On September 18, 2018, several hours before Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, my father died. Surrounded by my mother, my daughter and me, he left this world well-loved, just three months shy of his 100th birthday.
I had spoken previously with my kids about the inevitable – that their Grandpa’s death, while deeply sad for us all, would not carry the same sense of tragedy that their own father’s had when he died from cancer at the age of 65.
But now, the two men who had meant the most to me and my children were gone.
I turned my focus and attention to my mom, his “Child Bride,” as he liked to call her. I knew only too well of the mixed feelings and tumultuous emotions that assail the heart after a death: disbelief, numbness, anxiety, fear, anger, sadness and yes, relief. In Mom’s case, relief that she would not have to witness her husband of 68 years suffer a slow or painful demise.
Within 48 hours of my father’s passing, Mom rallied the troops – a mélange of our family spanning four generations. She held counsel from a worn leather chair in the den and announced: “I’ve made a decision. I’m not going to crumble or give up. There’s a lot more left in me, and I want to keep learning and growing. I want to see what’s next!”
And from that bold assertion of life, an idea was born.
“What’s Next?” became the name of the support group that my mother initiated in the subdivision where she lives. And although never in her 93 years of life had she done anything remotely like this before, she sent an email to friends and neighbors, members of her book group and bridge club, inviting them to the community clubhouse to explore the next chapter of their lives and support each other in their journeys.
Like an expectant party-giver, Mom wondered if anyone would come. When almost 30 people arrived for the first meeting, more chairs were brought in, and room was made for a group that would become a focal point during mom’s first year without Dad.
Research has shown that in the aftermath of a loss, people react in various ways. There is no “right” way to respond to loss: each person deals with loss differently based on religious beliefs, personal experience, and an individual’s own emotional state prior to the event. Some fall into deep depression, unable or unwilling to accept the changes that have altered their life. Others draw upon emotional resilience, garnering an inner strength and optimism that drives them to seek new alternatives for living in a world they never anticipated. For the latter, tragic events become mandates – not to abandon life, but to live life with renewed meaning and purpose.
I understood from my own experience how unfamiliar and frightening the landscape feels after such significant loss. Forced to tread on unknown emotional terrain with uncertain footing, we ask questions to which simple answers are not readily available. Questions like: “Who am I now without my spouse? How do I go on?”
Resilience is a counterpart to grief. Resilience is also an antidote to grief. The Oxford English dictionary defines resilience from the Latin resiliere, meaning “to jump back.” One definition has to do with the properties of materials (e.g. elasticity), but the ones that resonate for me address the human condition with words like: “rebounding, springing back” and “elasticity of spirit” and the “power of recovery.”
From my perspective, rebounding or springing back to what we were prior to the death of a loved one is not possible. I am not certain it is even desirable. Because love changes us and losing someone we love also changes us. As a result, we become different from the very experience of loving and losing.
Taking steps to move forward after a loss, however, is a manifestation of our emotional resilience, an example of the human “elasticity of spirit.” The capability to stretch in ways that let us cope, adapt and adjust is the key to our ability to embrace life again.
The answers to “Who am I now and how do I go on?” are not found in journals or self-help books. They come from putting one foot in front of the other, surviving an hour, a day, a week and then years at a time. Our loss reshapes us, and through the power of healing and recovery, we find new ways to be and go on.
My mother may have initiated “What’s Next?” to bring people together to talk and support one another as they moved forward into the next chapter of their lives. But from my vantage point, her real success was in harnessing her determination and resilience to begin crafting a meaningful life after loss, one meeting at a time.