Guest Column

When Grief Hits Home

Ireceived four phone calls within a three-month period recently, each bearing the news that one of my nearest and dearest family members had died. Three deaths were by natural causes and the fourth was a suicide.

Though I’m a former school counselor with a Ph.D. in counseling and psychology, nothing had prepared me for this series of sad events. Dealing with the aftermath took every bit of spiritual energy I possessed. I maintained a journal of what helped me heal as I worked through the shock and grief.

Giving help is easy: Accepting help is nearly impossible. As a lifelong helper, I found it was absolutely necessary to show my vulnerability and reach out for help. If I was having a bad day coping with the loss, I began to share that information with those who came in contact with me that day. This was difficult since I prided myself on lifting myself up my own bootstraps. I found, however, that it took an army of compassionate family members, co-workers, neighbors and sometimes total strangers to help me lift those bootstraps.

Along the way I made new friends and deepened existing bonds. However, some of those I thought would be the most supportive were not able to extend themselves to me.

Message of Thanks
During this stressful time, I found I was to receive a major award from the university in my hometown. My acceptance speech was something I dreaded. And then I came up with an idea: Weave together in that speech my gratitude for the award and a thanksgiving for my “four people in heaven” who made that award possible. The evening was a triumph in a way I would never have dreamed possible. Many people afterward thanked me for putting into words what was in their hearts. Your standard speech it was not.

My coping advice boils down to these few points:

* Simplify, simplify. For the first time in many years, I spent a lot of time in my beautiful home. My best friend and I gardened all spring. The result was a memorial to those I had lost and a tribute in riotous colors to life itself. My husband and I got reacquainted as we sat out on the porch just shooting the breeze about everything from our golf scores to all the things we want to do with the rest of our lives. Time stood still. The computer waited. Meetings were done via conference call when possible. The world did not end. It was indeed the pause that was refreshing.

* Somebody up there likes me. I continued my usual life of daily spiritual readings. Something happened along the way, however. This take-charge baby boomer let God take over. What a relief! I had a tearful reunion with Weight Watchers and started Pilates training. Somehow self-improvement just got easier.

A dear friend of mine, who had escaped Nazi Germany more than 60 years ago, recounted to me the terrifying journey surrounding that escape. She said she repeated one sentence over and over during those nightmare years: “Let go and let God.” It worked for her. It works for me.

* Life is a circle. I learned that grief is circular. It never completely goes away, but at the same time, each time the waves of grief washed over me, those waves were somehow less intense. It’s one of those miracles no one ever mentions.

Carol Engler is an assistant professor of educational administration at Ashland University, 1900 Dublin-Granville Road, Columbus OH 43229. E-mail: