The Healing Power of Community

I have heard it said many times that everyone grieves differently. From experience, I know it to be true.

How we grieve depends on a lot of factors--prior experience with grief, the many facets and dynamics involved in the loss, our personalities, and more.

I've been through the grief cycle many times in my life, but as far as losing someone to a traumatic death, it has happened twice--my son, Levi, and my grandmother, Martha.

I just called her Grandma.

Grandma died in a car accident when I was twenty years old. I was still living at home, about to enter my first year of college.

As the oldest grandchild, and having often been told how much I reminded family members of my grandmother, I had always felt a special connection to her. After my parents split when I was fifteen, my grandmother (who lived only 3/4 mile down the road) had become even more important to me. She was the one I called when I struggled with a recipe, or needed the voice of wisdom.

When she died, I shared that loss with my rather large extended family. But for the most part, I grieved her alone. I was a granddaughter, not a daughter, and I hadn't even seen her before she died, despite having driven through the night to try to reach her in time. I had friends who empathized, but the loss, while significant, is still something I dealt with largely on my own. So I thought that this was how grief was handled.

Then Levi died.

By the time we had left the hospital that dreadful morning--a mere two hours after arriving--there was already a voice mail on my phone offering casseroles and help from the music teacher's association in my town.

My sister was already looking for flights up from Seattle, and was on her way hours later. Our friends Wes and Serena, who live sixteen hours away, piled their four kids into a van as soon as they heard the news and drove until they got here, taking the next week to just spend time with us and bless us (and cook for us!)

Two of my closest local friends were at our house within half an hour of when we returned home, doing our dishes and spending time mourning with us. By that night, they had coordinated meals for us for several weeks, (which would turn into about a month of meals supplied by our church family and community friends.)

Other friends had arrived with lawn tractors and a passel of teenage boys to get our yard into shape for the family that would soon be arriving for the funeral. Another friend offered to be the liaison between us and the funeral parlour, handling most of the arrangements so we didn't have to fuss about small decisions when we could barely cope with getting out of bed.

The list goes on. Another friend texted me every day for weeks, and frequently thereafter for up to a year, with encouraging words, scripture, and prayers. The outpouring of support and encouragement we received through social media and other online forms of communication from friends and strangers alike was overwhelming in its magnitude. A friend from Arkansas who couldn't come sent the biggest bunches of helium balloons I have ever seen in my life. There were more kindnesses than I could possibly list here. Suffice it to say, it was a LOT.

When the funeral was over, and the company had left, and we still had friends here, and others who came back later to support us when the hubbub died down, and on and on, Jason and I just looked at each other in amazement and gratitude.

"This has totally raised the bar in how we will help someone grieving from now on," he said.

I could only agree.

Two years later, we are still completely humbled when we consider the massive wave of support we received. I am convinced that the support of our community through that first difficult year had a good deal to do with the progress we made in our healing. Yes, the work of grief must be done on an individual basis. But knowing that we were never alone had a significant impact on how brave we were in approaching that work.

I am convinced that the support of our community through that first difficult year had a good deal to do with the progress we made in our healing.

Now that I am stronger, and can help others carry their burdens of grief, people have often shared with me their "secret" losses--parents or husbands or babies that have died and others have barely acknowledged their pain. There was no community rallying around them to share their load.

Each time I hear a story like this, my heart breaks--knowing how much it helps to have others walk with you and give you some balloons to help lighten your boulder.

So, even though I am inadequate, I do it. I reach over and put my hand under that boulder for a little while, because I know how hard it is to carry. And I also grieve for the beautiful soul that has had to carry so much of their pain on their own.

I have often wondered why it is that we were so blessed with support and others have had to walk such a lonely road through their pain. I believe that there are probably many contributing factors, but the most significant may be the community that they are a part of.

Aspen grove at Leddy Lake.

A Forest Community

On Monday morning, I went on an interpretive nature walk with Jabin's class at a local lake. The first part of the walk was up out of the valley through young forest populated with aspen (a.k.a. white poplar). The guide explained how aspens are shallow-rooted, but they propagate by runners. He described the forest floor beneath our feet as a mass of interwoven roots of aspen, and how it was this tangled dependency that enables them to remain standing and reach for the sky. If someone creates a road through a stand of aspen, he explained, most of the trees on the windward side fall down, because they no longer have the support of the trees beside them.

As we descended nearer to the lake, we reached the more mature forest, populated mostly with spruce. Unlike aspen, spruce propagates through seeds. While trees standing near each other might have slightly tangled roots, in general, each tree is its own entity. If you build a road through spruce, you will not need to worry about a bunch of those remaining falling down. And if a spruce falls, the only trees it damages are the ones it hits on the way down.

I've been thinking about those trees ever since. I have often heard poplars referred to as "weeds" because they so quickly move in and take over when given the chance, they grow fast and are short-lived, and they are shallow-rooted and are easily blown down at the edges of stands of trees. On the other hand, spruce in the north has the same connotation as oak in other parts of the world--evergreens are the strong ones, the unchanging ones, the backbone of the forest.

But if a spruce falls in the woods, none of the other trees care. They're just happy that they get some extra sunshine.

Stronger Together

In our own lives, we often think it is strength to not show our weakness to anyone and to be able to handle all of our problems on our own. So we don't get involved. We keep to ourselves. We don't share our pain with others, which means we also do not share our gifts and talents, nor do we share our friendship, joy, and love.

But when tragedy strikes us, and one of those few who are a part of our small community is lost, there are even fewer remaining who can help us bear the pain of it. (This is not the only reason for a small personal community, but in today's interconnected world, it still happens surprisingly often.)

I had always considered myself to have a small life. I served and loved and was a friend in my introverted way, and often felt afflicted by selfishness that I was not as outgoing and involved as others.

I had no idea the breadth and depth of our family's community until tragedy struck us. I immediately discovered that our lives were not so small as I had thought. Our roots felt shallow to us, but they were tangled with so many others that an enormous group of people were willing to share our pain.

And we are grateful. That word isn't even strong enough. We are beyond grateful. Especially because we know that this is not how it works for many people.

Which is why, now, I look for others who may be hurting quietly. They may not have a community supporting them. But they still need support. They need the other trees around them to help them stand up again. Even if they don't realize it.

The trick is, trying to figure out who those people are. When someone looks like a spruce, we may have no idea the wounds they carry close to their heart.

I am learning to look past my assumption that someone may be too strong to need or want help. No one is that strong. And almost everyone carries pain about something.

I am learning to look past my assumption that someone may be too strong to want help. No one is that strong. And almost everyone carries pain about something.

This is something I am still working on. Honestly, I have just recently gotten to the point that I feel strong enough to help someone else carry their burden. I finally have some balloons to give. Now, I need to learn to SEE who needs them ... even when they don't ask.

Who do you know who is grieving? Don't assume you have nothing to give. And don't assume that their loss was so long ago that it doesn't matter. You would be amazed how far a simple "I was thinking of you and [your loss] today," will go. One of the things that makes a grieving person the saddest is thinking that others no longer remember the loved one they lost. Let them know you do. And that you care that they lost them.

And if it is you who needs the balloon, have you told anyone? Others may want to help you, but they won't if they don't know you need it.

It can be difficult to ask for someone to care about your loss, but be brave. Say something. You may be surprised how many others your roots have touched who want to help you stand again.