GriefNet Library: Coping with Grief during Holidays

by Reverend Sallirae Henderson
Portland, Oregon


John trudged up the gently sloping hill with discomfort. Head and shoulders bowed, he watched the ground, momentarily preoccupied with his physical experience. Resignation tinged his conscious recognition of stiff knee and hip joints, shortness of breath, and the uneven pounding of his heart.

He remembered running up this same hill fifty years ago, a young son on his shoulders. He had energy and strength to spare then and had never dreamed he would ever feel any different. Now at eighty-four years, arthritis slowed and inhibited his movements, sometimes so painfully that the day's activities became marked by the mere process of movement.

Always an active and independent man, John had determined years earlier, when he finally admitted middle age, that he would maintain his level of activity as long as possible; he would never be old and decrepit! Take this ranch, for instance: not really a ranch, just a two-room cabin set on twenty acres of gently rolling hills two hours from the city. He and Helen had purchased it when their children were young. It cost only $5,000 then, but they had struggled for years to save and then finance a retreat for themselves and the kids. For most of fifty years he had driven up with the family at least twice a month on weekends to mow the meadow, chop wood, putter at maintenance, and enjoy the open space, the solitude and quiet.

Until this past year, the routine had not changed much. Even when the three boys were gown and gone, he and Helen continued their frequent treks. Relived of mothering, Helen had begun oil painting and their weekends had become oases of quiet companionship she painting all day. he walking the property, checking the fences, repairing and oiling the water pump, rearranging the tool shed, replacing an occasional broken board, and mowing in the spring.

As John at last reached the top of the hill, he slowly lifted the lid off the water tank to check the water level, a step made unnecessary by the large gauge on the side of the tank, but a routine that gave him satisfaction nonetheless. Satisfied, he lowered the lid and his eye caught the large, smooth stone on the ground that for years he had placed on top of the water tank lid as a precaution against what it didn't matter.

Last year when Helen died, and the reality of his own aging came crashing in on him, he admitted to himself for the first time that the pain of lifting that rock was excruciating and pointless. The months of deep depression that followed her death had sapped his energy and exposed his limitations. He stopped arguing then with his sons over who would do the spring mowing. There was no longer any point in proving to himself and the world that his life wasn't changing; half of it had died with Helen and was irreplaceable.

He slowly lowered himself onto the old bench by the tank, his eyes searching out the familiar panorama of the countryside in the afternoon sun. Dairy fields, cattle, sheep, and farmhouses scattered for miles. He had always responded deeply to this scene. Expansive, timeless moments he had spent here as a young man had become timeless hours as he aged. It was easy to sit here and run the reels of his life, for this scenery had been the backdrop for many of its most satisfying moments: the boys as toddlers, as adolescents, now as fathers themselves and the owners of the property.

On holidays the car had been loaded with food and gifts, the cabin bursting with the boys' excitement and the luxurious odor of holiday cooking. Warm summer nights, with spectacular, star-filled skies, he and Helen made love out here on the hill. The pain of that memory had dulled somewhat, but still as he imagined it, every cell of his body ached with it. After she died, he had avoided this hilltop for months. The emotions evoked by the scenery were too intense for his already raw grief. Then, finally, he had come and sat and cried, inconsolably at first, then less as the sharpness dulled and the acceptance of his own mortality emerged.

A large hawk swept across the late afternoon sun, riding a current that would carry her for miles. As John's sudden tears blurred the image of her flight, a paradox of feeling welled up inside him. He felt Helen's spirit in the hawk's flight and experienced intense pleasure at the thought that he would soon be with her again. At the same time, his awe of the beauty of this place almost overwhelmed him. "Like having a foot in each world," he thought, raising his face to the sun. Sitting back again, he relaxed. And waited.

Reprinted by permission from *Bereavement,* a magazine of hope and healing - November / December 1992

Reprint permission granted only if ALL the following is included: Published with permission of Bereavement Publishing, Inc., 8133 Telegraph Dr., Colorado Springs, CO, 80920. For further information contact: Cendra (ken'dra) Lynn, Ph.D. - [email protected]

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