print logo


“Key Elements of Grief”
Claire I. Pula

I was about five years old, my sister and I were in bed, but I was resisting sleep, and trying to keep Dad from leaving the room. He was standing in the doorway, silhouetted by the hallway light behind him. I was holding a toy key ring, going key by key, holding them up and asking him what each one was. Patiently, he came up with answers for each one. Red? “That’s the key to the yard.” Yellow? “That’s the key for the porch.” “What’s this green one for, Daddy?” “That’s the key to my heart.” I must have been satisfied with that answer, because fifty-five years later and thirteen years after his death, I still think of big green plastic toy keys as the key to my Dad’s heart.

Keys are everywhere in our lives, so much so that we all have keys we can’t identify. We’ve forgotten what they open, and possibly what they open is long gone, but somehow we just can’t throw them away. We know that the minute we do, we’ll find that missing padlock or that old pair of skates -or, one of them might miraculously fit that old wardrobe in the attic that hasn’t been opened in years. And so the keys sit in the junk drawer or jar or box and wait until the day they might again be called into service. And once in a while we try to sort through them.

In a poem called “Sleeping Keys”, Jean Sprackland describes them as “obsolete treasure…puzzling as your grandmother’s brooches and hatpins and with the same residual gravity”. To writer Glynn Young, the metaphor of the sleeping keys is about the memories that “lie jumbled together, possibly valuable and possibly not, quietly awaiting the opening of the lid, prompted by a thought, a memory, a letter.”

When we are grieving, it can be so many things that prompt the opening of that lid and begin yet another search through the pile of sleeping memories. Sometimes it is a pleasant and warm reminder such as a photograph, a story shared at the funeral, a whiff of familiar perfume or aftershave from a well-worn jacket or robe. Other times it is as brusque and unexpected as a slap in the face-- running into someone at the store who, not having heard, smiles and blithely asks where you’ve been keeping yourself, telephone calls and letters from strangers and even neighbors asking if your house is for sale, the hard finality of a name and death date chiseled in granite.

It hurts. It hurts beyond any pain one could ever imagine. It hurts way longer than seems possible—certainly way longer than the world thinks “appropriate” or “seemly” or “healthy”. We hate the pain, and we are pressured by others to “get over it” or “move on”. And so, too often, we do “keep the lid on” our grief. We try to distract or protect ourselves, we want to hold it together for the sake of family members who are also grieving, we don’t want to disappoint the people who admired us for “being so strong” when we were in too much shock to cry at the funeral. One day we start feeling a little better and when grief resurfaces we worry that we are backsliding.

‘Whether the pressure comes from within ourselves or from the world’s unrealistic expectations about bereavement, we are tempted to do everything we can to avoid opening the lid of our grief. We fear it and avoid it as if it were Pandora’s box. We worry that once opened, we will never be able to close it again. We imagine that waiting inside are all sorts of nameless horrors that will ruin our lives forever. The pressure builds and builds until it can no longer be contained and it erupts anyway.  

It is better to engage our grief, to open the box from time to time before it explodes. We grew up with cast iron steam radiators. If they weren’t “bled” regularly, the sludgy condensation build-up would cause a dreadful knocking. My parents would run for the radiator key-- hopefully it was where it was supposed to be! The steam would gush out—it was a mess and it could burn. It was much safer when the radiators were bled seasonally, before the pressure built up so badly.  

Grief is not only powerfully painful emotions. It is also a time of transition, a time of slowly learning how to live a new life. Housekeepers once carried a heavy ring of keys. This held every door key in the house as well as to linen closets, tea caddies, silverware drawers. It was a symbol of responsibility and trust. We all have responsibilities in our lives, and often that is the care of a chronically ill or dying loved one. It is a position of trust like few others, and requires energy, strength, patience, advocacy, courage and ingenuity. Part of the emptiness of grief is no longer having that sacred task. Hours that centered on the beloved’s needs are suddenly empty. The seemingly endless rounds of paperwork connected with death might fill some of that time, but not in the same tender, meaningful way. Even when relief is mixed in with the sorrow, as so often it is, the caregiver faces the questions, “Did I do my job well enough? What do I do now? What is my purpose? Do I stay or do I go? What comes next?”  

