Like everything else in life, we handle grief and loss with the tools we were given throughout our life. Much like a carpenter, we choose the tools according to what job we need to do. The tools in that toolbox range from physical, emotional, spiritual and on and on. What we choose as an individual can be very personal to our life and our situation.
One of my first grieving memories was the day my father left home for the last time. My parents divorced when I was very young. I remember standing in the driveway, not quite 4 years old, and watching the car pull away. There is nothing beyond that, I just remember I was confused and probably sad, wondering if I had anything to do with his leaving.
Sitting in my fourth grade class at Summer Hill Elementary School, an announcement came over the intercom. ”President Kennedy has been shot in Dallas Texas.” There was a silence that enveloped that little school that day. I don’t remember much detail, but I remember seeing everyone crying, students, teachers, custodian, and parents. The usual exuberance when the bell rang was absent and I remember walking home from school with a heavy heart. I didn’t know what that meant, but I knew if everyone was affected like that, the consequences must be huge. I was met by my mom at the front door and that is where I found comfort.
It was football night for our high school. Rick and I left when the game was over, stopping by his house for him to change clothes. The plan, as always, was to meet friends at Shoney’s to get something to eat and it was the cool thing to do. His parents greeted us and I immediately went to call and check in with my mom. She answered with a tearful hello and in the next breath told me the Marshall Football team had been killed in a tragic plane crash. My brother had been on the Marshall team and all of the Virginia boys had been at our house the Sunday before. Mom probably cooked for them and there was a lot of fun and laughter as the guys planned to head back to school. One of my brothers close friends had a 1 year old (if I remember correctly) and they left his bottle there when they left. They had a game that week at East Carolina and there was great anticipation. On their return, the plane crashed into a hillside killing approximately 36 players. coaches, administrators and 25 prominent citizens that supported the Thundering Herd. It was considered the worst sports tragedy of that time.
I immediately headed home finding my mom with tear streaked cheeks, phone ringing, people arriving for support. The TV stations were rolling the team roster and my brother was listed. As it turns out, my brother had left the team that week and was actually in Blacksburg meeting his wife for the weekend. He learned of the tragedy and called home immediately. There was relief and devastation occurring all at the same time. My brother had to return, weeks later, to gather his belongings from the dorm the guys occupied. Talk about a true grieving experience, this was it. My mom kept that baby bottle for the next thirty plus years in the same location located in the cabinet next to the glasses.
Times were different though. There was no trauma response like you would see today. Media attention, strong at first, faded. Funerals were held and life continued just as if nothing had happened. Tears were spilled in private, families tried to survive, the university tried to move forward, the town tried to rebuild. Those not on the plane that day, began a life of grieving and uncertainty.
I remember this as if it were etched in my mind with permanent ink. It was the third time I had a major grieving experience and I was still in high school. Funny thing is, until the last few years I never thought of these things as traumatic events, but they were. To be honest, I hadn’t related these events to a grieving experience until I started reading everything I could about grief and healing. It was just life or so I thought.
I come from a “pull your socks up Nancy” generation. There was no time for “feeling sorry for yourself”, but instead you had to “Be Strong”. What the heck does that mean? In my world it means “keep trying” and do what you need to do to put one foot in front of the other. How do you be strong? What real choices do you have to survive whatever crisis barrels in and disrupts your life?
We are strong by opening our eyes each morning. We are strong by taking a shower and getting the kids to school or going to work. We are strong if, today, we sit with our grief and shed our tears and shut out the world for a little while. We are strong if we keep trying to exit the maze to see what there might be on the other side. We are strong because these are the cards we were dealt and to remain lost in the maze is really much more overwhelming than to keep trying to find our way.