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Life After Grief – What Must Die in Order to Generate More Life?

“What must I give more death today, to create more life? What do I know must die but hesitate to allow?” – Clarissa Pinkola Estes

In the fall of 2010, I gave a presentation entitled, Behind the scenes? A Grief Deconstructed, at a police-based victim services conference. In this particular presentation, I went into detail about the psychological, emotional, physical, and spiritual elements of my experience of grieving my husband, John, a police officer.

After the presentation, a police officer came and shared his story with me. His teenage daughter was struck and killed by a car while crossing the street at a crosswalk. He was devastated. But he went on to explain how a police chaplain had helped him tremendously in the days and weeks after his daughter’s death.

“I felt like a helpless little chick in the middle of the street,” the officer told me. “I was terrified and I didn’t know what to do. Then the priest came and through his kindness, it was almost like he … gently picked me up and took me to safety on the side of the road.”

And it struck me: this is what people who work in victim services do too… they support strangers in the most horrible moments of their lives. And even though they can’t even begin to make anything right again, they can be there for people in their greatest time of need. And that presence can be an extremely important gift.

During my time of greatest need, I encountered no victim services volunteers. Instead, I had an amazing support network of family, friends, police and priests around me. Well, they didn’t just remove me. They took me and put me in a safe little nest with dozens of protective mother hens guarding it!

Two of the “gardeners” stand out to me in particular. The first was my brother, George. After spending seventeen hours with John in the ICU, it was time to say goodbye when an operating room became available for his organ removal operation. The medical staff moved John’s hospital bed from the ICU to the operating room – and I followed him through the halls and straight into the OR.

After saying my last goodbyes, I left the OR and walked back down the hall, where dozens of people were waiting. I started to thank everyone for staying when George shook his head, took my hand and said quietly, “That’s enough for today, Marianna.”

He was right.

But when we are in times of crisis, we often don’t KNOW when enough is enough. We have lost all perspective because suddenly there is no normal. And it’s up to the people around us – whether they’re family, friends, colleagues, professionals or strangers – to have the courage and compassion to remove us from a situation we no longer need to be in.

In the weeks that followed, my brother Doug became the chick’s chief keeper. She was the mother hen of all other mother hens. Doug fed me, watered me, put me to bed, pulled me out of bed, listened to me, answered my questions, made dozens of phone calls, kept me on track to meet all the crappy new responsibilities my days held … funeral arrangements, choosing a headstone, meeting with lawyers and so on.

So fast forward a decade to mine Behind the scenes presentation at victim services conference. The day I handed it in, I knew the time would come when I would no longer do these intensely domestic presentations. I was beginning to suspect that by constantly regurgitating a painful past for the benefit of others—because it had long since ceased to have much therapeutic value for me—I was unwittingly keeping myself in baby chick mode: supposedly safe but stuck.

Because while it may seem safe to stay in a situation we’ve overcome but are no longer healthy, instead of finding the courage to change, the reality is that we may actually be at risk of victimizing ourselves.

Unfortunately, I had no idea how right I was about that.

So if I he wasn’t going to do the presentations anymore, who would? Well, I asked Jody, one of the people who deliver the John Petropoulos Memorial Fund Officer down; Put yourself in our shoes presentations on workplace safety, if she might be interested. She said yes! So that’s exactly what he’s doing now. And since educating people about the public’s role and responsibility in keeping their workplaces safe for everyone, including first responders, is JPMF’s primary message, Jody always embodies that.

Interestingly, however, when I asked Jodi if she could incorporate clips from the filmed version of my last Behind the scenes presentation in her own presentation, she gave me a funny look and said, “Of course.”

Jody continued, “I show a lot of clips from the video, Marian, but the most effective is when you obviously have a PTSD right there on the podium.”

“WHAT?!” I said.

“When you talk about being with John in the ICU,” Jody explained, “you’re no longer presenting. You’re back at the hospital with John. It’s pretty obvious from your body language that your mind can’t tell the difference between share a memory and relive the original event.”

And there you have it. Although it had been more than a decade since John’s death, my continued public speaking of graphic details had kept me a chick on the road. The time had definitely come to let this practice die – and in doing so, it not only gave Jodi the opportunity to do the work she loves, but she is able to reach far more people than I ever could. Because let’s face it: doing these presentations was taking time away from my real passion: writing.

I think now of what my brother, George, told me all those years ago in the hospital corridor. When it’s time for change in our own lives or those around us, sometimes the greatest gift we can give is advice… as in: “Enough is enough.”

It just took me twelve years to hear it.

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