The task of sifting through the jumble of emotions and thoughts and memories helps us to understand our grief and to make some sense of just why things don’t make sense since the death. “Will this key work on that padlock so I can have some assurance of safety? Is this the key to my old roller skates that once gave me such joy? Can I ever recapture that feeling of freedom? What will open the door to my prison of pain so I can breathe again, if only for a few minutes?”  

It’s no wonder that grief takes so long and is so hard. No one can say for sure just how long or just how hard. The acute and intense part of grief can last months and even years. Many grief experts now recognize that though grief can, and does, soften with time and hard work, it never really comes to a finite end. Whether a life was long, or all too short, the love is eternal. Because love doesn’t end, there will always be that tender place in our hearts for the beloved whom we no longer can physically touch, but whose life and love continue to touch us in countless ways.
We can, and do, continue on and very, very gradually, in fits and starts, learn to embrace life again. Charles Dickens wrote, “A very little key will open a very heavy door.” This we remember in those times of despair. And while I will always think of that key to my father’s heart, in reality, it is the heart that is the key. Philosopher DJ Kyos says, “A willing heart is a key to the door of possibilities. A person with a willing heart can do a lot of things that were declared as being impossible.”
Just how that will unfold isn’t easy to see or even, sometimes, to believe. But somewhere in the jumble is the right key, or set of keys, that will work. We keep on sifting, trying, living, and loving—one key at a time, one memory at a time, one day at a time, one hope at a time.

Pierced by Sorrow

by Claire I. Pula, M. Div, CT, GC-C

Valentine’s Day can be hard for the bereaved. However one tries to avoid it, hearts and flowers and lace and chocolates are everywhere. A simple trip to the store becomes a guerilla exercise of dodging red- clad teddy bears, pink balloons, and Cupids of every size and description. Because of its association with romantic love, some couples choose February 14 as their wedding day, which compounds sorrow when the spouse has died. Giving marks of affection on this day is also enjoyed between parents and children, friends and co-workers, and students and teachers. So no matter for whom you grieve, you might be dreading this time of year.

Theories abound to explain the origins of Valentine’s Day customs. There were several Saint Valentines in the early centuries of Christianity. Probably the best-known legend concerns a Roman priest who helped Christians during a religious persecution sanctioned by the Emperor. He himself was arrested and jailed. His jailer had a daughter named Julia, who was blind. Valentine healed her. The night before his execution, he wrote Julia a farewell note and signed it, “Your Valentine”. A later addition to the legend says that Julia planted a pink-blossomed almond tree near Valentine’s grave. The almond tree remains a symbol of abiding love and friendship.

It can be helpful to focus on a holiday’s origins when present grief collides with remembered joy of years past. So many holidays originate as expressions of victory over death. This particular legend of Valentine’s Day is no exception. Valentine himself is remembered as someone who touched many people’s lives. He was kind and reached out to others. He held to his beliefs despite the government’s efforts to undermine his and others’ freedom of religion. Even in prison, facing execution, he cared about Julia’s plight—and she was the daughter of his jailer, his supposed enemy. Remembering Valentine’s goodness, Julia memorialized him by planting a beautiful and sweet-scented tree. She may well have done this at great personal risk, but she had been changed forever by Valentine’s bravery and love.

We also are touched deeply and changed forever by those whom we grieve, in endless and unique ways. If it were not so, we wouldn’t be so wounded by their loss. When we remember the lessons we have learned from them, they continue to teach us. When we understand and emulate their courage, they still inspire us. Valentine opened Julia’s eyes, and thus her world. He also opened her heart to the beauties of abiding love and friendship. Our loved ones have done the same for us, sometimes in lavish or miraculous ways, but more often in the countless small gifts of everyday love and affection.

