Understanding the mystery that is grief

Saturday September 1, 2012

BRATTLEBORO -- When Elizabeth Pittman walks into her office at Brattleboro Area Hospice, where she is the Bereavement Care Coordinator, she pauses at the threshold of her desk, like a bird hovering just ahead of the branch on which it hopes to land.

She reaches down to a small wind chime, delicate silver glinting in the light from the southern windows, and she runs her fingers against the narrow tubes.

The sound cleaves the air, then from now, here from there. Elizabeth steps forward. Heart calmed, she begins her work.

This September, Elizabeth will ring the chime to mark a different transition. She is retiring after nearly 19 years.

"I've been thinking about it for a while," she says in her office, a vase of flowers and beautiful cards and pictures decorating the simple room. An air conditioning unit in one window exhales long breaths of coolness.

"I'm turning 66 this year, and my husband retired about three years ago. I work for hospice, I know that the unexpected can happen. It started to feel like it was getting to be time."

She sits with one long leg crossed over the other, her gestures rooted in the center of her body. Her large eyes are calm, curious, touched with light wariness at speaking of herself, as she neither requires nor particularly desires a lot of attention. Her whole face, however, is supple with the summery expectation of laughter at any moment, at the absurdity and delight of ordinary life.

She smiles suddenly. "It's more like the birds migrating when it starts to get cold, following the signs that tell them to fly on," she says. "It felt like it was time, time for me to step down, to let somebody else have the joy and challenges and responsibilities of this work."

As Bereavement Care Coordinator, Elizabeth has met with hundreds of people grieving the loss of loved ones. She's led countless trainings and support group meetings. She's helped volunteers provide a range of services to people in grief, from transportation to simple companionship to help with daily tasks.

She has, as one grateful client wrote, guided people through the mystery that is grief.

The work has been well-suited to Elizabeth's enormous capacity for emotion, her sensitivity to poetry and beauty, and her generous senses of humor and compassion. Most of all, she has the ability to be present with people in the midst of difficult transition.

"Transitions have always fascinated me," she reflects. "Years ago, I worked with the childbearing end of life. I taught childbirth classes and prenatal yoga and worked in the mid-'80s at the birthing center here in Brattleboro. I even trained with the woman who was the midwife at my son's birth in San Francisco."

Like grief itself, Elizabeth's journey from witnessing birth to supporting people around death was not linear or predictable.

Born in Georgia, she was drawn to all sorts in intellectual and spiritual inquiry, but especially to psychology and philosophy -- interests, as she puts it wryly, that don't entirely lead to employment.

In her 20s, she gravitated toward nursing -- her father and grandfather were both doctors -- with a focus on midwifery.

"I moved out to San Francisco with that goal, and then when I was out there, I also fell in love and got pregnant and had my own baby," she says.

She and her then-husband moved back to Georgia. "My father had just died at the point. We lived across a little pond from my mama for the first year and a half after daddy died, and had cousins and aunts and uncles nearby, which was good when my son was little. But there was no work for my husband."

The young family ended up moving to Marlboro in the 1980s. They'd first visited Vermont in 1972 at the behest of a close friend.

"They camped on a piece of land between Wilmington and Jacksonville and they had a guest tent. We stayed in the guest tent," she says, her voice landing with crisp delight on each "t."

It was a glorious introduction to the state -- clear summer air, blue sky, fern-filled maple forest, Maine lobsters bought from a fellow who sold them for a $1.50 each.

Elizabeth moved away when the marriage ended. Her life at this point was rich and complex, with many hops and skips and jumps from job to job and place to place.

In 1994, her son decided that he would like to attend Brattleboro Union High School, so Elizabeth and her husband Wesley returned to the area.

"That was when I applied for this job," she says. "One concern that Bill Schmidt, who was president of the board then, had, was that I'd moved around a lot. Would I be here for any length of time? I said I'd be here for at least three years, while my son was still in high school."

She laughs out loud. "And now I've been here six times that length! So there you go."

Brattleboro has been a good long fit for Elizabeth. For one, summer starts earlier and ends later than it does in Marlboro, which, she says, makes a real difference for a southern gal like her. She has also immersed herself in the cultural and spiritual life of the community.

She sings in the Brattleboro Women's Chorus. She's practiced Tai Ji with Cielle Tewksbury for 15 years. She does authentic movement. She gets herself into nature as often as she can.

But the great work of the past 19 years has been developing Hospice's bereavement services.

Her fluency with grief's needs and stages, her ease with knotty emotion, her comforting common sense and her deep, joyous respect for people's experiences all speak to her expertise. Her voice swings into music as she speaks of the work. This has become her song.

As she sings its final notes, as she recasts the tune so that the next person in the job can find her own melody, Elizabeth isn't thinking too much about the future.

"I've been trying to stay focused on here and now," she says. "On the transition. I'd like to give myself time to rest, if possible, as I resettle in an unsettled time. I do think about some of the things I'd like to do, like learn to play the ukelele. And visit family. And volunteer. And sing more. I'm really looking forward to having more control over my own schedule. That'll be a cool thing."

She swoops like a swallow into a thought, holding still at the bottom of the arc before rising again.

"At Tai Ji last week, my teacher talked about being in the late summer, blending the fire of summer with the earth of the fall. She asked us, ‘What were the gifts of summer?'"

She looks at the wind chimes. "People have been very kind as I've said my goodbyes. I feel very appreciated, if I can say that. It's not the point of what one does, but everybody likes it now and then."

Elizabeth smiles, and chimes and birds and voices sing together, happy and sad, to the big, blue late summer gift of the sky.

Becky Karush is a regular contributor to the Reformer. To suggest people for this column, write to her at reformer.ourneighbors@gmail.com.


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