Volunteer Paul Smith shares lessons from his own grief journey

Fall 2023

Belmont resident and master carver Paul Smith has volunteered with Mission Hospice for nearly 20 years. He has accompanied hundreds of people in their final months and supported their loved ones through their grief.

With so much experience, Paul was certain that he understood the immense power and impact of grief and loss. But when his wife Keiko died suddenly from a ruptured aneurysm at the age of 59, the experience changed Paul – and his approach to helping others.

This summer, Paul shared his grief journey at our annual memorial service. Here he shares some excerpts.

Keiko and I met in 1992 on a blind date arranged by a mutual friend. We knew each other immediately. We were locked in conversation the entire evening. We arranged a day-long date for that coming Saturday. That day, she asked me if we were going to get married. And I said, “I’ve got a feeling.”

As it was, I waited a month before I proposed (three weeks longer than I wanted to), and we were married five months later.

Keiko taught me so much – she was so honest, and she could see right through me. We had two incredible children we adored. She often described our relationship as two doves on a branch. But I was always busy, searching, seeking. She said I wore her out…couldn’t we just be two doves on a branch.

The last few years had been difficult, but I had finally found this place of peace inside, and I had a feeling that I had to tell her that night that I could be that dove on a branch…that I wanted another 30 years with her.”

The next morning as I left the house, she thanked me for what I’d said the night before. Later that day, I got a call from her in total distress, and I came home to find her on the floor. She passed 20 minutes later. It was unbelievable.

I was so fortunate to be there when she passed. I had the gift of being there to express my love and receive her love. 

And from there, the journey began for me. I learned what I didn’t know about grief – and what I didn’t know about myself.

I’ve talked to SO many people about grief during my time in hospice care. I thought that I knew. But I really didn’t know. 

Grief affected me so enormously for two or three months – I was just in shock. If I could get up and do one task in the day, it was a success. It was like walking through a sea of mud. And then shock waves would come out of nowhere – during my daily life, and in my dreams.

That’s grief; that’s shock. Now I know what others have been through. It’s made me a better person. Damn that it had to happen this way.

We were quite independent as a couple. But now that she’s no longer with me, I’ve realized that she’s in every word that I ever spoke, and in every step that I took. She was always by my side. Now that she’s not here, I feel alone in a way I never felt before. Who am I without Keiko?

The last year has been a journey of pain, of grief, of being strong for my children. It’s bonded us together in a unique way. 

I’m not going to hang onto the past. I’m moving forward. I choose that word deliberately, because there’s no moving on. But life demands that we move forward. I’m stepping into a new life that I really wasn’t expecting.

What I’ve gone through has made me a totally different person. Keiko was my greatest teacher in life, and she’s my greatest teacher in death, too. 

What I’ve learned is yesterday’s gone. I don’t have tomorrow. We like to think that we’re entitled to 80, 90, 100 years. No. I have today. 

When we lose someone so important in our lives, it forces us to come to terms with end of life. The two biggest things we are so afraid of in life are aging and death. They’re the two most absolute, certain things that are going to happen. So why don’t we embrace them and be liberated from this fear of something we know will happen? Why don’t we live in acceptance? That’s how I choose to live.

Life is strong, life is powerful. We have life in us. 

In a day, I have 24 hours. In that 24 hours, I realize there are so many joyful experiences, simple pleasures. If you live in the day, everything slows down. I’m not saying be careless – I’m saying care enormously about today, because that’s what you know you have. You’ve got this moment. Let’s live it.  

Mission Hospice offers free drop-in grief support groups every week, individual counseling, workshops, and other support for those who have lost a loved one.