“Healthy Bereavement”

by Marguerite Robbins

For today’s presentation on “Healthy Bereavement,” I am choosing to share with you a bit of my own life’s story about some bereavements I have experienced during my six decades on this planet. My hope is that by sharing from my life’s story, you may find a little bit of comfort or understanding that will be helpful to you in your life. As this congregation knows, much better than most, sharing our lives with each other is fundamental to healthy living, healthy coping, healthy growing, and healthy grieving.

When I was three years old, my mother was diagnosed with terminal breast cancer. She was told that she had six months to live. But after a radical mastectomy and over 100 x-ray treatments, she lived another ten years, dying when I was 14 years old.

On the day her obituary appeared in the paper, the phone rang at our house and my aunt – my mother’s sister who was visiting from Michigan – answered it. It was Mrs. Boggs, the woman who had been my babysitter when I was three years old. I was fond of Mrs. Boggs. She had white hair that she kept in a bun on the top of her head, and she told me that she was sixty-eight years old. I suspect she was a bit of a grandmother figure for me.

Mrs. Boggs had called that day to express her sympathy to my family, and then she told my aunt that when I was three and my mother went to the hospital, I turned to her and said, “If my mommy doesn’t come back, will you take care of me?” And then Mrs. Boggs told my aunt that she had gently pushed me away, because she was afraid I would become too dependent on her. So very early on I learned about “anticipatory grief,” and I also learned that it was not okay to be afraid.

My family of origin was a very matriarchal family, and my mother’s highest values included: being strong, being loyal to the family, always projecting to others that we were an ideal family, and never divulging any information to others about our family. Of the primary emotions that human beings have – being mad, sad, glad, or fearful – only glad was allowed in my family.

The night before my mother went back to the hospital to die, she called me over to her and asked me two questions. First she asked me if she had been a good mother, to which I responded that she had been the best mother ever. Then she asked me if I would be all right, to which I responded, “Of course I will be all right, Mother.”

I understand now that my mother did the best she could in relating to me on that evening - given her life experiences. And I also know at a very deep level, that what I needed that night as a 14 year old girl with a dying mother, was not just an exchange of words in which my mother’s needs were met by my assuring her that she had been a good mother and that I would be all right after she died. What I needed was something more like, “I love you, Marguerite. I am so glad that you have been my daughter. I wish I could stay around and see you grow into the wonderful woman you will become. I am very sad that that cannot happen… Your father will take good care of you when I am gone, and you can call Auntie whenever you want to…I want to know how you are feeling about my dying and what you are thinking?” But those sentiments and thoughts were not expressed or exchanged. Instead, I learned that I was expected to be strong and to continue to promote a positive family image.

My father was a lovely, sensitive, simple, and meek man. And he cried when my mother died, both immediately and also frequently for a period of time after her death. But I never cried in front of him, or in front of anyone else. I thought he was weak for crying. And I thought it was my job to be the strong one and to not cry in his presence. So I cried myself to sleep night, after night, after night - alone. What a shame! What a missed opportunity for connection, for mutual support, and for the giving and receiving of love - for both of us.

Three and a half years later when I entered college, I started having waves of sadness that swept over me like tsunamis, and I had no choice but to cry, and cry, and cry some more. I did not know why I was crying. So my father and my lovely new stepmother, Becky, asked our family doctor what to do. He sent me to a psychiatrist - a wonderful psychiatrist named Dr. Bautista. In those days, psychiatry was mostly talk-therapy. And that is what I did with Dr. Bautista, along with crying. I had a lot to talk about, and a lot to figure out since for seventeen years I had repressed almost all of my authentic feelings, including not sharing the extreme grief I felt over losing my mother.

So I saw Dr. Bautista for an hour about every 6-8 weeks for seven years. And I think it was in the 6th year that he said to me one day, “Marguerite, your mother is dead. Let go of her.” Letting go of my mother was something I didn’t think I was supposed to do. After all, that would be disloyal to the family. But Dr. Bautista obviously had a different perspective, and I trusted him. So his words gave me permission to let go of my mother and to move on - after a very long and very complicated bereavement.

About twenty years later, my father died suddenly of a heart attack at the age of 83. He and my beloved stepmother, Becky, were on vacation in South Dakota at the time, visiting Becky’s relatives at her family’s farm. I was living in Boston when the call came that Daddy had died, and I knew immediately that I must go to South Dakota to see Daddy one more time, to be with Becky, and to drive her back to Ohio in their car. So I got on the plane in Boston and literally cried my way across the country. My lap was soaked with tears, as I let the love for my father and the sadness of losing him pour out of me.

Once I got with Becky and her family, we all grieved together. Her family loved my father very much, and they also knew how to share grief – honoring my father, supporting Becky and me and each other, telling the stories of their times together, and holding a sacred space for both mourning and the necessity of going on. The bereavement surrounding my father’s death was a blessed experience of healthy bereavement.

