Graceful Endings:
Navigating the Journey of Loss and Grief

We must embrace pain and burn it as fuel for our journey.
Kenji Miyazawa

I thought I was an expert on grief until the day we learned that my brother John had incurable brain cancer. Not until I was losing one of my closest loves did I have an inkling of its dimensions. Having worked as a hospice spiritual care director and a psychotherapist for decades, I had companioned many dying individuals and their family members. But witnessing grief and being the one in grief are a world apart. Nothing prepared me for the unexpected loss of my younger brother -- so radiant, so healthy – my first friend.

There is a saying that life is what happens when we're making other plans. When someone we love is diagnosed with a terminal illness, life suddenly contracts into a small space with that person at the center. We circle the wagons. We weave a cocoon. We become fiercely protective. Everything else seems to fall away. We are enveloped in single-pointed concentration on their wellbeing. Time is rapidly absorbed in medical appointments, changes to our schedule, changes to our lives. And then there is the grief. It comes unbidden, often so suddenly that it takes our breath away.

Getting the News I sat with John as the radiation oncologist explained to him the confirmed diagnosis of Glio Blastoma Multiform brain cancer, with the dire prognosis that statistically he would live only a few months, even with radiation and chemotherapy. Without it, the time he had left would be even shorter.

As we left the cancer clinic, John was quiet. He looked stunned. "What do you need now?" I asked, holding my own tears in check. "Breakfast!!" he bellowed, and we both laughed. He had been advised by friends to go on a restrictive anti-cancer alkaline diet, giving up coffee, sugar, and other things he loved ever since our family doctor had said it looked like cancer. Now that the diagnosis was confirmed, his only desire was for comfort.

As he chowed down on bacon, eggs and pancakes, slurping coffee with great gusto, I said, "The condemned man ate a hearty breakfast." His laughter erupted loudly and he sprayed coffee all over his fried potatoes. Humor can be a healing balm in this surreal experience of death and loss.

The way grief manifests itself is unique to each of us. The way it shifts and changes differs from person to person. It is mercilessly unpredictable in its force and form. John spent the days following his diagnosis in a state of shock and seemed quietly puzzled -- a common first response both for those who learn that they are dying and those who love them.

My immediate experience was vastly different. A tsunami of sorrow blind-sided and engulfed me. I was drowning. The devastating possibility that John's life would be shortened rose up and swallowed me for hours at a time. It intensified without warning, leaving me utterly spent, bereft. It felt as if my core had imploded and was suddenly missing, not questioning God's existence or presence, but my own. It put me in mind of the movie, "Death Becomes Her", where Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn, as living ghosts, shoot huge holes in each other's torsos.

-- Exerpted from: Graceful Endings --

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