Why Grief Counseling? by Lucinda Weatherby
Lucinda Weatherby’s new memoir Five Hours tells the story of her son Theo, who was born with trisomy 13, a rare chromosomal disorder with fatal birth defects. Rather than take extraordinary steps to prolong what would have been a short and painful life, Lucinda and her husband made the decision to let Theo go. In this brave and beautiful memoir, Lucinda tells the story of Theo’s life—a life that was bathed in the love of the family members and close friends who gathered in the predawn hours to welcome him and then say goodbye—and the profound sense of grace his existence bestowed upon all of those he touched. Five Hours is also the story of a mother who is forced to confront every parent’s most terrifying fear: losing a child. With unflinching honesty and eloquence and even humor, Lucinda chronicles Theo’s life and death, and the inspiring aftermath of an experience most people think they wouldn’t be able to survive. All readers, whether parents or not, will be moved by her ability to confront a tragedy and transform it into something healing and transcendent.
In Five Hours we also learn that Weatherby built upon her experience to become a grief counselor. We asked her to tell us a little more about how she came to make this courageous decision.
“The greatest gift we can offer anyone is our attention.”
—Thich Nhat Hanh
“99% of life is showing up.”
—A button my mom used to wear when I was growing up
Before my son Theo died in my arms shortly after birth, I never expected or wanted to be a grief counselor. Considering my background as a therapist, I was surprisingly poor at being there for grieving people. I never knew what to say. I had a hard time imagining what it was like, or how I could possibly help. Mostly I avoided people who were grieving, and even in their presence, I was too wrapped up in paying attention to my own discomfort to offer any meaningful attention to them.
When my son died, it was interesting to be in the griever role and to learn first-hand what support could be. Certain people bravely came into the inner circle of my experience. They didn’t need to say anything and they couldn’t take away the pain, but they joined me in the stunned infinite silence of great loss. I could immediately sense it in those people, and they weren’t always the ones I expected, though many bereaved parents and my grief counselors were among them. It was like having someone with me in a stormy ocean, bobbing in the water next to me, letting the waves uplift and move and crash over them, too. No words needed. No one trying to fix me or make me feel better. Just presence, courage. Doesn’t mean my chances of survival are any better, but I am not facing this alone. Someone sees what I am seeing, sees me seeing it, is willing to be here and not need to know what to do or what it all means but will bear witness with me.
About a year after my son died, I was asked to take a grief training and begin facilitating groups in my community. Saying yes was a no-brainer. Like many recipients of true support, I wanted to give back, to make meaning out of my experience. And now I knew I could. That capacity was in me all along, my loss only helped me realize it. What got me there was a bit of perspective. I’d feel afraid of something, like running a grief group, and I’d tell myself, You faced the terror of watching your own child die, this is easy, you can handle it. That’s all it took, a bit of courage. The difference between jumping into the water and letting fear keep me on the shore. And it’s not that I have to get rid of the fear, or whatever I’m feeling and thinking, it’s more a matter of letting it be there and giving my attention to the other anyway. Whereas I’d previously thought I needed to know what to say or how to help someone in grief, I now realize it’s a lot simpler. Not easy, necessarily, but it’s really just a matter of showing up. There’s no trick. You don’t need to be trained or initiated. You don’t even have to have been through the same kind of loss. My seven year old niece did it when Theo died. I could just feel her there, with me, I could see it in her wide-awake eyes looking into mine.
So I began to step into storms. And once I experienced being with another that way, I was hooked. It is an incredible gift to be allowed into the center of someone’s loss. Pain that intense tends to burn away unnecessary burdens like ambition and social expectations. What’s left is raw and true and often devastatingly beautiful. I would never turn down an invitation into that space. It moves me deeply, is one of the few things I know that has the power to change me.
A woman whose son committed suicide told our group, “I’m learning to forgive him for doing the worst thing to me imaginable. For killing the person I loved most in the world, himself.” It shook me deeply to hear this mother describe what I now think of as the ultimate unconditional love, not the kind I used to speak of lightly. And this gave me an odd sense of hope, because I could hear in her voice and see in her face that she had it in her to do this, and I think that made me believe in my own untapped ability to forgive myself and others. That moment taught me more than all the Sunday sermons of my childhood ever did.
I keep going to grief groups not just to give back and learn, but also to be there for the grieving mother in me. The outer me, who has told my story hundreds of times, including in a new memoir, Five Hours: How My Son’s Brief Life Changed Everything, has moved on, thinking of the experience as something that happened to a younger version of myself, in a different lifetime. But grief is a story with no true closure, no neatly tied-up endings. Part of me always knows exactly how old Theo would have been now, and mourns him at every age and stage. Group gives me the place to stop and take stock. And being with a mom fresh in her loss is a way to honor the timeless part of me that this just happened to, that still wants to wail, to cry, to be held, witnessed, nurtured. When I hear a parent describe her desperate yearning to see her child again, I’m also listening to myself. And she senses me getting it with her, and knows she’s not alone. In a way it makes us part of something much bigger than our own personal losses. People showed up for me in my time, now I show up for these ones, and in turn they will show up for other parents, joining us and our children and people we will never know in an infinite web of understanding. Of witnessing others bearing their burdens, reminding us that we can bear our own. Simple yet in a way more intricate and beautiful than we can ever know.
I’m reminded of something I read in grad school, I think it was Jung describing the Aboriginal concept of dream time. It’s created when people circle up; you leave linear time and enter the place beyond, where everything is happening at once, and everyone is connected. What grieving parent wouldn’t want to enter this sacred out-of-time land where our children are still alive? Where it’s not too late to say everything we thought we’d lost the chance to say? It sounds woo-woo to the rational mind, but I find myself going back to these circles again and again. And I witness beauty I haven’t seen elsewhere.
Grief work is a practice, like daily prayer. I imagine I’ll do it for the rest of my life, gladly.
LUCINDA WEATHERBY has a BA in English and an MA in psychology. Her writing has appeared in publications such as The Sun and Connotation Press. She works as a grief counselor in Ashland, Oregon. Five Hours is her memoir.
Posted: Oct 27, 2015
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