I was visiting the home of a close friend, near my own age, who had recently lost her mother after a prolonged illness.
A few of us stopped by to offer our sympathy.
The woman talked about her beloved mother with a measure of peace in her voice. She had been an amazing woman, one who lived a full life and had been dearly loved, my friend said.
I admired her strength despite the nearness of her loss. Then she revealed that a previous tragedy gave her perspective on her current grief. Her brother had died when he was 31. He had been diagnosed with a brain tumor while studying for his own medical boards.
His untimely death changed her and her family. But it taught her something that helped her cope with future losses: Control is largely an illusion.
"When it's your time, it's your time," she said.
Many of us reach a certain point, in midlife, when the prevalence of loss becomes more noticeable -- hitting more often and closer in intimate circles. Parents, spouses, friends, relationships, jobs, pets and, most unimaginable of all, a child, may leave our lives too soon.
So, what makes these losses easier to bear for some than others? While there is no set timetable for processing grief, there are factors that influence how it impacts us: our age, life experience, relationship to the deceased, the circumstances surrounding the death, and our support networks and belief systems.
There aren't any shortcuts in grieving. There are, however, strategies for coping. Survivors can honor the memory of the deceased by doing something purposeful in their loved one's name, spreading kindness or raising awareness. They can focus on the good in their lives, no matter how small, and hold tightly to memories. They might turn to prayer or share stories. Sometimes, it's simply a matter of moving through a single moment, day after day, until the passage of time dulls the sharp edge off of the pain.
The hurt of a significant loss is never fully erased. But it ceases to be an open, throbbing wound after enough time passes.
The way we reframe a personal loss, the narrative we tell ourselves about it, can eventually alter our emotions. Some parents who have gone through the unspeakable trauma of burying a child tell themselves that the child's life was meant to serve a purpose -- perhaps to provoke a societal change that could save other lives, or inspire others to be brave or grateful. Those who believe in a higher power and an afterlife take comfort in the hope of an eventual reunion. That ability to convince ourselves of what we gained, and what remains possible, is one of the few things within our control in times of despair.
The five stages of grief are familiar to most adults: denial, bargaining, depression, anger, acceptance. The length of time one lingers in each stage only becomes apparent in hindsight. In the midst of it, it can look like an empty, endless road of suffering.
Dan Duffy, a St. Louis-based video producer, published "The Half Book" last month, a story about his battle with cancer. He has also filmed a few stories of cancer survivors and victims.
"When we go through loss, we think, 'No one knows what I feel like,'" he said. "That compounds the loss."
He has devoted hours to recording other people's cancer stories, convinced that they are vital to healing.
"It reaffirms that we are not alone," he said.
We can be reminded of this when we visit with friends and family in the aftermath of a significant loss they have suffered. We may show up to comfort and offer support to survivors, but it's also a chance to remember our own losses -- to share that moment of sorrow that makes us human.
Life is filled with loss. Grace enters us in how we contend with it.