Unfortunately, it was just 6 months before my father died, that my wonderful stepmother Becky had begun to show the early signs of having Alzheimer’s disease. And with her strong body and buoyant spirit, she lived for 18 years with that dreadful disease. Watching her lose her memory and mind, and then in the final years her physical health too, was excruciating for me. It was 18 years of anticipatory grief - essentially 18 years of continuous bereavement. I was sad, and I was furiously angry that life could be so cruel to this wonderful woman whom I loved so much. I kept bumping up against the thinking that Becky didn’t begin to deserve what she was having to go through. I could find no purpose or meaning in what went on, and on, and on.

Becky died last June at the age of 94. I was fortunate to be standing right beside her bed looking at her face when she took her last breath. I was a little surprised at my reaction when she died. The most prevalent feeling I experienced was relief… relief for her, and for me. Relief that she was no longer trapped in her body which had failed her for so long. And, less than a week ago – eight months after her death - I had a tearful day as I thought about my beloved Becky and how much I miss having her here.

So, I have shared with you a few of the bereavement experiences of my life that were related to death. But bereavement is not just associated with physical death. It also occurs with most endings and most losses. Divorce, job loss, end of a friendship, end of a dating relationship, having a dream not materialize, experiencing the signs of aging, being diagnosed with a chronic illness that means an end to being who you were, and many, many more types of human loss and endings result in grieving and periods of bereavement. So how are we to “do” healthy bereavement whether it involves a physical death or another kind of ending or loss?

For starters, we need to understand that there is no right way to grieve. There is just your way. Each person will grieve differently. But having said that, I do think it can be helpful for us to become familiar with a few of the common elements of bereavement in order to recognize them for what they are.

  • Bereavement takes time. It took me over six years to make significant headway in the bereavement of my mother.

  • Grief related feelings can come up unexpectedly - and inconveniently. Last week, grieving for Becky did not wait until I was done writing this presentation. It forged its way right into my day, and fortunately I was able to honor it by spending time with it, letting it bubble up and out.

  • Grief can manifest itself in many ways. It isn’t always about sadness. It can manifest in anger. It can be fear. It can be guilt. It can be physical illness. It can be confusion or forgetfulness. It can be sleeplessness, fatigue, or hyperactivity.

  • Yet, however it manifests, it needs to be expressed rather than repressed, in order that it may move from the inside of us to the outside of us where its powerful energy can be released.

  • Sometimes the expression of grief is the manifestation of accumulated losses. When grief for a loss has been repressed in the past, a relatively minor new loss can produce what seems to be an exaggerated response. What is really going on is grief for more than the minor immediate loss. Instead, the previously repressed grief is triggered by the new loss and takes its turn along with the new loss to work its way out.

  • Grief needs to be discussed and normalized. When there is an opportunity before a death to share in a loving way the sadness, the guilt, the gratitude, and the plans for the future, a healthy bereavement can begin. Literally saying “goodbye” and “I love you” are also wonderful gifts. Then after a death, the stories need to be told and heard – good stories, bad stories, humorous stories, boring stories…all of the stories.

  • Grief needs empathy, compassion, understanding, and gentleness.

  • Sometimes it even needs denial, for a while – when we are too fragile and not quite ready to face the emotional pain, or when we need to face the pain in stages rather than all at once.

  • Sometimes a grieving person needs to be encouraged to go out and be with others, to have some fun and be intentionally distracted for a while.

  • Sometimes grief requires professional talk-therapy with someone who can guide our thinking in life-enhancing ways - like Dr. Bautista’s helping me to let go of a family value that had become life-depleting for me.

  • Sometimes it is helpful to facilitate the bereaved in learning about themselves during their time of bereavement. This certainly was going on in the seven years when I saw Dr. Bautista.

  • And finally, I think it is very important to understand the difference between pain and suffering. It is said that pain is inevitable for human beings, but suffering is a choice! As human beings we suffer when “what is” is not what we want, and not what we are willing to embrace. We also suffer when “what was” is not what we want, and not what we are willing to embrace. Obviously, the definition of the word “embrace” is important here. Embracing “what is” and “what was” means being fully present to “what is” and “what was” and accepting their realities. Yet, accepting their realities does not necessarily mean liking the realities. We can work to change what is possible to change that we don’t like. And we can work to transform a lemon experience into a lemonade experience. But when all is said and done, we ultimately end our suffering by choosing to acknowledge and accept reality without a value judgment on its rightness, or its appropriateness, or its logicalness, or its deservedness.

    If I had understood this truth many years ago, I would have been able to be with Becky over those 18 years with much less personal suffering. There would still have been a huge amount of emotional pain to bear and process, but my suffering would have been dramatically diminished. I know this to be a fact because I came to an understanding of the concept of “embracing what is” about 10 months before Becky died, and it made an enormous difference. I would go to see her with my mind very intentionally accepting the circumstances, and that let me be much more present to Becky – and to myself - because I was no longer burning my energy fighting the circumstances.

