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Mourning, Grieving, and Healing “Your Way”: Reflections from Former Oregon Governor Barbara Roberts

May 14, 2020

Former Oregon Governor Barbara Roberts is known for her trailblazing political career. In addition to her many accomplishments as Oregon’s first woman governor, serving from 1991-95, she also has been a high-profile advocate for a number of causes, including disability rights and death with dignity.

Her advocacy for the latter cause was inspired by her husband, Frank Roberts, a long-serving member of Oregon’s legislature who introduced multiple death with dignity bills before his death from lung cancer in 1993. In the wake of Frank’s death, Roberts began to explore her own experience of grieving and the process of healing that helped her honor her late husband and embrace life once more.

Her 2001 book, Death Without Denial, Grief Without Apology: A Guide for Facing Death and Loss, is both a deeply personal journey and a practical guide for terminally ill individuals facing death and those grieving a loved one who has died. What follows are excerpts from the book. We publish the following excerpts with permission.

Governor Barbara Roberts

Former Oregon Governor Barbara Roberts speaks at Death with Dignity’s 20th anniversary event in November 2017.

The Importance of Mourning Rituals

Life is too precious and grieving is too important to permit the delegation of dying and mourning to a closeted experience. If you are questioning whether it is okay to grieve in your own way, then I give you permission to weep, weep loudly. Take his sweatshirt to bed. Talk about her and to her. Keep pictures in the living room and set an empty place at the table. Watch old movies and videotapes that show that familiar face. Hug a pillow and rock yourself. Put your feet in his shoes or wear her ring on a chain under your clothing next to your skin. Cry out his name at night, visit her grave as often as you need to. Do the things that help you through a night, a day, a week, a year, two years. Through all of this remember, “It will take as long as it takes.”

You are not crazy. You are mourning. These and other personal grieving rituals can help you through this long and lonely process. You need not apologize for feeling, for hurting, for struggling, or for continuing to love and long for someone who has died.

You do not need my permission or anyone else’s permission to grieve, but in a culture that frequently withholds that permission, I want to make clear that you are free to mourn your loss. Do not let anyone tell you otherwise.

The art of living and the art of dying are equally significant. Grieving is an intimate part of both.

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Say Goodbye, Your Way

Death may come unexpectedly with no time to say mutual goodbyes. Or the actual moment of death may come when loved ones are far away or sleeping or rushing to the bedside from another city or state. But whatever the timing or setting, saying goodbye is a profound and necessary step in the grieving process and it will likely need to happen more than once.
And that, for me, is the message of memorial services, wakes, funerals, celebrations of life, and all the ceremonial ways we say goodbye after a death. These parting rituals are as personal and as unique as the people they memorialize. From ashes cast on ocean waves, to a small family ceremony in a forest clearing, to a traditional funeral with a satin-lined casket, to a life celebration with jazz and jokes, to a flag-draped coffin and the playing of taps, there is only one right way to say goodbye, your way.

Saying goodbye happens in so many ways.

Public Ceremonies, Private Farewells

Planning such a ceremony can be healing. Choosing the music, photographs, poetry, speakers, an urn, a special location, flowers, even preparing the printed program. These decisions for and about your loved one can bring comfort and the beginning of closure at a time when you feel alone and unanchored. This is one more way to help you face the parting.

But in the end, no matter how you memorialize the one who has died, saying goodbye is difficult. Regardless of how many times or how many ways you say goodbye, it is physically and emotionally wrenching.

However, that does not mean you should avoid this important step. For even after all the initial goodbyes and the larger public ceremonies, you can find value and comfort in your own private farewell rituals. It may be those times when you take flowers to the cemetery. You may need some personal ceremony when you part with his clothing, or when you sell her car, or give away his golf clubs. Each night before you go to sleep you may need to read from her favorite book or put his wallet under your pillow. You may turn on a night light in a child’s bedroom even though the child is gone. These personal acts will help you say goodbye and may feel like an emotional beacon in your personal darkness.

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It’s OK to Be Weird

“Did you know she keeps his urn on the mantle? Isn’t that weird?”

“His wife has been gone for two years and he still takes flowers to her grave every weekend. That’s really weird.”

“I used her master bathroom at the birthday party and she still has John’s slippers sitting in there. That’s weird.”

“Well, I’ll tell you what’s weird. She sits in his big chair in the dark and plays his old records.”

I am convinced, more than ever, that our culture has labeled as “weird” some of the most wonderful, precious, and sensitive acts of grieving and love imaginable. …It is imperative to give ourselves permission to grieve in our own time and in our own way. Our culture’s labels of what is weird and what is appropriate when grieving are hurtful and harmful. We may choose to keep our [rituals] secret but we need not feel strange about choosing our own path for grieving. Or we may decide to tell part of our secrets so that others may learn from them and may know they are not alone.

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The Healing Journey

Grief is hard to bear. It feels as if you will never be whole again. The permanence of death and the finality of the loss can leave you feeling as if you can never be happy again. And to some degree that is true. You will never be able to share happy times again with the deceased person you love. The memories, pictures, and perhaps some belongings are all you have left. And for a long time, these memories and mementos may bring you more pain than comfort.

Until you have worked through your loss, faced your grief, and seriously worked at healing, you will have either an open wound or a festering internal injury waiting to resurface. The grieving begins one step at a time, one day at a time. Do not expect too much of yourself, at least for awhile. Do not be afraid to be gentle with yourself. You deserve time to limp until you are strong enough to walk again. No one else can dictate your path or your timetable. Grieving is a private, individual passage. If you are fortunate, those who care about you will give support, in large part by respecting your pace for healing. But, the truth is, you mostly go it alone.

The road to healing is a long, slow climb back. You cannot rush it. You must not ignore it.

One Day at a Time

For each of you healing will be a variety of hurdles and mixed levels of personal support. The healing will never happen quickly enough. Your pain will never stop soon enough. Your loss will always remain with you as will your special memories. Your life will be changed forever by death. But, in spite of your loss, there will be a new depth and richness about you. And it will come one day at a time, one step at a time.

There will be no sign on the road indicating you have reached the place of the “healed.” In fact, you may be there for awhile before you recognize your arrival. For too long you have felt vulnerable, alone, sad, and somewhat adrift. Your nearly healed self may not expect to feel differently. You can easily miss the mileposts that indicate you are arriving at this happier, healed spot.

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