Cook: Grief and the holidays

Cook: Grief and the holidays

December 17th, 2017 by David Cook in Opinion Columns


Widowed Moms Raising Children meets twice a month at First Christian Church downtown. For more info, email Scottie Summerlin — or First Christian’s volunteer host Lisa Gilvin — — or call the church office: 423-267-4506. There’s also a Facebook page: Turning the Pages Together.

For more information on the Christian Bryant Foundation, go to

Dan Summerlin, pictured with his wife Scottie and twin boys Jake and Jack, died four months ago; since then, Scottie has started a grief group for area moms.

Dan Summerlin, pictured with his wife Scottie and...

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

Happy holidays?

Not for everyone.

Not if you're grieving.

"It's the season when you're supposed to have time off to celebrate with family, and our family now has a huge hole in it that can never be filled," said Scottie Summerlin. "It's just a stark reminder that memories are all we have now."

It's been four months since her husband — and beloved Chattanoogan — Dan died. Most days, Scottie stays busy: a booked-up schedule, morning, noon and night. Distractions. Escapism. Compartmentalizing. Anything to avoid being alone in the house.

"It's so hard to be at home without him," she said.

But since Dan died, she's also realized she isn't alone.

In these four months, Scottie's been approached by other grieving moms who have lost husbands and are now raising kids alone. They gravitate toward her at the grocery store. Hiking. Restaurants.

"20 moms," she said. "I've had another 20 people reach out to me on behalf of their friends."

Grief and suffering forge real bonds of community. Like an accelerant, shared grief can quickly turn strangers into close friends.

"I never realized how much grief people walk around with each day," Scottie said. "Grief from a death, divorce, health issues, a disabled child. It's not that I was uncaring. I was just unaware. I have new sympathy for people like never before."

So Scottie, being Scottie, decided to act.

She began a grief group for mothers.

"It's my new calling," she said.

The group — "Turning the Pages Together: Widowed Moms Raising Children" — meets twice a month — morning and evening. (Childcare is provided during evening sessions.) Hosted by First Christian Church, the group of young and old widowed women deals with loss, heartache, rage, depression.

How to cope with holidays.

How to help kids.

How to handle the raging loneliness.

"No subject is taboo," Scottie said. "Everything said in the group is confidential. No one understands these issues better than people who have been through them."

The group is reading Sheryl Sandberg's "Option B." Written after the unexpected death of her husband, the book is Sandberg's brilliant treatise on grief, loss and new life.

"When life pulls you under, you can kick against the bottom, break the surface and breathe again," she writes.

This makes me think of Robyn Bryant.

In 2012, she lost her daughter, Christian, who died from complications from leukemia. Christian was 18. Her 24th birthday was four weeks ago. (I knew her, and imagine her today living out west, working as an environmental engineer, running on mountain trails in the afternoons, friends with other fiercely compassionate millennials.)

Since Christian's death, Robyn, husband Chris and daughter Bailey started a foundation to help other families with childhood cancer. A nurse for three decades, Robyn's life has always been centered on others.

But after Christian's death, that other-centered focus grew bigger.

"Until 2011, even though I had experienced loss of parent and some other losses in my life, I don't think I can truly say I understood what empathy was," she told a group of co-workers recently.

David Cook

David Cook

Photo by Staff File Photo /Times Free Press.

The fruit of grief is empathy.

The fruit of empathy is action.

"You never know what's going on in somebody's personal life," Robyn continued. "I try very hard to consciously acknowledge others I pass in daily life with a smile and often a greeting. You never know when that one moment can completely change the trajectory of their day."

Before she died, Christian wrote an essay about her illness. A long-distance runner, she found symbolism in her journey.

"On this run, I am not simply choosing life," Christian wrote. "I am choosing to live it to its fullest through my struggle."

Across this city, countless men and women are grieving through the holidays.

But they're not alone.

There is community. And compassion.

"In grief," said Robyn, "that's how we need to live."

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at or 423-757-6329. Follow him on Facebook at DavidCookTFP.

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