generally let those grieving dictate the length and intensity of the hug.  Start small with a hug, and again let the receiver define and break the hug.

I never thought about it, but I’ve been told that the giver of the hug places their arms over the arms of the receiver, at over six feet tall that’s easy for me to say. When giving a hug, offer open arms and let them engage or not. When their arms hug you, your arms will naturally engage over their arms in the giver or inside position.

What to say?

 Say something about the person who has died, something that you respect about that life, or something you have learned from that life, or a happy time you shared that you remember.

Say something that shows that you know the deceased was a good person who gave something of his life to others.

If you’re on the periphery the social rings of this person, the obituary can usually provide things to mention that were important to the family.

Make what you say about the years of life of this person, not the months, weeks or minutes of the death of this person.

Make it all about the life of the person who has died, and you’ll get it exactly right for those who are grieving.

Bring peace and love, share it with consideration and sensitivity with the living so the love continues.

Anticipating Grief

In any good life filled with love there is an implied but usually not discussed acceptance of grief.

We grieve because we love.

No love, no grief.

The longer and deeper the love the more challenging the grief.

When we love someone, we implicitly accept that one of us will die before the other.

Grief is the final responsibility of loving someone.

When someone dies, the love doesn’t die.

We are meant to incorporate the lessons and memories of that love into our lives.

Grief is often seen as beginning, some number of stages we must suffer and pass through and a conclusion.

I see grief as a continuum of love, an ongoing expression and celebration of the love that we shared, and an ongoing proof and reminder that the only thing that survives our death is the love we build and share in life.

Grief teaches us the true value of life and love.

We have no education or preparation for grief when we first experience it, so we see and feel the pain and run from the love we shared. We often leave the love behind and feel hollow.

If you are anticipating grief, you still have time with a loved one. This time is about them and the last days, weeks or months of your shared love, not about the pain it will cause you after they die. This time is where you can come to understand how they would want you to grieve the loss of them. 

The death of our 20 year old son James in 2005 in a firefighter training accident and my lifetime path to healing has shaped my view of grief, of life and of love. When he first chose firefighting as a part time passion, I had a frank discussion with him about the risks of a line of duty death. Two years later, when he died, I knew how he wanted me to grieve the loss of him. That didn’t lessen the pain, but the path away from the pain was much better defined for me.  

I feel my love for our son every day not as pain, but as a deep and meaningful reminder of the great love we shared and the urgency to live and love while we are still living.

Cancer is a horrible war that families battle together. The point of a diagnosis of terminal and the point of entry into palliative care defines the timeline ferociously.  My father-in-law had less than two weeks in palliative care, but with his pain managed and a crushing timeline, he lived more in those two weeks of saying goodbyes and last visits than he had in the years of battling cancer before that.

My father battled heart failure. One day his doctor told him nothing more could be done. The surgery he needed would kill him. He had months, perhaps a year, or days, there was no concrete answer. He lived far away, and we had a family vacation planned.  I was ready to cancel to visit him, so I spoke to him  honestly and he did not want me to cancel the vacation, he assured me he felt like we had lots of time.

I decided that there were things I needed said, so I wrote what I call a Living Eulogy. Why waste kind thoughts about someone by waiting until after they die? I found a time I knew he would be alone, and phoned him to read my eulogy for him to him. We cried, we laughed, and in the half hour we talked a lot about his life as a father, and a bit about his impending death. It was cathartic, a wonderful sharing of mutual love.

A few days into our vacation, I got the call that my father had died at home after cleaning up from breakfast, quietly and peacefully napping on his own bed. It was exactly how he had wanted to die, and I had no regrets about not having seen him recently, because that is exactly how he wanted me to grieve this loss,

In life, we are all dying, we just don’t know when. If we know when, we have a window of opportunity to prepare. We can dread that, it’s natural to want to avoid it, or we can engage and involve the main character of our coming grief in what will be the last opportunity to express and share our love for each other. The gift of that time  should not be squandered, it should be used well and thoughtfully.

Love like one of you will die tomorrow, love like you will live another hundred years, but most of all love while you both can.

Be well and peaceful, may the passing you anticipate come to you with you as ready as possible for the inevitable end of a life that you have loved.