When in her 60s, my friend Peggy, a retired newspaper reporter, lost the sight in one eye due to a surgery she underwent to improve her vision. Then, years later, she was diagnosed with macular degeneration in her functioning eye; slowly the site in that eye began to dim. At the time, Peggy was living in a retirement community where she sang in the choir, ran support groups for people with dementia (to honor her husband who had died of Alzheimer’s), and wrote the community newsletter.
As Peggy’s eyesight failed, she tried to compensate by using a giant font on her word-processing program, and reading with a magnifying glass. When it became clear she would lose her vision altogether, Peggy fell into despair. A life lived in darkness was unimaginable to her.
“I can’t write anymore. I can’t do anything anymore. I don’t want this. How can I do anything if I can’t see?” she would ask me often.
Peggy’s grief at the impending loss of her sight was intense, lasting for the better part of two years.
Peggy called me the daughter of her heart, and I called her the mother of mine. Her suffering was painful for me to witness. My contribution to helping her through the challenge of vision loss was to talk to her about the grief she felt, and then, as her grief healed, to eventually remind her of a conversation we once had regarding framing every experience as a gift of love. I asked her, “Peggy, what does the gift of love look like in your situation?”
At first she was at a loss as how to respond.
A few weeks later, she called me and said, “I want to sing you a song.” She then sang-talked these words, On A Clear Day (You Can See Forever).
On a clear day
Rise and look around you
And you see who you are
On a clear day
How it will astound you
That the glow of your being
Outshines every star
You'll feel part of
Every mountain, sea, and shore
You can hear from far and near
A world you've never, never heard before
And on a clear day
On that clear day
You can see forever, and ever, and ever
And ever more
Peggy told me that a missionary from Malaysia “with the most beautiful voice in the world” had sung the song to her retirement community.
As she was listening to him, Peggy realized she was far more than her physical eyes. Through blindness she was being given an opportunity to hear “a world she had never heard before;” Peggy had a “sudden knowing” that listening on a deep level to others would now be her gift of service. This was the illuminated gift of love she had been seeking.
Peggy died six summers ago; I miss her still. Her death was the continuation of a grief story begun at the time when she first began losing her eyesight.
Have you ever read someone’s story of loss and thought, “This has happened to someone else too? It’s not just me? If they can make it through, so can I.”? When I wrote and shared Peggy’s story in public for the first time, it became that type of story for a lot of people.
Whereas Peggy thought of herself as ordinary – mother of eight, wife for 65 years, part-time writer – others saw in her loss story something extraordinary, inspiring – and relatable.
Finding similarities between your own grief experience and the experiences of others can help connect you in understanding to both the universality of loss, and uniqueness of your own grief journey. Sharing your story can help both you and others heal.
Within the context of loss, there are two kinds of personal stories to be shared: the life story of ‘us,’ which includes the relationship and memories you experienced together with your loved one; and the grief story of ‘me’ which includes your loved one’s death event and your learning to come to terms with the pain and emptiness left behind in the aftermath of your loss. Grief stories often include the telling of a before and after moment – the moment in time where life with your loved one went from certain and familiar to forever-changed due to a life-altering health diagnosis or sudden death. In the event of illness, what came after the diagnosis can be its own story. Your reaction to your loved one’s death and the journey you now travel to try and shape and claim a new life in a world without your loved one is yet another story.