Loss is an inevitable part of life. Being alive means being vulnerable to both ordinary and extraordinary loss. Sometimes losses are expected. Other times loss arrives as an unwelcome surprise.
My own mother was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer 17 years before it took her life. Over the years, she had what she referred to as small bouts of cancer that always seemed treatable. Yet, her family was always anxiously waiting for the big bad diagnosis that would inevitably result from one of her many doctor’s appointments.
We had time to prepare (as much as we could) and to consider the idea of life without her in it. But when my perfectly healthy father was killed in a horrific car accident, he was gone in a flash, and nothing could have adequately prepared our family for such a jolting and surreal loss.
There are unavoidable losses associated with the death of our spouse or partner, sibling, child, parent or loved one. However, there are other losses that we all navigate as well: loss of a job or career, a home, a marriage, a friendship, a beloved pet, health, youth, an important relationship, a sense or normality, financial security, independence, or the possibility of an imagined future.
Rumi, a 13th century Turkish-Persian mystic, poet, and Sufi master, said about loss, “Don’t dismiss the heart, even if it’s filled with sorrow. God’s treasures are buried in broken hearts.” Much of Rumi’s poetry acknowledges the sorrow, grief and heartbreak that accompanies loss. Yet, his wisdom also suggests that hope and optimism is always a companion to loss . . . that is, if we choose to open ourselves to the possibility that something meaningful and even valuable can come from brokenness and pain. He tells his readers, “Grief can be the garden of compassion. If you keep your heart open through everything, your pain can become your greatest ally in your life’s search for love and wisdom … The wound is the place where the light enters you.”
Along the journey of a winding 20-year vocation in hospice I have witnessed, on many occasions, how hope can take root and emerge through the cracks of an otherwise hellish landscape of despair and grief. One of those occasions involved a 9-year-old girl by the name of Katie Jones. She was a longtime patient of a pediatric hospice program called Hope’s Friends.
When Katie died after battling severe cerebral palsy for many years, the national spotlight focused on one specific and highly controversial point surrounding her young life. The girl’s deteriorating health led her parents to post a “Do Not Resuscitate” order on her wheelchair at school, sparking a very public debate about a very private ordeal.
That year, Katie’s school district honored her parents’ decision for DNR orders, obeying the family’s wishes despite public protest. In the mix of public commentary and opinion about her death and her parents’ DNR orders, a local church criticized Hope’s Friends, questioning how a children’s hospice program could include the word hope in its name. Her family’s response was brilliant.
They clarified that in the life of a special-needs child, there is always hope. Katie’s mom explained, “First, we hoped our little girl could live a normal life. Then we hoped for a cure. We hoped for better treatments and for care that could alleviate her pain and suffering, and eventually we hoped for a peaceful death. Now, we hope that something worthwhile will emerge from this experience and from her short life. We hope, too, for our own survival and growth through this devastating loss. Hope is our friend that always changes, but never dies.”
Indeed, hope can be a roller-coaster ride. With every peak and valley, twist and turn, it can morph into something different. Hope is very future and goal-oriented, so it makes sense that hope and post-traumatic growth have a relationship because they are both very future focused. In its purest form hope is a commitment to push forward.
Understanding that hope and loss are close companions and not adversaries allows us to be both realistic and optimistic at the same time. When my mom was being treated for cancer, part of me believed that, as long as hope existed, the reality of her prognosis had to be kept at bay. In my own mind, those two concepts seemed contradictory.
Now I realize that without an understanding of the adversity we faced, there would have been no reason to conjure hope. Recently, I was talking with a widow whose husband was cared for by YoloCares. After he died, she told me, “I knew my husband was going to die, but I hoped it wasn’t true. It was so uncomfortable to think or even talk about that I chose to avoid the realities of the situation. So, in the end, avoidance is the regret I live with, not hope.”
Nothing in this world stands still or escapes the movement of time. All of life continues to change and morph into another interpretation of itself. Loss and grief are no different. Suffering can be life-giving. Heartbreak can become a source of compassion and grace, and a heart can be broken and open at the same time.
For information on the YoloCares Center for Loss and Hope, contact Chris Erdman at 530-758-5566. A number of support groups coordinated through the center are open to the community.