By Blair Holtey
Back in my college years, I was given a challenging assignment to write a paper on “grief.” I didn’t know what grief was, let alone know how to start the crazy thing. Coincidentally, a friend told me that a guest speaker would be talking about end of life the next day. I had nothing to lose, so I went.
So I finished my paper on grief. In the reference section, I wrote, “Interview with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross.”
My teacher wrote in red, “Must actually have been present to interview a person in order to write ‘interviewed.’” When I told my professor that I had met her backstage before her presentation, he couldn’t believe it. But I had it on tape. I had no clue who she was at the time. My teacher was still trying to wrap his head around how I got the interview. When I told him, “I just asked,” he still couldn’t believe it!
If I learned anything that day, in the presence of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, it was that one must be present to get through grief. It is the most difficult of feelings I think I’ve ever, ever experienced, and yet so profound!
People often say, “What happens to me? What can I expect to happen when I die?” As if being a chaplain places me in a position of such knowledge. But it finally occurred to me, after thinking about it for years, that people really aren’t asking “what”; they just need to process. We all know we’re going to die, but most of us don’t get to interview with it, listen to it, talk about the “great it.”
My grandmother never got the opportunity to sit down and interview death. She didn’t get to read about it or study it; she just grieved through several deaths (mother, spouse and son) in a very short period of time. She talked about it once in a while and, perhaps, she dealt with grief in her own way, by lighting candles. I’ll never know because we didn’t talk too much about it. She had to pull herself together and move forward with her family.
I experienced grief, not knowing it was such, when my hamster died. Peaches was the first living thing that I remember caring about and lost to death. I even had a little funeral for him and placed his body in a shoe box, in terms I heard in an old Western, “To give’m a proper burial.”
I share these thoughts because it has occurred to me that there are at least two important aspects to getting through grief. When offering grief support to another person, visit with no preconceived notions. If they hurt, they hurt. In his book Don’t Sing Songs to the Heavy Heart, Dr. Kenneth Hauck emphasizes that “Planning ahead of time how your interaction with a hurting person ought to go is very unproductive.”
Secondly, don’t let yourself get in the way of helping someone get through their grief. Be comfortable with your discomfort. Otherwise, you may be a stumbling block in the potential progress of healing. Like the unsuspecting young lad that I was, I probably got an interview and inside information from Ms. Ross because I didn’t have an agenda and didn’t let anxiety (although I didn’t know I should have any) get in the way. One must be present!
Blair Holtey, BCC, is spiritual care coordinator at Mease Countryside Hospital in Safety Harbor, FL.