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Faces of grief

December 11, 2011

On May 12, 1986, in the early hours before dawn, 19 students and adults from Oregon Episcopal school left the Timberline lodge to climb to the summit of Mt. Hood.  They hoped to watch the sunrise from the top of the mountain.  Six hikers turned back early while the rest continued to climb.A freak spring blizzard moved in when the hikers were about 100 feet from the summit.  A hiking guide and a student turned back in hopes of finding help.  The nine remaining climbers dug into an ice cave for shelter as the storm continued for three days.  Rescuers found the climbers late in the day on May 14. (The Seattle Times, July 25, 1986, Jack Broom and Steve Bovey.)  By the end of the day only two teenagers of the climbers rescued survived.  One made a complete recovery.  The second had both legs amputated. (AROUND THE NATION, May 19, 1986.)

About four years after the tragedy on Mt. Hood, I heard Doug Manning, author of Don’t Take My Grief Away From Me, talk about the loss of a child.  He spoke about the depths of grief for parents and the process of holding on to their child’s life to insure its meaning.  And then he talked about the lives lost, and saved on the mountain.  He had spoken at a conference in Portland shortly after the tragedy.  He talked about those who died, and about the young man, 16, who survived, thanks to the amputation of both his legs.  He spoke about a hidden face of grief when he said:

“We’re going to have a hard time letting this young man grieve the loss of his feet.  We’re going to tell him how lucky he is that he survived.  But no matter how lucky he is, he’s still going to miss his feet.”

As if the grief of death is not enough, we are faced with the grief of what was lost in surviving. Sometimes the mere fact that we survived becomes our loss, our shame.  That for no apparent reason someone died, and we did not.  We bury those losses inside, keeping them silent because they are without merit compared to someone else’s.

The loss of a home, or a job would never compare to the loss of a loved one.  But what if loss isn’t about comparison, but connection?  What if by being present for each other in all our layers of loss, we can begin to understand our relationship with grief.  What if the loss of lesser things teaches us that grief of any size is hard, and that we can survive it?  Grief has many faces.  We may find the strength and comfort of healing as we learn to see them all.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. December 18, 2011 7:27 pm

    This is beautifully written and SO important. Growing up, we were told, “think of the starving children in Africa…’ and we did. We often did so at the risk of negating our own suffering which leads to problems later in life. We all have our pain and you can not spend time comparing it to others who seem to be in more pain. Grief is Grief and, in my experience, the only way Out Is Through. If we are not given the chance to move through we are stuck with the residual gunk.

    I know of a woman who survived a plane crash while 4 of her friends died. She is living in that residual Hell of survivors guilt. She needed validation for her own pain.

    THank You for posting these important and sensitive thoughts.

    • December 19, 2011 2:18 pm

      Thank you for your thoughts. You are right that grief is grief, and ours, whatever the loss, feels about as bad as it can feel. I doubt we realize how much our reaching out to each other invites and encourages us to move through our grief, regardless the source. I hope my observations of loss during a time of year that focuses on celebration are helpful, maybe even comforting.

      • December 19, 2011 2:27 pm

        You are an Angel of Many Natures; just a hunch. Loss during this time of year is both a curse and a blessing it seems. It is so much harder to put my pain behind me when there are so many memories of Holiday past lingering. It is also a blessing to have the pain in my hands as I wander through each day. It is pain that must be dealt with and the season demands that from us.

        Thank you for your Blog and for being so insightful. Peace to you, Jen

  2. December 21, 2011 2:59 am

    My grief comforts me…this is a truth I understand as others wish I would silent. Thank you.

    • December 22, 2011 6:51 pm

      I am glad you find the comfort in your grief. I agree that others not wanting to talk about our grief often has less to do with fear of causing us discomfort, and more about their own discomfort with the topic of death, loss, and grief. Maybe “getting acquainted” with sorrow and grief includes allowing it to befriend us in addition to the times we just manage to tolerate it.


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