Out of over 29 million minutes I have lived, I can pinpoint the one that changed my life forever. I remember the weather, the time on the clock, where I was sitting, the cardinal outside my window, the sound of the phone ringing and my father’s voice on the other side saying, “I’m scared, there’s something wrong with your brother.”
What I didn’t realize then was that this one minute, of all the minutes in my life, would start me on a path - a twisty, meandering track - of grief, change and, eventually, yes, hope.
As Dr. Katherine Shear writes in her introduction to the Prolonged Grief Disorder Treatment Manual,
“People sometimes imagine bereavement as the beginning of a journey but grief is not a voyage
from which people return. We do not experience a period of grief, come back, and return to life
as usual. Instead, grief is a new homeland. It is a permanent place in which bereaved people
must reside and redefine their lives. Life is permanently changed by an important loss.”
I think this is a beautiful way to describe grief, but not a viewpoint I knew of three years ago when I first learned about the Center. You see, at that point I was stuck in a lonely desert of grief. Two years previously, my brother and only sibling died unexpectedly at age 50 of cardiac arrest and three weeks later my beloved mother passed away from Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma. The events of December 2016 changed my life forever, but it would take me some time to digest them.
It’s not that I didn’t seek professional help - I did. And it’s not that I didn’t have the loving support of family and friends - I did. But I was stuck. Really and stubbornly stuck.
Life for me was suspended; I wasn’t sleeping well, I felt angry, viewed life as meaningless, didn’t like making plans to meet up with friends, or think about what would make me happy in a future without “my people.” I felt my grief was a burden to everyone around me. I wasn’t sure what to do with myself!
I was on a very difficult journey indeed. This in some way I knew. But I was lost.
I don’t know exactly how, perhaps through a Google search, I found an article in the New York Times that mentioned Dr. Shear, the Center and described prolonged grief. I breathed a sigh of relief; I felt a very heavy weight had been lifted from my heart. Maybe there wasn’t anything wrong with me, but I was suffering from a complex form of bereavement that would require appropriate support. After that, I went on a mission to find out more about Dr. Shear’s work and get the professional help I needed. Through the Center’s “Find a Therapist” directory I was able to locate a qualified therapist and underwent Prolonged Grief Disorder Therapy.
The therapy wasn’t easy. In fact, it was really, really hard. For me, the most difficult part was talking about my brother’s death and the terrible circumstances of that awful December day. But slowly, with my therapist’s capable guidance, I was able to accept the reality of loss, better cope with the debilitating waves of emotion so common during bereavement, and start to plan a future where grief would no longer dominate my life.
This past December was the fifth-year anniversary of loss for me. Still, some days are easier than others, but in my new “homeland” I am gentle with myself and embrace bittersweet moments of remembrance. I have plans and goals. I spend happy times with my family and friends.
I deeply respect and appreciate the work Dr. Shear and the Center staff do to help those with prolonged grief on their very personal journey. So much so that I aspire - when I finish my MSW degree at Columbia University in May - to assist others who are bereaved find a future with hope.
Maybe, in some small but meaningful way, I can help them find their new “homeland” too.