Grief and Loss: A year out

Mary Ellen Ashcroft

My son Steve died of cancer on Dec. 14, 2016. I’ve learned a lot during that time and would like to pass some insights along to those coping with grief and loss— theirs or another’s.

For those near the grieving:

You don’t need to know what to say. “I’m sorry,” is good enough. Hugs are great. Cards mean a lot. Shortly after Steve’s death I was leaving the locker room at the Y and ran into several women who I know only slightly. They each hugged me, and it meant so much. Their hugs said, “We’ve been thinking about you, feeling for you, and we care.” Words were entirely unnecessary.

Don’t launch into stories like, “My sister had….” Or “We prayed for….” These are your way of processing— keep them to yourself.

If you really want to be helpful, don’t say, “Let me know if I can do anything to help.” A person who is grieving will usually not be able to pick up the phone and say, “A meal would be great,” or “I need some company.” Instead, show up with a meal, or stop by for a hug (ready, if necessary, to stay for only five minutes).

Don’t ask for answers. Those near the grieving are often overwhelmed with questions—“How could this happen?” or anger —“This seems so unfair.” These are your questions for you to work on. Keep them out of your relationship with the grieving one.

Keep on loving. Big losses are not something that your friend will “get over”—ever.

Pray for peace for your friend. Pray for presence and holding for them.

For the one who is grieving:

Grief is unpredictable. Sometimes this year I’d have minutes, growing into hours when this loss was not at the center of my thoughts. Other times I’d hear a piece of music—U2 carried memories of college visits with Steve—and completely fall apart.

Support is also unpredictable. People I thought would be really present to me often weren’t, and some I had not expected to be there, really were. I suspect some of this is personality, some life experience. I realized that for many people (particularly moms) I represent their worst nightmare—losing a child—and they couldn’t bear to be around me.

If you have to go through a loss, Grand Marais can be a good place to do that: I have felt loved and supported by members of the church and people in the community. Cards addressed to “Mary Ellen, Grand Marais” were put into my PO box. Very few people have said dumb things to me. And it’s nice, in a way, that most people know—unlike being in the Twin Cities and someone says after your purchase, “Have a great day!” and you feel like climbing over the counter yelling, “Are you kidding?!?”

Notice what is life-giving to you, and do it. I have really needed to be out— with friends, volunteering, etc. My natural tendencies toward introversion are not helpful at this time, so I’ve had to override them.

Remember that others who are grieving this same loss must do theirs in their own way—Steve’s sister, brother, wife, kids, friends— must grieve as they can.

My priorities have radically shifted—some things I used to worry about seem so trivial as to be laughable; others—like connection, community, love—are what really matter.

I have found God’s presence— those everlasting arms—to be dependable. I have felt “held”—by friends and family—and by God: this I’ve come to see as one of the great gifts of belonging to the divine.

Each month a member of the Cook County Ministerium will offer Spiritual Reflections. This month’s contributor is Mary Ellen Ashcroft, Vicar of Spirit of the Wilderness Episcopal Church.

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