Grief hurts in unexpected and unbelievably profound ways. It feels as if an arrow has actually pierced the heart. Sifting through the memories, though, we find and claim and embrace the lessons and the gifts. We make them more completely our own. We in turn share them with others, continuing the story. The truth is we will always miss those who have died. It is also the truth that the abiding love and friendship which has blessed us lives on, real and vital and eternal.

The holiday season is upon us, and for the bereaved it can feel like an emotional minefield. Since this is a time of year when family togetherness is particularly uplifted, the absence of a loved one evokes tremendously strong feelings. There are many practical questions that arise, as well. Where will we gather for the holiday meal this year? Do we even want to gather? If so, should we observe the traditions as usual? Or should we try something completely different?

It’s even more complicated when some family members want to talk about it and others don’t. Or, someone has a very strong need and desire to observe the holiday one way, and someone else in the family wants just as deeply to do the opposite.

Whatever holidays you observe, and however you choose to spend them this year, you are not alone in your struggle. Just about every religion has a significant celebration before, during, or after the winter solstice. As the days grow shorter, the gathering darkness reminds us of our need for one another, for companionship, for comfort, for emotional and physical survival. Age-old spiritual questions of life and death are reawakened, sometimes knowingly, often unconsciously. Grief is powerful, as memories and longings are rekindled by music, foods, gifts, decorations, and other sounds, sights, and smells of the season.

The beginning of winter also marks the return of the sun. In the coldest time of the year, the light begins again to steadily grow each day. At first it is imperceptible. Slowly it becomes more evident that the daylight lasts just a little longer each day as we embark on the long journey towards spring.

Enclosed are some further thoughts about, and practical suggestions for, grieving during the holidays. All of us at Meridian Hospice hold you and your family in our thoughts and prayers. Please call us if we can be of further support to you, at 732-751-3750. You can also reach our Bereavement Coordinator, Claire Pula, at 732-751-3492.

The Staff of Meridian Hospice

Honoring Deceased Loved Ones at the Holidays

Make a donation: Choose a charity close to your loved one’s heart, or to a shelter for the homeless or battered, or to further research on the disease that claimed your loved one.

Contribute to community celebrations: Sponsor flowers in your house of worship, give time or ornaments to a neighborhood display, place a memorial note in the program for a school play or concert.

Emulate your loved one: Participate in a community concert if your loved one was musical, make that special recipe for which she or he was famous, or continue a tradition he or she loved.

Explore your ethnic traditions: Continue or rediscover yours and your loved one’s roots, or follow a time-honored way of remembering the dead at holiday time (e.g., one group’s belief is that the spirits of the beloved dead visit in the night between Christmas Eve and Christmas morning, so food is left on the table for them as a token of love and respect.) 

Accept and share your memories: Memories will often rise unbidden, so embrace them when they come. Sharing them with family and friends can bring tears, but tears are a source of physical and emotional relief. Memories can also bring joy, and to express them gives others who grieve permission to speak of what is also in their hearts.  

Focus on the spiritual: Whatever holidays you observe, they all originate in the human yearning for meaning, and a sense that we are not alone in our struggles to understand the deep questions of birth, life, death, existence, the universal quest for “Why?” Remembering, or learning more about, the faith origins of each holiday can be helpful for those who grieve, as it helps us place ourselves and our loved ones within a vast circle of past, present, and future generations who share this spiritual journey.  

The ways to honor a loved one’s memory are as unique and personal as the person you grieve. The above are just a few ideas to help start your own. Whatever you choose to do, large or small, will be a tribute to your loved one, a comfort to you, and perhaps a beacon of hope to someone else who needs it.

