These gifts of grief were always meant to be mine

In 2011, my mom lost the man she’d loved for 18 years, the one who gave her back her heart, wrapped up in kindness and sealed with adoration. He loved my brother and me, too, showed us what gentle strength could look like, how simple, steadfast caring could tumble silent walls. 

The following year, my dad died. I was at his bedside in the hospital when he took his last breath, slipped, luminous and peaceful, beyond the veil. And though we’d had our challenges, wounded each other across an often-strained divide, in those final days, all that moved and breathed between us was love. 

The year after I said goodbye to my dad, I walked away from a loving, long-term relationship, aware of its immense beauty and deep joys — and all the ways its painful patterns were tearing at my heart.

These are not new stories. I’ve written about them, talked about them, let myself be defined by them for several healing years.

But tonight I held these stories with a fullness I’ve never experienced, felt a well of gratitude and wonder for the journeys they initiated and wove together, the gifts they broke me open to, the self they helped me meet.

Tonight, I completed my online training to become a certified grief coach to help others navigate the wilderness I often claimed my own grief to be. As my classmates and I shared final thoughts about the program and our instructor saluted us all with affirmations and blessings, I was surprised by a swift, brimming emotion. I let the tears fall through our final goodbyes and then collapsed, sobbing into my hands. 

It was not the reaction I expected. Not when just a month ago, I’d practically floated out of the room where I’d received my certification to become a death midwife. Then, I’d felt giddy, excited, energized by all the possibilities stretching out before me. 

From the moment I’d stumbled upon the field of death midwifery earlier this summer, something tugged at me. I was drawn immediately to the idea of creating and holding sacred space for the dying, helping them to transition with dignity and peace, being a compassionate companion to them and to their loved ones. When I discovered there would be a training in Philadelphia in the fall, after researching other programs in other states, I knew I had to be there. 

Around the same time, serendipity similarly led me to a grief coaching program, with a focus on helping clients move through and from their grief to a place of gratitude and renewal. This, too, spoke to me, and with little hesitation or analysis, I committed myself to both trainings.

My own experiences with grief and holding vigil over my dad with his siblings and a niece in his final hours revealed to me that death has so much to teach us about life, that loss can be fertile ground for transformation and awakening, that how we face these inevitable passages can be deeply powerful.

I was so excited about my journey into this territory that I expected only elation at the end, a sense of accomplishment, the anticipation of what would be next. 

Yet sitting in a heap of tears after my final coaching session tonight, I felt Lou, my mom’s late partner, and my dad infinitely close to me. I felt their loss keenly and also my arrival at a place I could never have known without their deaths. It startled me, this exquisite ache, the loving and missing them and the certainty that this journey was always meant to be mine. That losing them would always lead me here. That every step I’d taken in those long years of grief, and working through that grief, held a purpose I could not see.

There are many things I’ve thought of doing with my life and many things I’ve done. Most have involved writing. Several, like my work as a wedding officiant, have come by the pull of joy. I never would have imagined I would find my way to these twin spheres of grief and dying, that somehow my losses were preparing me to be with others in their wilderness, to affirm the beauty of death. 

And yet everything about this, now, the path I am traveling feels right. More right than I ever knew it would. More me than the other incarnations with which I’ve flirted. 

Last week, while driving to work, I was listening to a podcast whose creator described himself as a “maker.” When he said those words, I heard my unbidden rising response, soft yet strong and clear: “I am a healer.” 

 It seems I am finally ready to own that gift and I now have the tools to share it. I don’t know how any of this will look or what the unfolding will bring. But I have faith and trust in what’s to come.

And I have Lou, my dad and other dear ones who have died beside me, guides in the profound art of living fully, loving deeply and inevitably letting go.