I went to a COPE workshop about 11 years ago, not knowing the topic until I got there. The woman presenting was talking about the “afterlife.” She didn’t do specific readings but talked generally about her ability to “read” how our loved ones were doing. I did roll my eyes a few times, but there was no doubt of the shared need we all had in being there.
A couple came quite late to the meeting, walking carefully to find seats in the small crowded room. I see them so vividly in my mind’s eye. Swollen with grief, faces both pale and ruddy, and as sturdy and big as they looked, they seemed brittle to me. They spoke later in the meeting, telling the story of their child’s medical emergency and the brain surgeries that followed. Their daughter lingered for a short time before she died. Her mother, still dressed in the black of mourning, asked the facilitator a question. In a tremulous voice that made me cry, she said, “They had to shave her head for her surgeries. Has my daughter’s hair grown back?” Every parent there felt her agony and poignant wish. This mother’s shock and grief were so raw and brutal that I feared her heart would break. Literally.
In my work as a social worker, working primarily with parents, young children, and the professionals and institutions that support them, I have been on the frontline of workers supporting communities through many public and tragic events: fires and airplane crashes, hurricanes and wars, and 9/11 are some of the many. Actually, we all have lived through them and as a result, there has been a growing and compelling body of research on the impact of trauma and stress on our minds and our bodies and our health. Our normal and human responses to these traumatic events seem to affect our biochemistry, our physiology, leaving imprints and changes that may affect some of us for the rest of our lives. And then there is “broken heart syndrome” where the death of a loved one can take a dangerous toll on survivors. The loss of a child is a traumatic event for families, and the loss of a loved one through sudden and violent events, perhaps the most so.
We know that a little stress can be good—we study harder for a test, work more diligently to finish a task at work, move quickly to take care of issues in our lives, clean the house just before company comes. Chronic stress does not seem to have such positive outcomes and isolation during times of high stress can be dangerous. Being too alone with our thoughts when we are in crisis and vulnerable can be toxic. How we process these feelings, how we reconfigure our lives, often and even reluctantly, makes a difference for our future and those we love.
While we never stop paying attention to those we have lost, we need to pay attention to helping those who are still here. And scientists have a new field of study for this as well—Post Traumatic Growth. Sometimes this very stress pushes us forward in loving and powerful ways. Positive things can grow even as we live through the worst of our times. I think a perfect example would be the founders of COPE, who took their sudden and overwhelming sorrow , found and helped each other, and then helped all who would follow in our own grief journey when they created COPE.
COPE helps families grieve safely. Not in isolation, but with others who live parallel lives, who are brave enough to put words to awful experiences, who know that bad jokes breathe life back into us. We share tragic stories and funny memories. We help each other rebuild our lives. But we still need to pay attention to our health and our coping skills. We need to be honest with our doctors and see them when we need to. We need to remember to walk, to eat well, to sleep, to be with others and stay connected.
Our love for our children stays long after their lives end. We hold our connections to them not just in our memories, but in our bodies, our hearts, our minds. I have never sat down to think if I still love Steven. I feel the love, and loss, in each tear that still comes, in each smile when I think of Steven stories. But I also have to remember to live safely and mindfully, for my family, my friends, my work. The more I allow myself to keep all this in my life, the stronger I stay. All these connections are the ballast that keeps me going when there are threatening storms.
Stay safe and healthy, please. Take care of yourselves and those near to you. And from me, a grateful thank you to COPE.