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  • Writer's picturestevenjkaraiskos

Grief & Hope, Hope & Grief

Two pictures, two narratives, one journey of hope

Two different moments, two different pictures, one narrative about my grief journey, well, it is really one story of hope - my life journey. A sunset and a sunrise. A journey with no maps, no rules, and no guidebooks…one foot in front of the other even if I, sometimes, take two or ten steps back.

Picture #1

The first picture is from my YMCA account. For my birthday, I decided that joining a gym would be helpful for my physical and mental health. As you read further, you’ll discover more about my reflections on my extra weight and the growing wattle at my neck explaining a bit more about my state of mind. My partner David and I belonged to a YMCA in the Providence, RI area prior to his death of suicide in 2009. I am currently back in the Providence area - and my reintegration into that community after my loss is a whole other post. So, joining a new YMCA, miles from the one David and I attended, seemed like a good birthday decision as well as a healthy choice. I went in person, joined, and worked out. As I was leaving, the young woman at the desk kindly offered, “Later, go online to your account so you can see what classes we offer and learn more about personal trainers.”

Later, following those kind directions, I went to my account online. I logged in and started to scroll and click, exploring the site. It took just two clicks before I froze, and the world froze. There, in my account, was my David. His beaming smile and so handsome face shocked me, um, rocked me. I found out later that my new account was connected to our previous account through the Providence/Rhode Island YMCA organization. Who knew?

This was one of those many moments when the words “Fuck grief'“ bellowed from my gut. I stared at the account that soon became blurry through the quickly forming tears. My frozen glacial state was shattered from that bellow as well as the inarticulate moans and cries that whimpered from somewhere deep. The grief hit me hard. Then, I started a shower.

For years after David’s death, I would occasionally feel a grieving wail rise up in my body. I knew I wanted to and I needed to release it. So, I would sit in the shower and release my wail. I would choose a shower to hide my wails from others who might hear. The water both washed away tears and rejuvenated me. I haven’t sat in a wailing shower for many, many years but knew I needed it in response to this shock.

As I reflect back on that moment, I know it was the shock of seeing him. It was the remembering his want to join that gym, of recollecting the few blocks we walked together to sign up, and then the few blocks we walked back home sore. Cruelly, in the YMCA online account world, David continued to age. David died at 34 - who would he be at 48? Who would we be? Oh, and the language choice of “Inactive Adult” for his status? Ugh, so much. Also, his smile always makes my heart skip - my heart has never stopped skipping when David is near - from our first encounter so long ago to today as I write this. And, damn, that handsome man always took a good pic even for his YMCA membership.

I wailed it out, toweled off, and then did what I’ve learned to do for me. It’s what I was taught as I was beginning my grief journey, what I hope I model not just for the campers at Kita but for anyone I support. It’s what I try to remember each time grief rises. First, I lean into it. I lean into the wave of grief. That may mean something different each time the grief wave is coming. I’ve learned to look for the trough or the crest of the wave as it is on its way. I then make the decision to dive into it, or try to surf it, or just get outta the water (always reminds me of the movie Jaws with Roy Scheider yelling “Get out of the water” - yes, yelling “get out of the grief” might help!) I can choose what I need to do instead of it crashing down, churning me up, and leaving me wiped out on the beach. This time, though, I had to remember what I heard from a lifeguard at a beach years ago, “When you see a wave breaking out on top of you it's important to maintain your posture, be watchful, don’t panic, and tell yourself you’re going to be alright.”

Next, when grief rises, I ask myself “What do I need?” I knew, in this case, I needed/wanted to not be alone so I texted the pic of the account to a few dear friends who immediately knew what to do. A good listener, a good friend, will be one who knows they cannot necessarily “fix” what is happening but they can give you an ear, love, and care. I know who to turn to and who to not turn to at these moments. These dear ones in my life I turned to validated my feelings and gave me perspective. One asked, “How are you?” providing me the space to share my feelings and my needs. One dear friend shared, “That’s just hard stuff, Steve. Also, a chance to smile and remember things to warm your heart.” Another replied, “Very out of left field. Good for you for moving through.” And another dear one responded with the hashtag “#kickinthegriefballs”.