“A Time to Do, A Time to Rest, A Time to Grieve”

by Claire I. Pula

Most of us have been raised on the scriptures, legends, myths, folk and fairy tales of our ancestors. For many of us gathered here today, that would mean stories from Africa, the Middle East and other parts of Asia, and Europe. Think of all the marvelous characters that have taught us morals and wisdom and entertained us with shivers of fear or delight. Stories about animals are especially memorable, whether they are boot-wearing cats, donkeys that see angels, nightingales who soothe emperors, or a whole ark full of storm-tossed couples of every description. But can you think of many old stories about hummingbirds? 

Unless you have Native American ancestry, you probably won’t, because hummingbirds are native only to the Americas. But from the Mayans to the Mojave, Arawaks to Aztecs to Apaches, the First Nations traditions are rich with stories about hummingbirds--hummingbirds that talk and teach and help. Because they are pollinators, many stories characterize these tiny birds as the bringer of new life, and as providing for humans in many ways. They are known as healers. In some tales, hummingbirds are the spirits of dead ancestors, and therefore symbols of immortality. 

The image most of us have when we hear the word “hummingbird” is the incredible speed with which they beat their wings in order to hover in one place. Those minute, seemingly fragile wings beat so quickly that it makes a whirring sound audible to human ears—hence, the name “humming” bird. That gives them a remarkable stability as well. While hovering at a feeder in windy conditions, they maintain their head positions and orientation. They fly great distances, and even backwards. They can fly in heavy rain. No wonder they are symbols of faith, energy, vigor, and hard work. Sometimes it can seem like they are in overdrive. 

When a loved one dies, we are often forced into overdrive. We have to notify an endless stream of people—family and friends, the funeral home, clergy, a hall or restaurant for the funeral repast, Social Security, banks, insurance companies, doctors, schools. No matter how much pre-planning has been done, details come crashing in. Do suits need to be dry-cleaned? What readings or music will be most meaningful? Can disabled family members negotiate the uneven ground at the cemetery? Do we have enough money to pay a caterer? Who is going to watch the house during the funeral? We beat and beat our wings frantically, trying to think and do and decide and just keep breathing in a world that has turned upside down and inside out.

That’s only the first few days and weeks. The legal details go on seemingly forever. And it’s often months before the full emotional and spiritual and also financial implications start to sink in. When the world around seems to have forgotten the loss, or assumes that the bereaved is “moving on” or has even gotten “over it”, the deep pain is starting to fully awaken. As awful as those first weeks were, there was still a certain amount of shock and numbness. Gradually, life for others settles back in to a routine, but your routine is gone. Well-meaning people advise, “Just get back to normal.” How can you get back to normal when the one who made your life normal is no longer here? Those rapidly fluttering wings can feel like they’re going to break at any moment and there will be no way to stop the free fall.

The flip side of the frantic activity is the sheer physical exhaustion of grief that lays us out flat—those days when it is a major accomplishment simply to get out of bed, maybe shower, and perhaps manage to choke down a piece of toast and a cup of tea. Or those days when it is impossible to string two sensible words together or remember what it was you were supposed to do and what you were coming into this room to get, and why does any of it matter anyway? People worry when this happens. They think they are “losing it” or they aren’t being “strong”. But it is common, so common that when C.S. Lewis’ wife died, the renowned author complained, “And no one ever told me about the laziness of grief.”

This is where hummingbirds teach us what is perhaps their most surprising and valuable lesson. What we don’t always realize is that hummingbirds spend a lot of time just sitting. They have to. Because of their small size and high metabolic rate, they eat many small meals during the day. After each meal, they sit and digest. Hummingbirds spend an average of 10 to 15% of their time feeding and 75 to 80% sitting and digesting. At night, and in times of scarcity, they go into torpor. This state of torpor is similar to hibernation. By slowing their metabolism to a mere fraction of its normal rate, they are able to survive the cold times and the hungry times.

Grieving and mourning take so much energy and cause so much confusion that it is absolutely necessary to take time to rest, time to think, time to cry, time to stare into space. Some decisions can’t be postponed, but some can. It’s hard to ignore the voices that say “just stay busy”, “shouldn’t you be getting out more?”, “somebody else could use those clothes”, “the house is too big, why don’t you move to Florida”, “you should, should, should…” But rushing into decisions that can wait, or trying to hurry through grief, can cause more hurt in the long run.

