This photo was taken a few months after Mitch passed away, during the early summer of 2013. My kids were at Cousins Camp – a kind of family reunion for young cousins and their mothers. My oldest sister, Diane Wunderli, who was a faithful supporter to my family and little Mitch as he slipped into oblivion had purchased some floating lanterns and wanted to set them off in memory of my little boy. 

She was one of the precious few who almost had a front-row seat to the horrors of losing our son. There were times she saw my little boy toward the end struggling and she would step away in tears. At one point she read a post about Natalie and I sitting on the hard floor in the hallway just outside Mitchell’s room so we could weep and not frighten him. When she read that post she gave us cushions to sit on and Kleenex to dry our tears. This woman was then, and is today, a living example of what it means to comfort those who stand in need of comfort. It is one thing to talk about doctrines, it is quite another to experience them. Having been on the receiving end of that profound doctrine has been humbling. Her comforting us when we were very much in need of comfort continues to pay emotional dividends to us today – and for that I am grateful.

I wish letting go of grief was as easy as releasing a floating lantern into the sky. I wish that a single memorial might assuage my sorrow and allow me to let go of all that hurts. But life is not that easy.

I have spent a great deal of time thinking about grief rituals and why we do what we do when we lose the people we love. I don’t know the answers – but I am beginning to understand that each grief ritual is as unique to our souls as our fingerprint or DNA is to our mortal bodies. What’s more, how we manage our grief is a very personal journey – and, so long as we don’t hurt ourselves or others, there seems to be no wrong or right way to grieve. Unfortunately some people who sit comfortably on the sidelines of grief, thinking they know best, confuse the hurt someone feels for hurting themselves. They try alter their grief path by saying, “You’re stuck.” Or “You shouldn’t feel that way.” Or, “it’s time to move on” and all manner of idiocracies. 

I have discovered it is far better to listen with love and tell those who hurt you care. We can no more force the healing a broken heart any more than we can force a deep cut to heal. But we can create an environment where healing can take place … we can clean and dress our wounds carefully and keep them free of harmful things that might infect us or prevent healing. But at the end of the day emotional healing happens from the inside out.

There are so many ways I've seen others grieve … I know a woman, for example, who lost her husband and has made a lovely treasure chest which will slowly become home to treasured items that belonged to him. When the chest is full, the rest of his belongings will likely go. Others choose to keep everything. Some push everything away and want nothing to remind them of their heartbreak. I see people regularly visit the cemetery and spend time near their loved ones. Some write songs while others decide to take up arms in a battle to beat the thing that took their loved one away. Pat Furlong, for example, lost two of her sons to DMD. She lost two Mitchell’s. I cannot imagine her sorrow. Yet in her own grief journey she managed to turn rubble and ashes into beauty and hope; she started Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy, which is now a beacon of light and hope for families who face the same disease that took my little boy, and hers. Still, there are others grieving who are simply treading water trying not drown in the deep and dark well of sorrow … people whose hearts are so broken getting out of bed each day is a monumental victory. There are so many ways to grieve – and each grief journey is unique. And that’s okay. 

In ways I have never imagined, I am beginning to see beauty in grief. Not that grief is a pleasant thing – to the contrary, grief is a bitter cup from hell. But grief is also an evidence of love – and that alone is paradoxically beautiful. Each tear is a memorial of profound love and longing. Each heavy chest and sunken heart is a camouflaged prayer to heaven that our loved ones will know how much they are missed. 

Grief is not only about the pain of loss … it is also a very real wrestle of the soul with a seemingly endless inquiry of “what ifs” and “Did I do enough?” Though my heart is still heavy over the loss of my son I have come to terms with a certain truth: despite feelings of self-doubt and anguish over what might have been, the best we can do is quite alright, in the end. 

I’m still contemplating grief rituals - what they mean and why we do them. All I know is they play an important role in healing. I wish I could release my grief like my sister did of this lantern. My own grief journey has taught me that grief is not something I can simply let go, for it is part of my soul now in ways only God can know.