End of Life Matters
End of life Doula Melissa Murphy, a companion, guide and resource supporting our community in end of life matters.
To the woman undergoing routine scans for a dormant brain tumour. The mother, her child in hospital with undeclared illness. I see you. To the daughter witnessing a parent’s decline since admission to the care home. The 32-year-old who believes self killing could be the answer. I hear you. To the man living with long Covid; debilitated – two years and counting. You, wondering who you’d be if not a parent. They, in the process of relocation; hoping to feel less isolated. I acknowledge you.
Most of us have heard the saying “Be kind. Everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about”. When we hear the word grief, often what comes to mind is that someone died, yet we grieve much more than that. The death of someone dear (even in that of a challenged relationship) can feel monumental. But what about the myriad of losses; the everyday grief we carry? These unnamed people I have paired with a single sentence are all folks I’ve had some contact with in the past week – via brief connection or simply in passing. Their grief is immense, and these are but a few stories. No matter that it’s mid-summer or that our lockdown days are over. To be human is to be among the collective of walking wounded when we really pause and tune in to one another. Can we do this when we’re living with loss ourselves? And how to celebrate life amidst the sorrow? I love these words of Francis Weller: “The work of a mature person is to hold grief in one hand and joy in the other.” In other words, we find a way. I’m also reminded of this reflection shared by empoweredthroughgrief.com, an educational blog and support resource based in Montreal. They write “Grief can’t be fixed. However it can be spoken, it can be shared and it can be witnessed. The greatest gift you can offer someone is to be the listener.”
Have you considered how many countless losses are not “openly acknowledged, socially mourned or publicly supported?” This is how counsellor, author and professor Kenneth Doka described disenfranchised grief, a term he coined in 1989 as a means to name and offer context to his own stories, as well as those of people he’d supported. Other examples include job loss or that of a place or residence, pregnancy loss, the end of a relationship, or the death of a pet. Similarly, ambiguous loss is a person’s profound sense of loss and sadness not associated with the death of a loved one. Addiction, immigration, mental health, injury, are a few examples that may be linked with such experiences.
Frances Weller (one I’d quoted) is another therapist, teacher and writer well known for his specialisation in grief work. In his book ‘The Wild Edge of Sorrow’, he shares his creation the ‘Five Gates of Grief’, said to be like starting points as if on a map. They are a means to access feelings and tap into “as many possible sources of grief and the myriad of emotional responses to them”. In summary they are: 1) everything we love we will lose (in other words, the nature of impermanence); 2) the places that have not known love (the parts of ourselves that carry shame or regret and withhold self compassion; 3) the sorrows of the world (trusting this needs no further explanation); 4) what we expected and did not receive (this speaks to the dreams or visions that haven’t come to fruition in life. It also has to do with our relation to the world and one another: belonging); and 5) ancestral grief (or that which we carry in our bones or our cells as descendants – whether through stories told or untold).
Every grief is unique and all are significant. It can be tempting to compare mine to yours and is something I’m learning not to do. It’s too easy to feel as if what I’m going through is little compared to so and so, but this isn’t useful and doesn’t honour or ease the process. Meeting our losses and the grief stories of others is a practice for life; each experience takes as long as it takes. I continue to learn that grief can be supported through community, ritual and compassion. It can also be integrated through movement and rest: holding an awareness for the need to shift our pacing- slowing down or even pausing altogether. In community, it is being together in a supportive way: grief circles and death cafes can be spaces where sharing, listening and healing can occur but there are many other places as well. In recent months, Bridge Street Community Cafe with listening volunteers, has opened in Bantry and grief and caregiver cafes have been held around the country. All feel like a return to community and the way forward. Ritual can be an off-putting word for some, but it’s simply anything done routinely – not unlike the daily habits where we look after ourselves or seek moments of solace. Rituals are like tools that offer moments to focus and just breathe. They can be as simple as quiet time in nature, sitting with a cup of tea, reading or speaking a prayer, or creating something in remembrance of someone or something. In the last couple of years I’ve discovered ‘Be Ceremonial’, a Canadian-based, global online community offering inspiration on this topic. Movement can be anything we want it to be – dancing, sport, Tai chi, yoga, walking. What do you turn to as you live with loss? What are the ways you celebrate being alive?
“Grief and celebration share the same bed – one keeps stealing the blanket, the other keeps knitting a new one.” Rosemary Wahtola Trommer
To learn more or to connect with Melissa, email her at email@example.com or visit www.starsbeyondourskin.com. She also welcomes your questions or ideas for future columns.