Recently I had the chance to chat with Dr. Sherry Cormier, a licensed psychologist, bereavement specialist and psychology professor, about her new book, Sweet Sorrow: Finding Enduring Wholeness After Loss and Grief (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018). We talked about Dr. Cormier’s own experience, as well as her decision to combine it with a self-help book filled with compassionate strategies — an invaluable resource for caregivers.
In your own life, you endured a whole series of profound losses in rapid succession. Can you talk about how you survived and moved forward?
I did have some very difficult days surrounding these losses. Four things have really helped me survive and move forward. One is developing connections with other people. I think it’s almost impossible to heal from loss without connection. Grief itself is so isolating and lonely. The second thing is developing consistent self-care behaviors that help me stay in balance.
I don’t mean bubble baths or champagne, although those are nice! I mean consistent ways to take care of one’s body through getting sufficient sleep, eating healthy foods, and getting consistent exercise. If you are not sleeping, are very sedentary, and eat junk food, your moods will suffer. The third thing is the use of some kind of spiritual practice.
While i realize this means varying things for different people, for me it means prayer, mediation, and a gratitude practice. I have found that spiritual practices are an antidote to the self absorption that can accompany grief and suffering. The fourth thing is work. I have found great solace in working!
There’s an interesting spiritual dimension to this book. How can considering the spirit and the afterlife help us process and understand loss?
One of the difficult things about loss is feeling like the person you loved and lost is gone forever. What I learned during the last decade with multiple losses is that the death of a loved one is a transition from one state to another, but not a disappearance. The spirit of the person lives on forever, surrounding you. And while you have lost contact with their physical body, the love you have and the relationship you have endure.
I wasn’t sure whether an afterlife existed until my beloved husband died. In a series of profound manifestations and messages primarily through visitation dreams, I have become convinced that there is something that lives even after the physical body has died.
After a series of powerful dreams, I also found comfort and solace in having a few visits with a psychic medium, in which my loved ones came back to talk with me through her abilities to channel them. What is more helpful for bereavement than discovering your loved one still surrounds you, even in death?
Can you talk about some of the amazing dreams you had, and what they taught you?
The first dream I had I call “Going to Buffalo.” It occurred exactly two weeks after my husband died. This was on Valentines Day — always a very special holiday for us. I was utterly bereft about spending Valentine’s Day alone until I woke in the night and my husband Jay appeared in this dream. He told me to get in the car and said he was driving me to a fascinating new job opportunity. I was so excited — not only to see and talk with him, but also that in the midst of my dark days, an exciting opportunity was appearing.
He soon disclosed that the job was in Buffalo, New York. I told him I would never take a job in Buffalo, no matter how exciting it was, because I hated snow and cold weather. He replied (and I quote) “I know this wouldn’t be your first choice, but I think this will work out for you eventually.”
When I woke up I realized that Buffalo was a metaphor for the new normal of my life — without his physical presence by my side. He was using the dream to message me that eventually my grief would lift, and I would find new opportunities for growth. And I have. There were many other dreams as well.
Can you talk about your life now — how has it changed?
I now identify as an SF: a single female. I was married to the love of my life, and being a wife was one of the happiest roles in my lifetime. I have now been single for almost 11 years! I would be less than honest if I didn’t say there are times when I do still feel lonely and really miss my husband’s comfort and companionship.
Yet I am a different person than I was 11 years ago. I am stronger, more resilient, and more independent. I have developed my own life goals, priorities, and values. I also made a significant geographical move from the state where my husband and I had lived together to another state. Despite living alone now, I have a much bigger and broader social network than I did when I was married, and enjoy the company of many diverse friends.
In terms of your own experience, how did what you went through inform your approach to bereavement counseling?
For the most part, in the United States, we live in a grief-phobic society. We are uncomfortable around grief and sorrow. When our friends, family, and colleagues suffer, often our first response is to avoid them. My approach to bereavement counselling is to show up for bereaved persons, to be a witness to their grief and sorrow, and to listen empathically to their story.
The most important thing I do in bereavement counseling now is called acknowledgment. I validate the person’s experience and emotions. I also am much more cognizant now of how important relationships are for the healing of grief and sorrow.
Of course to some extent the counseling relationship has the potential to heal. I also stress in bereavement counseling how critical it is for grief survivors to develop connections with other people, as grief is a very isolating experience. Some of these connections could be in support groups, while others are with family, friends, and colleagues, especially those who are able and willing to show up as helpful listeners.
Why is cancer such a harrowing and difficult disease for caregivers to witness?
My mom, who never had cancer but was always afraid of getting it, used to call cancer the Big C. I think one reason it is a harrowing disease is because we have a negative reaction to the word itself. It engenders fear. And part of this is because the treatments for cancer have not radically changed.
Chemotherapy and radiation, which are toxic to the body, have been used to treat cancer for decades.These are approaches which treat cancer but in actuality don’t really heal the body. And over time, they may even cause other kinds of cancers to emerge.
We live with the possibility that our loved one with cancer may have damaging side effects from treatments or surgeries, or may even die from the disease, as it can become very aggressive and take over the body. This uncertainty is anxiety-provoking.
Also the progression and course of the disease is an up and down process. A person with cancer can go from remission to a hospital admission in a very short time. The instability of the disease process is very hard to bear.
What are the most important steps that people who are losing a loved to a long illness should take?
There’s no good way to die, it seems. But are there ways to make the process of dying easier for everyone? Yes. In my experience, it’s not where you are located when you die that helps make it easier; it’s who is around you and what kinds of open-hearted conversations are possible that make the dying process easier.
Although many people do take their last breath alone, at some point, we all want to be visited by those we love and who love us. But we don’t have the energy or even the mood when we are dying to make small talk and discuss how great the coffee tastes. We want conversations that matter.
We want to share our fears about dying and our concerns for those surviving. We want our loved ones to be receptive listeners to these final messages, and we also want them to share their love and gratitude for us and what our life has meant to them. When these kinds of conversations occur, dying is easier for everyone.
If you could sum up your approach in one sentence, what would it be?
Loss is a catalyst for awakening and growth.
For more about Sherry Cormier, visit her website.