It’s strange the ways grief changes us. I guess I knew right away that I would never be the same. But there are all these ways grief changes us that no one tells you about. Of course, if someone had told me, I wouldn’t have understood, not really. At least, not the way I do now.
Like summer. I used to love summer. I loved how everyone shed their winter skin. I loved the energy, the excitement and the possibility that anything might happen.
Then my mom died.
She died three weeks after her 56th birthday. She took her own life on a hot summer night in July. The heat was stifling on the day of her funeral. Everyone seemed particularly uncomfortable in their funeral clothes. We should have been wearing sundresses and cutoff shorts.
I poured a jug of ice water over my head as I cleared out her garage. I’d never done that before. The shock of the cold made me blink my eyes and breathe through my open mouth. I thought about athletes dumping water on their coaches and wondered if they’d felt like they were drowning for a minute. I felt like I was drowning. But the feeling didn’t go away when the water did.
It’s been almost four years now since my mom took her own life. I’m not dreading summer this year, but it’s no longer my favorite season.
It’s an emotional minefield that begins with Mother’s Day and ends with my birthday in September. I hope to have a lot of fun this summer, but I also know there will be some tough days.
The other strange thing about grief and how it changes us is a thing that’s much harder to describe than the changing of the seasons. It’s a feeling I get when I’m amongst some of my dearest friends. They are people I would not have met if my mom hadn’t died. Often times they are people I would not have met if it weren’t for their experience of a terrible, life altering loss.
I don’t think there’s a word for this feeling, but anyone who has experienced loss probably knows it.It’s a mixture of deep sadness over the life of your loved one that no longer exists and the life you might have had if you’d never experienced the loss of them. It’s profound gratitude for the people that have emerged to ease some of my sorrow.
It’s the twinge of guilt that comes with the realization that I love my life today even though so much of it emerged out of excruciating pain. It’s the bone chilling truth that as I evolve I’m becoming a woman my mother never met.
It used to feel like she could walk through the door at any moment. We’d cry at the misunderstanding of her death and pick up where we left off. Now she wouldn’t know where to find me. And if she walked through the door would all the things I’ve created in my new life disappear? Would she recognize me today?
There should be a word for this feeling. Maybe another culture, one that is less death denying, has a word for this. It’s a push and pull. A deep sadness and profound gratitude. It’s the grey space. And it’s important because it’s the current that runs through every Hope After Project.
I founded Hope After Project the second summer after losing my mom. I was in a hard place with my grief. I was planning my wedding and feeling the weight of being motherless in a new way. I had crossed over from the frantic whirl of shock into the terrifying stillness and permanence of her death. It was slowly settling in that she would never be coming back.
I had spent a lot of time working through the complicated emotions that went along with her suicide, but I hadn’t spent much time thinking about how she lived and how I could incorporate the remnants of that life into mine. I thought about how she lived, how she wanted to live and how she taught me to be. And I started volunteering in memory of her.
As I was volunteering in memory of my mom I realized that a lot of people have the impulse to make the world a better place in memory of their loved ones, but they often lack the resources and time to do so. We have a few models for this. People often participate in marathons, 5ks or fundraising walks in memory of their loved ones. Some very fortunate people are even able to set up scholarships or foundations. Others go back to school or spend more time with their families or get serious about their health.
The call comes from the same place, a desire to make the world a better place in memory of someone who our worlds feel incomplete without.
Some might call it an attempt to fill the void, but I like to think of it as building a frame through which we can view our loss. The frame doesn’t make the pain any less, but it can provide some context. I created Hope After Project to help grievers find some context for their loss and to change the world in memory of their loved ones.
When I build Hope After Projects I create a one of a kind experience. Every project starts with a conversation. I ask questions about your loved one, you tell me about their life. I find out what was important to them and how you want to remember them. Then I build a day of community service inspired by your memory of them. I curate an opening and closing ceremony and facilitate conversations about grief. We fundraise together so that it doesn’t cost you anything. We also film the experience so every recipient is left with a momento.
Hope After Projects take place in the grey space where we laugh and then cry. We give back to the world because of the deep loss in our hearts.
Find a step by step guide on how to start your own Hope After Project below
It’s a powerful experience, but there’s no reason you can’t start finding hope after loss on your own.
Anytime service is combined with grief I call it a Hope After Project. Summer is a wonderful time to give it a try. Here are three steps to making a Hope After Project happen:
(1) Think about your loved one.
(2) Do something good in the world — plant a tree, serve a meal at a homeless shelter or pick up trash at the beach.
(3) Think about your loved one, say their name, think about how far you’ve come and where you’re going. Do something that would have made them proud. Do something that makes you smile, even if it’s through your tears.
Sometimes I practice having mini Hope After Projects throughout the day. I rush to hold open a door for a mom who is struggling with a toddler and a stroller. I pause and think of my mom. Or I plant something new in my yard. Creating something good in the world helps me and I hope it might help others too.
As I say often at Hope After Project, grief changes us, so why not harness some of that grief and change the world?
That’s where I see hope. As the season changes and the days get longer I look for hope. I find it by reaching out a hand into the darkness and inviting other grievers to make the world a better place in memory of their loved ones.
Want ideas for your Hope After Project? Check out our website www.HopeAfterProject.com
We are currently accepting applications to build Hope After Projects. Email your story of loss and hope to firstname.lastname@example.org.