Somehow it needs to be a balance. There are times when we must work, and work hard. This means not only the tasks that follow a death, it also means the very hard work of grief itself. It means allowing memories to surface, and feeling the unexpectedly wide range of emotions, from anger and loneliness to irritation, frustration, and fear. It even means letting the laughter ring out as we remember a funny incident or an endearing quirk. At some point it usually means having to sort through belongings, but there is no set timetable. There are no universal rules as to when, and how, and where.

Ironic as it sounds, some of the hardest and best grief work is done in times of torpor. It happens when we allow all those responsibilities that compete for our attention to take a hike-- at least for a while. When we close our eyes and stretch out our arms to feel the sun and wind, or take a walk in the woods or by the ocean, or simply flop on the sofa and do nothing—those can be the most fertile times. Time and space melt away and we can be honest with God and ourselves about what we feel, what we want to remember, what we need to release. It is often in those moments when we see, or hear, or smell, or feel something that is so comforting, and perhaps so familiar, that we know that the story is not over. Our stories are not over. Our loved ones’ stories are not over. Our stories together are not over.

In a culture that prides itself on measuring nanoseconds, the bereaved are too often expected to be at a certain place in their journey at three months, six months, a year, and beyond. These expectations come from others, from the culture. These expectations, and pressures, also come from the bereaved themselves. Some legends say that hummingbirds float free of time. When we allow ourselves to slow down to that point where time is no longer a stern taskmaster, then we are freed to do the grief work that we must do. We are also better able to recognize and savor and cherish other moments. Peaceful moments when pain is stilled, hope stirs, and even joy seems like it might again be possible. Golden moments when the veil between this world and the next is so thin as to be practically transparent. Blessed moments when we know that they who go before us are somehow still with us—when we understand and believe that Love not only survives, it continues to grow and to blossom.

Hospice Memorial Service
October 19, 2016

The Pain and Hope of Spring

by Claire Pula

Spring is an odd time of year, a time of hope yet also a time of poignancy. T.S. Eliot wrote, “April is the cruelest month, breeding lilacs out of the dead land, mixing memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.” An old television commercial intones, “January, February, March, April, May..” The first months show people playing cards and otherwise being sedentary. As the months progress towards summer, the people slowly become more active outdoors, whacking at tennis balls, etc. The commercial, it is revealed, is for a pain reliever: “After sitting still all winter…”

Physical pain and emotional pain are not usually associated with the spring, but the reality is that any growth involves some level of pain, from mild discomfort to outright agony. The first weeks or even months of grief are brutal, but many people are surprised by a new kind of pain that emerges after any initial shock and numbness lessen. The full reality of life without the beloved begins to emerge just at the time when the world expects the bereaved to be “over it”. It might be a blooming spring for others, but for the bereaved it still feels frozen and barren and dark.

Spring is truly a mixed time. There are daffodils and late-season snow, robin song and chilly rain, budding trees and gale-force winds. A few days of bright balm are followed by damp and dull gray. Awakening from the hibernation of deep winter is both hopeful and challenging. As you grieve, you are likely experiencing a similar mixture of bad days and days that, if not actually good, are at least more bearable. Bleakness is relieved here and there by the unexpected brightness of a happy memory. A time of relative calm is suddenly shattered by a surge of sorrow brought on by a calendar milestone, or a song, or the sight of a favorite food in the grocery store. The only thing predictable about grief is its very unpredictability.

Embracing your grief is what will eventually help you to again find meaning and even joy in life. Grief is painful. Growth is painful. But keeping yourself open to it will help you to move through it. Consistently denying pain only drives it deeper underground where it festers. The seed that fulfills its purpose allows itself to be broken open; then it can accept the nourishment of soil and water, and to slowly move toward the sunshine and open air.