Loss is an inevitable part of life. To be alive means to face both ordinary and extraordinary losses. Sometimes losses are expected. In other cases, the loss comes as an unwelcome surprise.
My own mother was diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer 17 years before she died. Over the years, she’d had what she called small bouts of cancer that always seemed treatable. But her family always eagerly awaited the big, bad diagnosis that would inevitably result from one of her many doctor’s appointments.
We had time to prepare (as best we could) and contemplate the idea of life without her. But when my perfectly healthy father died in a horrific car accident, he was gone in a flash, and nothing could have adequately prepared our family for such a harrowing 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 struggle with: loss of a job or career, home, marriage, friendship, beloved pet, health, youth, important relationship, meaning or normalcy, financial Security, independence, or the possibility of an imaginary future.
Rumi, a 13th-century Turko-Persian mystic, poet, and Sufi master said of the loss: “Do not cast away the heart, even if it is full of sorrow. God’s treasures are buried in broken hearts.” Much of Rumi’s poetry celebrates the heartache, sorrow, and heartache that accompany loss. However, his wisdom also suggests that hope and optimism always come with loss. . . that is, when we choose to open ourselves to the possibility that something meaningful and even valuable can come out of brokenness and pain. He tells his readers, “Sadness can be the garden of compassion. If you keep your heart open to everything, your pain can become your greatest ally in your life’s quest for love and wisdom… The wound is where the light enters you.”
On the road of a winding 20-year hospice calling, 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 such opportunity involved a 9-year-old girl named Katie Jones. She was a longtime patient in a pediatric hospice program called Hope’s Friends.
When Katie died after battling severe cerebral palsy for many years, the national limelight was focused on a specific and highly controversial issue surrounding her young life. The girl’s deteriorating health prompted her parents to post a “do not resuscitate” instruction on her wheelchair at school, sparking a very public debate about a very private ordeal.
That year, Katie’s school district respected her parents’ decision to have DNR orders and complied with the family’s request despite public protests. In the mix of public comments and opinions about her death and her parents’ DNR orders, a local church criticized Hope’s Friends and questioned how a children’s hospice program could include the word hope in its name. Her family’s response was brilliant.
They made it clear that there is always hope in the life of a child with special needs. Katie’s mum explained: “At first we hoped our little girl could have a normal life. Then we hoped for healing. We hoped for better treatments and care that could ease their pain and suffering, and ultimately we hoped for a peaceful death. Now we hope that something worthwhile will come out of this experience and her short life. We also hope for our own survival and growth through this devastating loss. Hope is our friend, always changing but never dying.”
In fact, hope can be a roller coaster ride. With every peak and valley, twist and turn, it can morph into something else. 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 oriented. In its purest form, hope is a commitment to move forward.
Understanding that hope and loss are close companions, not adversaries, allows us to be realistic and optimistic at the same time. When my mother was being treated for cancer, part of me believed that the reality of her prognosis needed to be kept in check while there was still hope. In my opinion, these two concepts seemed contradictory.
I now realize that without understanding the adversity we faced, there would have been no reason to invoke hope. I recently spoke to a widow whose husband was cared for by YoloCares. After his death, she said to me, “I knew my husband was going to die, but I hoped it wasn’t true. It was so uncomfortable to think about or even talk about that I chose to avoid the reality 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 passage of time. All of life continues to change and morph into a different interpretation of itself. Loss and grief are no different. Suffering can be life-giving. Grief can become a source of compassion and grace, and a heart can be broken and open at the same time.
For information about the YoloCares Center for Loss and Hope, contact Chris Erdman at 530-758-5566. A number of self-help groups, coordinated by the center, are open to the community.
— Craig Dresang is the CEO of YoloCares.