Grieving a loss can come about for many reasons and is something no one is immune to. Whether it stems from the death of someone we know, the loss of a job, facing loss from a tragedy or even the loss of your childhood – there is suffering in this world and we are somehow connected to it. We can’t escape loss but there is hope. There is help. Linda Pettigrew, a certified grief recovery specialist, has spent most of her life reaching out to those who have experienced loss.
In 1997 when Linda’s husband was offered a job with Erlanger Hospital beginning as their CFO the couple left their home in Ft. Meyer, and came to Chattanooga. He later became CEO and Linda dove in to her new surroundings.
Since the seventh grade, Linda had wanted to be a social worker. Working for the Diabetes Association while in Indiana and then getting into hospital social work and working with dialysis patients, Linda was following her calling – helping others to cope.
After moving to Chattanooga, Linda served on boards, worked for the Symphony Guild, Siskin Auxiliary and was a Hospice volunteer. Also active in her church and singing in the choir, she stayed busy as she raised her family.
She says, “Then all this happened with Erlanger and I just sort of hid myself away a bit. I had a core of close friends that called me every day; my best friend told me what I needed to do and to just get out. I don’t know what I would do without my close friends.”
In 2009, Linda and her husband legally separated and are now divorced leaving her to reclaim the very advice she would give in counseling those who had experienced loss.
“I am one who is a firm believer in closure,” she says “I feel like I had achieved my goals early and now at 55 I have to start a new life. There are days I feel on top of the world - that I am going to be fine and then there are days I get a little terrified. It is better than it was, but the first year was a roller coaster. That is the way divorce is defined because it is a roller coaster of emotions,” Linda maintains.
“When I was trained for grief recovery counseling we were trained that you don’t compare grief. A man who had lost his wife and son in an accident shared his grief and how tragically it had happened; no one else wanted to share because they felt their pain couldn’t have been as great as that man’s. The group leader would encourage us that you don’t judge another’s pain. Pain is pain,” Linda attests.
Through her experience, Linda has witnessed that some people have a greater ability to assess things while some are taught by their family, that you don’t assess these things; they are told ‘time will heal’.
“Time alone doesn’t fix things. Fixing things takes some work. It does involve time but a lot of it is about unfinished business,” Linda insists.
“That is one of the things we do in the groups; you look at what you didn’t get to say. You can write a letter to that person and do a life graph to look at the pluses and minuses or who you need to say goodbye to or who you may need to resolves some issues with. A lot of times in the groups I have done, they will choose a living person, where there is just ‘bad blood’ there. They chose someone who they needed to say something to; it was interesting that it wasn’t always the person they lost,” she notices.
Linda is currently contracted to work with child welfare but also is available for grief recovery.
“Loss is a cause of grief. This is huge in what I do with child welfare; there are key losses stemming from childhood. Many adults today, whose parents robbed them of their childhood because they were on methamphetamines or some other drug or chose anything over their children that abdicated their responsibility; when that happens the child tries to parent the parents or parent the siblings and try to take care of the family. I have seen that repeatedly with teenagers I have worked with,” Linda upholds.
“I was trained to be non-judgmental, to look at the whole picture of the family. It kind of comes natural to me. I am naturally compassionate and I know I am empathetic. At first you are angry about the situation, then you get there and the minute I asked them about the homes they were reared in that is when you see the connection. When I hear the pain, then any judgment that I had gets mitigated,” Linda attests.
“This is a different role. I am an assessor - I am not a fixer. That was the biggest struggle for me in wanting ‘to fix’ while I am there with them,” Linda says.
Her best friend worked with a funeral home and she thought grief recovery was something they could start at the funeral home and they held a few groups there. Linda began to see that grief of loss was not just in death but in all things.
“Death is a huge loss in any significant family member. Parents are a high one because people say they ‘feel orphaned’, and the loss of a child is horrific. If it is an adult child, it’s hard; if it is an infant, it’s hard,” Linda says.
