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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

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Thursday, April 15, 2010

Grief: The Hardest Journey*

*Johnstown Tribune-Democrat, May 2, 2010

Copyright © 2010 by Ralph Couey

The loss of a loved one is perhaps the most common of the shared human experiences, but people still endure grief as something deeply personal and lonely.

In 1969, Dr. Janet Kübler-Ross introduced the now-familiar five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. For the first time, grief was understood not to be an emotional state, but a process. Professional counselors could now use specific therapies to help people through their particular stage. Also, people who were grieving not only better understood their own state of mind, but knew that at the end of that process lay the hope of healing.

I thought that the death of our infant granddaughter was a rare event. However, I was surprised at the large number of people whose experience mirrored my own. One young lady stopped me on the street and told me how she had lost her baby at seven weeks old. As she spoke, she began to cry. That tragedy had occurred 10 years before, but the pain had not faded.

Grieving can take years.

For some, it never ends.

That grief is considered a process is, in a curious way, good news. A process is not static. It has a beginning, and most importantly, an end. Recognizing this fact helps because no matter how badly we may feel at any point, there is hope that healing will happen in time. It is that hope that keeps us moving along that path. Our loved ones will always be a part of our memories, but we will have grown accustomed to the loss of their physical presence. Our lives will continue on.

I don’t know anyone who fervently wishes their surviving loved ones to stay mired in a life of permanent sadness and depression. And yet, some can never get beyond mourning, perhaps feeling that getting better would betray their loved one's memory. There are memorials of stone and steel, but I’ve always felt that the best memorial to a life lost is in the lives of those who continue on. A lost loved one can be memorialized by turning pain into something positive. This gives meaning and perhaps, a sense of purpose to their loss.

• Candy Lightner’s young daughter was killed by a drunk driver. But her grief became “Mothers Against Drunk Driving,” an international organization that has become a major legislative weapon in the fight against drunk driving.

• John Walsh turned the tragedy of the kidnap and murder of his young son into “America’s Most Wanted,” a force for justice resulting in the capture of over a thousand fugitives, and the recovery of over 50 missing children.

• Greg and Kelly Larson lost their 7-year-old son to brain cancer, yet created an organization that raised $2 million for cancer research and financial assistance.

• Nancy Goodman Brinker lost her sister to breast cancer. She started a foundation to help fund breast cancer research. “Susan G. Komen For the Cure” has raised almost two billion dollars.

However, nothing, not even a cause, will minimize the painful reality of loss. Grieving is personal. The deeper we feel that loss, the longer and more difficult the path will be.

There are days you will be able to laugh.

There will be days when you have to cry.

And there will be days when, as Tom Hanks said in Sleepless in Seattle, you “…get out of bed in the morning; breathe in and out all day long.”

And that will be the best you can do.

You are not alone. Many others walk this path with you, those who care for you and those who share the experience of loss.

Jesus said, “Blessed are those who mourn; for they shall be comforted.”

Let us comfort each other, and together we will find peace.
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