Moving beyond grief
October 2, 2008 · Updated 10:10 AM
For Paula Young, that September day in 1988 seemed like any other Saturday. She was at her husband David's soccer game with their 4-year-old daughter Kate, cheering him on as he played the game he learned to love as a boy growing up in his native England. In the midst of the action, David leaped high in the air to head the ball and in that moment, Paula and Kate's lives changed forever.
As Paula and the rest of the crowd looked on, David fell to the ground in the throes of a grand mal seizure. An MRI revealed that he needed immediate surgery, and doctors removed a benign brain tumor the size of a golf ball.
For the next seven years, David had annual MRIs and was declared tumor-free each time. Then in June of 1995, he began experiencing difficulty holding a pen, a fork and even a newspaper. Paula and David thought that perhaps the tumor had returned, and in August their worst fears were realized: David was diagnosed with a large brain mass that was both inoperable and terminal.
Paula remembers that time all too well. A teacher at Fall City Elementary, she said, "I felt responsible for getting my friends, my co-workers and even my students ready for David's death. Maybe this was my way of coping with the ordeal. Every time I had to answer the question, 'How's your husband?' I found myself wondering how I was going to get through this myself." The last person Paula had to prepare was 11-year-old Kate, who by mid-March had to help feed the once strong, healthy father who used to feed her.
On April 2, 1996, David passed away at the Kelsey Creek Hospice Center, leaving Paula widowed at the young age of 40. That night, Paula made the following entry in her journal:
"As I drove away from Kelsey Creek, I wanted to shout at everyone, 'My husband just died.' But I knew the cars around me would still move, the traffic lights would still work and the sky would still be blue."
Paula took the next five weeks off from her teaching job and experienced many of the thoughts and feelings that she has since learned are typical responses to grief and loss. "I was terrified of losing Kate, full of fear over finances and overwhelmed by decisions that I now had to make all by myself." Stricken with panic attacks and depression, Paula said, "I'd get up in the morning to get Kate off to school, then climb back into bed. I just wanted to pull the covers over my head and sleep. I'd stay in bed all day and get up an hour before Kate came home from school. I knew God was with me and I felt close to Him, but it seemed like the joy, the happiness and the light had vanished."
Paula begin hiding her grief in busyness so she wouldn't have to feel the pain, something she now realizes was a mistake. She was distracted, forgetful and found herself making irrational decisions. Many years later, she learned that these symptoms were all normal parts of the grief process.
But Paula was about to discover one of the keys to healing from grief and loss: shared experience. Two of her close friends had recently lost their husbands, and the three of them and their five children - all between ages 9 and 13 - became a family. They raised their kids together, vacationed together and helped each other with finances. "Before, I felt completely abandoned, like I'd been dropped off in a field somewhere to survive on my own. If I hadn't been able to talk with those two women and share my depression and anxiety, I would've thought I was literally going crazy. But there was such comfort in discovering that they felt all those things, too."
It seemed this unorthodox family also helped the children. "The kids called themselves the DDC, short for 'Dead Dads Club,'" Paula said. A couple of years later when they were in their teens, the five members of the DDC stayed at Paula's house one evening while she and the other two moms went out for dinner. "When I pulled the car into the driveway, I saw all the kids on the lawn lying in a circle on their backs with their heads in the middle. They were gazing up at the stars together, talking about their dads." Kate is now a senior at Western Washington University pursuing her teaching degree.
As the three families grew through their grief together, Paula and the other two widows made another discovery along the way. "Most churches and people don't know what to do with grieving widows," Paula said. "Some pastors are even afraid to visit new widows, and well-intentioned friends often say the wrong things at the wrong time. The three of us actually joked about all the bad things people said to us; we could've written a book."
Four years after David's death, Paula and one of the other widows began attending Snoqualmie Valley Alliance Church (SVA). Because of all they'd learned about the importance of shared experience and mutual support, the two women decided to introduce a program to the church called "GriefShare." "At that time," Paula recalled, "none of the churches on the Eastside really had any kind of grief program. We started it for ourselves as well as for others."
In keeping with her and SVA's belief that churches have a unique opportunity to help people through the process of grief and loss, Paula is spearheading SVA's "A Night of Remembrance." Scheduled for Sept. 11, the evening will provide people in the Valley with an opportunity to share openly or remember quietly any loss or grief they've experienced.
"The Valley has suffered so much and it's such a small area that we all know someone whose life has been affected by a recent death or loss," Paula said. "Because we don't have many grief resources here, there are a lot of people walking around grieving. They don't know how to handle it or where to begin, and A Night of Remembrance is a good starting point."
The event is open to the public. People can come and do something as simple as light a candle, or go a bit deeper by sitting in on one of the several grief or loss groups that will be offered that night. The evening is not only for people who've lost someone through death, it's for anyone who has experienced loss of any kind, such as a job, a relationship, or finances.
Paula's hope is that people will find their way through their grief by sharing it with others. "The whole point," said Paula, "is provide a safe place of healing for people here in the Valley."