“Retirement is also a loss; the empty-nest time can be a loss; a fire, a tragedy, the tornados that came through; loss of your personal things – what threatens your home or threatens your livelihood and everything about your life. And divorce is a huge loss,” Linda states, knowing this on a personal level.
“Loss is all encompassing. Most people who go into counseling are connected to some form of loss. When I talk about grief, I talk about loss and what that does to you emotionally and personally, and it is also very hard to disconnect from the spiritual,” Linda admits.
Writing has been very beneficial for Linda in coping with her own loss. She has written many poems and would journal as she healed from her own pain.
During Linda’s grieving she experienced the feeling of rejection and had written a poem about it. She recalls with amusement a time when she had seen a homeless man on the street and had brought food to him. He questioned her about the food she had brought and then asked if she had a bus pass.
Linda’s good deed was not received the way she had expected. “If you are rejected by a homeless man when you bring him food, you are in trouble, girl,” she teases.
She did have a private practice, but is not seeing anyone at the moment. “I am still available for individual counseling, available to do groups, the whole picture – one of my goals is to work with divorce groups,” Linda says.
“It doesn’t matter who files, it is painful. It doesn’t matter if it is a common thing. What I have taken note of is longterm marriages ending - such as Al and Tipper Gore, Rhea Pearlman and Danny DeVito – even those locally whose marriage is falling apart,” she says and asks out loud, “What is it about baby boomers, what is it about ‘after the children are gone’? This should be our time and it’s not. This should have been our time to go do the things in semi-retirement or it should have been our time to travel – why isn’t that happening? Why are we not happy with each other? Why are we not willing to do the work to make it happen?” she evokes.
Suffering her own personal losses, Linda had been advised by a few people to go back to school to become a medical assistant – and with the thought of that; she knew she would be competing with 20- or 30-year-olds.
“I had been told by some, ‘you are probably not going to get hired if you do that’ and I struggled with it. Today they want you ‘job ready’. My generation is in a little bit of a niche with regards to technology; we who are over 50 may not be as receptive as the younger generation. I thought my board memberships, volunteer work or fundraising would be what does it for me, but I had an interview and that didn’t get me a job. Connections are still a good thing, but all the rules are different now. The work world is different; the dating world is different,” she confides.
“I tried online dating for about two months; I don’t think I was emotionally ready to deal with possible rejection. I laughed and laughed at one man’s profile who said he just wanted someone to ‘accept him for who he was’ …but she had to be pretty, she had be able to milk the cows, be able to pick fruits and vegetables and mow the lawn, but …she needed to ‘accept him for who he is’. A close friend of mine told me that trying to date was not good for me right now - that I was not ready. That was the right thing to hear,” Linda says.
“I have decided to give that to God. I believe happiness is elusive, so I am not looking for happiness. I don’t believe it is anybody’s job to make me happy. I had a little talk with God, told Him that He would have to take care of it because if I do it, I will screw it up!” Linda chuckles.
“Single women have told me that I will get used to it and I will grow into it in time,” Linda adamantly points out. “This is my chair; I don’t have to fight over the remote - I am learning to appreciate the positives in living alone,” she vows.
One of the losses Linda discovered in her healing was having lost or having never acquired her own identity. She was making her whole life revolve around her husband’s life and not taking care of herself.
Starting over at 55 has been a challenge for Linda. “I am a work in progress,” she admits and she lists, “work on my health - do my yoga, get my identity, get the job I want….”
When asked how she is doing during the holiday season which is hard for many who have suffered a form of loss, Linda says, “I am the best I have been in years; like the song says, ‘Where is Christmas - Christmas is back in my heart’ and that’s a great step for me.”
Linda Pettigrew - MSW, Certified Grief Recovery Specialist/Counselor at The Listening Heart...Broken Hearts to Healing Hearts LMPettigrew@aol.com