I needed validation. I needed support. I needed care. I needed to laugh. It was a sad, overwhelming, and devasting moment AND I can do the grief work as well as do the restorative work. I then went on a long walk while listening to some of my favorite music - a little Rufus Wainwright, Betty Buckley, Jamiroquai, Al Jarreau, Ben Folds, Everything But the Girl, Nick Drake, Tracy Chapman, Linda Eder, and a few key show tunes.

Picture #2

The second picture was snapped during my time this summer supporting Camp Kita (linked if interested in learning more). Camp Kita, evolving into The Kita Center, is an incredibly special place. This recent article, Maine Siblings Create Suicide Bereavement Camp, captures the story, the heart, the compassion, and the passion of this work. Truly healing the biggest wounds on the smallest of hearts. The Kita Center is evolving into more programming such as weekend retreats though we will always include our signature program, Camp Kita. The free camp really is a traditional summer camp that provides everything from s’mores to smiles as well as swimming, art, archery, sports, canoeing, and mushroom hunting! All our campers, ages 8-17, as well as all Kita volunteers, have had a loss to suicide. In a world that still doesn’t want to talk about suicide and continues to stigmatize it, this is an inspiring week for all to not feel as alone, to connect with others, and to build community. Camp also includes small peer support sessions as well as 24/7 trauma support providing our campers the opportunity to be immersed in the dual process of grief - grief work and restorative work.

See me smiling in this pic? It’s a smile of fulfillment in my work supporting these campers as well as my broader work in the world of suicide prevention and suicide bereavement. Who knew, when my David died by suicide in 2009, that I would be doing such impactful and important work? I certainly didn’t as, in 2009 and for many years after, I was deeply immersed in my own grief work that had me stumbling around quite unsure of my footing. One foot in front of the other one day, ten steps backward the next. I am now more solid in my footing and am grateful as well as honored to play a small role in the story of many connected and impacted by suicide.

The other surprising part of this pic is how much I like the pic. Partially due to the talent of the photographer and one of the siblings who founded Camp Kita, Morgan Mosher; I think it captures so much of me. I almost universally don’t like pics of myself as I focus on the extra weight I carry, the grey hair that has developed, and the wattle that is currently forming under my chin - a chin that has always hoped for more chisel. As a gay man, I, at times, am way too concerned about my appearance. My own perspective of me has led to some self-esteem and body image struggles. Grief has only enhanced these personal struggles.

And then there is this pic. The first thing I see is my smile then my satisfaction, my contentment, and my joy. I’m fulfilled and I’m grateful and I belong. Odd, for some, to know that I have found this content part of me through finding a grief community. And, odd for me, that my self-esteem and body image struggles aren’t present for me in this pic. My internal joy is winning over my perspective of my external physicality.

Pic #3

Whidbey Island sunset - friends near

I think it is important to find some peace with this journey - the sun will rise and the sun will set. You will find joy and you will grieve. I was recently reminded through a post by a most insightful friend, “how much sunrise and sunset have a similar feeling and often a similar look.”

I’ve shared that the grief journey is one without maps, without guidebooks, without rules AND we also know what might work for grief. It is tending to your grieving heart as well as tending to your growing garden - in research and the practice of grief support, this is known as the dual process of grief. It’s the healthy oscillation between loss stressors and restorative stressors - actively, intentionally, thoughtfully, and honestly embracing both the grief and then, at other times, the celebration of life. The grief journey and the life journey melded into one path through the brambles and flowers as well as through the mats of moss and the shadows of mighty pines. The sunrise and the sunset. We create this space at Camp Kita through the grief work the young people do and then the play and fun that is available.'

There is hope in your grief journey. And there will always be grief mixed into your life journey. It is so important to tend to your grieving heart as well as tend to your growing garden of hope. It is important to remember that for every sunset there will be a sunrise. For me, I know, for the most part, what to do when grief hits - still many times unexpectedly even after almost 15 years. And, I’m still learning. I’ve learned to lean in. To lean into the emotion that is rising, to lean into my friends for support, and I lean into my own needs through the skills that I know help me such as a walk and music. It is hard AND I can do it.


Two pictures of grief, two narratives, one life journey of hope.

You're either coming or you just left, but you're always on the way towards a sunrise or a sunset, a scribble or a sonnet. They are really just the same. To the sunrise and the sunset, the master and the servant have exactly the same fate. It's a sunrise and a sunset from a cradle to a casket there is no way to escape the sunrise and the sunset.'

-Conor Oberst

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