Letting go of expectations amid complex grief

Written by Cindy Palin

This article contains descriptions of suicidal thoughts. Reader discretion is advised.

During a training session for hospice volunteers, the presenter wisely told the group that not everyone attending would decide to follow through. “Not to worry,” she said, “Each of you will know when you’re ready to volunteer.” 

Tears welled up in my eyes and took me off guard. Due to a stroke, my brother spends his life in a wheelchair. If I struggle to face his condition, why should I volunteer with others? Days later, I was asked to sit with a hospice client, and I declined. I buried my certificate in a drawer for years. 

I could not have imagined then that years later, I would return to hospice work, not because my life had become easier, but just the opposite. 

Recently, my family became victims of a terrible tragedy. The event involved a severe betrayal that each member of the family viewed differently. Some could forgive and others could not. The common default, even in a close-knit family, is blame. 

God’s mercy in preparing us for suffering can be found in verses like 1 Peter 4:12, which warn us not to be surprised by trials, “as though something strange was happening to you.” Yet seldom am I not surprised by what comes my way. 

My family’s suffering sent me over the edge. I had failed to protect my children. In the darkest moments, I imagined myself cowering in the middle of an empty road as a large truck came around the corner, blotting out my pain forever. 

Knowing it could take a lifetime or longer for our family to mend, I could not get out of bed. But somewhere in the silence of each morning, I began to pray the Lord’s Prayer. A hopeless fog had descended, but I knew the prayer by heart. I didn’t think about believing or trusting in God, I just robotically whispered the vowels and syllables. I faintly recalled that speaking the truth out loud has power (James 5:16).

Little by little, I began to find my feet and inch-by-inch moved forward. My bubbly and ambitious personality was gone; I clung to the basics of life.

But was His daily bread and forgiveness of trespasses basic—or life itself? 

I had no desire or energy to get out of the house either, but somehow I accepted a volunteer position at my local library, singing with moms and babies. It hurt my brain trying to analyze how it was possible I could move forward, or how I could sing. My singing especially, felt like a betrayal to my sorrow. So I didn’t think. I shuffled forward. Going to the doctor, eating, and volunteering were all whispers of someone else in control. “Thy will be done.” 

The combination of prayer, healthcare, and serving held me together. There were triggers and setbacks. Seeing happy families sent me into a spiral. But the mothers and their children’s smiles on library days outshone the cruel realities waiting for me at home.

One sunny day I was walking to the library with my bag of stuffed animals and props when someone approached me and asked what I was up to. Our visit led to the work I do now, as service coordinator of my local Hospice Society, meeting those diagnosed with terminal illness and connecting them to palliative care planning and services. 

When I started the job, both my husband and I were concerned as to whether I was ready for hospice work. Yet with the work came timely grief education. With the training came the caregiver stories, whose situations took my eyes off my own. I learned that a string of traumatic events can cause “complex grief.” Complex grief can take you into a deeper valley, where each loss needs to be dealt with in order to recover. 

One of the most important truths that seemed to appear out of nowhere was the part expectations have to play in healing and recovery. Despite biblical education, do we expect to suffer? Despite the importance we put on family relationships, should we expect understanding, and support from everyone we love? What if some of our loved ones can’t give it? I have experienced great freedom in releasing others from my expectations and fixing my eyes on Christ instead.

In weakness, Christ’s power rests upon us (2 Corinthians 12:9-11). When I stand beside the bed of a dying neighbour, Christ rejoices that I stand. When I wipe a brow or rub the feet of a neighbor, Christ rejoices that my hands are able. Filling others’ last moments with comfort and hope is Christ’s power resting upon me, which in turn gives me hope.

His power in me entrusts each client into our Heavenly Father’s hands, and in turn my family as well. “For thine is the kingdom, the glory and the power, forever and ever. Amen.”