    So, I think that healthy bereavement has two primary elements. The first is identifying, feeling, expressing, and understanding our painful thoughts and emotions and thereby moving them from the inside of us to the outside of us where they can be released. The second is truly embracing “what is” and “what was” and thereby being present to, and accepting of, the realities of our lives - even when we don’t like them. I believe, that when we can “do” these two enormous tasks – and help others to do these two enormous tasks – then we will become more whole as human beings, and we will experience the richness and the blessings of healthy bereavement.

    Marguerite Robbins
    February 25, 2007


    Also from the February 25th Service:

    Opening Words

    …life is a journey
    From childhood to maturity
    And youth to age;
    From innocence to knowing;
    From foolishness to discretion
    and then, perhaps wisdom;
    From weakness to strength
    Or strength to weakness –
    And often back again;
    From offense to forgiveness,
    From loneliness to love,
    From joy to gratitude,
    From pain to compassion,
    And grief to understanding –
    From fear to faith,…
    Until, looking backward or ahead
    We see that victory lies ahead
    Not at some high place along the way
    But in having made the journey, stage by stage,
    A sacred pilgrimage…

    From Gates of Repentance by Rabbeinu Yonah, 13th century Spain


    Guided Meditation

    The purpose of this mediation is to clear your mind of stressful thoughts you are thinking right now, to calm stressful emotions you are experiencing right now, and to release physical stress that you body is holding right now. When our minds are clear, our hearts are open, and our bodies are relaxed, we are most able to be in touch with our highest wisdom and to serve with our greatest effectiveness.
    Please sit in your chair with your spine straight, your feet flat on the floor, your hands open with your palms up and resting gently on your thighs. Relax your neck and shoulders and close your eyes, if you wish, as you bring your awareness inward.
    Now inhale slowly and deeply through your nose; hold your breath for a few moments; and then exhale slowly and completely through your mouth as if you are very gently and very slowly blowing out a candle. And rest…Now inhale deeply again; hold your breath briefly; and as you exhale slowly and completely, intentionally relax each and every muscle in your body. And rest, breathing normally…Now inhale deeply once more, imagining as you do that you are inhaling healing, calming light. Hold your breath as you imagine that light spreading out into every cell in your body, cleansing every cell; and then exhale while relaxing your muscles and envisioning any toxins in your body being discarded as your breath flows out.
    Now sitting quietly and breathing normally, imagine in your mind’s eye a strong healthy tree – the Westwood Tree – with roots thrust deeply into the earth. Picture the wide interlacing of roots, like veins and arteries, searching out the underground springs of water, absorbing the moisture and the soil’s rich nourishment… Now imagine the wide-spreading, stretching branches of the tree. They stretch into the air as high as the roots stretch deep into the earth. And their leaves receive the particles of golden sunlight. Watch the light flow through each leaf, each twig, down through the branches, the tree trunk, and into the roots. Notice how the sunlight from the leaves and the moisture from the earth mingle together, flowing with quiet power through the whole tree. Next imagine that if there is anything that is not good for the tree – for example infection, insect invasion or dark spots – it is released from the tree and the tree is cleansed.
    Now imagine yourself as this strong, flexible tree – as you breathe, tapping into the nutrients which you need from both deep inside yourself and also from outside yourself. You are receiving the nutrients you need from both your inner world and also your outer world. And you are growing in healthy, life-enhancing ways in both worlds. You are being nourished in both worlds and you are also discarding from both worlds those elements that are not life-enhancing for you.
    So rest for a few more moments in the mystery and awe of the fully functioning tree which you have imagined, and know that the mystery that is you has the potential to be strong, and flexible, and nourished, and cleansed just like the tree of your imagination.
    When you are ready, slowly open your eyes and begin to bring your awareness back to the outer world here in this community. I hope your mind and emotions and body have been calmed, and refreshed, and relaxed by this meditation.

    (Adapted from Flora Slosson Wuellner’s book, Release (1996), pp. 22-23)


    Closing Words

    Things We Can Learn From A Dog

    Never pass up the opportunity to go for a joy ride.
    Allow the experience of fresh air and the wind in your face to be pure ecstasy. When loved ones come home, always run to greet them.
    When it’s in your best interest, practice obedience.
    Let others know when they’ve invaded your territory.
    Take naps and stretch before rising.
    Run, romp, and play daily.
    Never pretend to be something you’re not.
    If what you want lies buried, dig until you find it.
    When someone is having a bad day, be silent, sit close by, and nuzzle them gently.
    Thrive on attention and let people hug you.
    Avoid biting when a simple growl will do.
    No matter how often you’re scolded, don’t buy into the guilt thing and pout – run right back and make friends.
    Delight in the simple joy of a long walk.

    (From the First UU Parish in Weston, Massachusetts)


    We believe that everyone has the right to seek truth and meaning for themselves. The fundamental tools for doing this are your own life experience, your reflection upon it, your intuitive understanding and the promptings of your own conscience.