Untold truths about grief
From time to time, someone will accuse me of having a morbid fascination with death. I’d argue that fascination is a bit inaccurate; my relationship with death is closer to a familiarity slowly working its way toward acceptance. Those who know me beyond the most superficial terms know that death and the resulting losses and grief have had a big influence on me over the last few years. In short, loss has opened my eyes to certain realities, has shaped so many of my views, and has changed the very essence of who I am.
In the Spring of 2011, my mother was diagnosed with small cell lung cancer. I took the news as a heavy blow. Then, a few months later, my father received a similar diagnosis: lung cancer, though a different form. If that wasn’t enough to try to deal with, the progressions of their cancers certainly were.
My mother’s battle with cancer lasted seven or eight months. About four months before she ultimately passed away, she was pronounced dead when she stopped breathing for a few minutes. Per my mother’s wishes, my stepfather fulfilled the unenviable task of asking the doctor not to resuscitate her. But, somehow, my mother sprang back to life and continued fighting for a few more months before ultimately passing away a couple days after Thanksgiving. During that time, everyone around her watched her deteriorate and wither away, and those images still haunt me going on seven years later. As strange as this may sound, it’s easier to accept her death than it is to accept how she died. Whether logical or not, I can’t help feeling that a similar fate awaits me at some point.
Unlike the case with my mother, my father passed away pretty quickly after his diagnosis. He didn’t quite make it a month. I was scheduled to visit him two days after he passed. To make matters worse, I hadn’t seen my father in about two and a half years. So, that obviously brings its own pains and guilt that I don’t think I really need to explain or elaborate.
Unfortunately, the losses didn’t stop there. In 2014, I lost my stepfather, who passed away due to complications from diabetes. Unlike the case with my parents, his death caught me completely off-guard. I knew that he was having health problems, but I had never considered the possibility of death. Or if I had, I likely felt that death would be a bit further down the road.
Whenever I relay these details, I catch myself wondering if that is indeed how it happened. Even now, just the thought of having to deal with those losses in such fashion shakes me. These losses were so close together — especially the losses of my parents — and each played out in its own unique way. When I contrast and compare them, I’m able to come up with a variety of takeaways that I feel are worth sharing.
There is no perfect closure.
Sometimes it can seem as if we’re concerned with the idea of an ideal death. We convince ourselves that if things play out a certain way, maybe the whole experience won’t be too painful.
Each loss I suffered was a unique experience with unique grief. I can’t say that I fully prefer one to the other. While I’m grateful that I was able to have more time with my mother, I know that every moment she was alive led to incredible pain and torture for her. I can only imagine the conflict of wanting your suffering to end but also knowing that the end will come only at the event of your passing. Looking back, I now realize what a gift it is to have no hatchets to bury and no wrongs to right. If you have the opportunity to set things right before tragedy strikes, I highly recommend that you do it. Doing so will allow you to focus on the things that truly matter and will help to bring a little order to the chaos.
Obviously, I wish I’d had the opportunity to see my father one last time, but at least he didn’t have to suffer as long as my mother did. While his quick passing does bring its own comforts, it also denied the opportunity for certain conversations I wish had been had. If I’m being completely honest and self-aware, I likely wouldn’t have had the courage to initiate these conversations, as it’s taken me nearly seven years to sort through my feelings to coherently articulate said feelings, but as things played out, I never had the chance. And that’s something I wish I could change.
And with my stepfather’s passing, I learned what it was like to truly be shocked when someone leaves this world unexpectedly. There’s a big difference between accepting that someone has finally passed and accepting that someone has abruptly passed. But both situations have one thing in common–pain and suffering. You can sit around and philosophize about which flavor you prefer, but at the end of the day you’re still eating a dish you wish you’d never been served. Kind of like Grandma’s vienna sausage shortcake.
Grief is not linear.
Rather than acknowledge my grief and seek help of any sort, I repeatedly told myself that I should be over it by now. It’d been a year or two years or three years — how long was I going to take to get over these deaths? When would I be okay? When would I feel normal again?
I’ve accepted that I will never get over these losses. Instead, I must continue to learn how to live with them. I’ve come to realize that on any given day, I have no clue what will trigger or stir a reaction in me. Just when I think it’ll never bother me again, I watch a movie or a TV show centered around the themes of death and loss and my eyes fill up. Even though I can’t articulate what exactly is going on inside, I allow myself to feel it. And that’s something that took years to find the courage to do.
The journey is not straight. Along the way you’ll encounter many strange paths, and at times you may find yourself feeling as if you’re possibly regressing. That’s okay; it’s part of the process. You can’t take your hands off the wheel and just coast to the finish line; get ready for some curves and u-turns.
The only way out is through.
So stop looking forward on paths sideways.
Don’t invalidate your grief.
At some point, I finally realized that I simply wasn’t giving myself permission to grieve. This halted my healing for years. One common way I invalidated my grief was by telling myself that there were some who had had it far worse.
Some people lost their parents when they were much younger.
Some people had lost family due to murder or wars.
Comparing and contrasting grief in this manner does very little good. The fact remains that my experience still sucked, and I have no problem saying that now. When I say it, I’m not asking for pity. I’m simply acknowledging the situation.
It sucked. It still does.
When I think about this point, I’m always reminded of the time I heard a hospice representative ask, “What is the greatest pain the world?”
The group I was in offered various answers, but the most popular answer by far was the death of a child. Who’s going to argue that one, right?
But I now realize that the death of a child can be the greatest pain in the world only if you’ve experienced it, because as the the hospice worker made me realize when she answered her question, the greatest pain in the world is whatever pain you’re experiencing at the moment. This realization has made it much easier for me to offer compassion to the pains of others as well as the pains of my own. In the end, it doesn’t matter how my pain stacks up to others’; my pain is my own, and it’s the only pain I truly know.
Also, dealing with these kinds of matters is a balance. Yes, there are times when you just have to box up your feelings and get through the day. But you do have to give yourself the opportunity to be real about how you’re feeling. Otherwise, how else can you ever hope to improve your feelings if you never acknowledge their true intricacies?
Bring on the empathy.
“I always cry at funerals, even if I didn’t know the person.” — My Uncle Cecil, at my grandfather’s funeral
I was fifteen years old when I heard those words from my Uncle Cecil. At the time, I hadn’t had the life experience to understand and appreciate what he was saying. But I like to think I now have a much better idea, because these days I never know when a certain moment may move me to tears. Maybe the tears will come when a co-worker starts crying during her retirement party when she becomes a mess of emotions as she’s so excited to say hello to a new chapter of her life while she’s also afraid of saying goodbye to a familiar chapter. Or maybe they’ll come when I find myself an absolute mess at the end of The Iron Giant. (Before you ask, yes, both of those things have actually happened.)
While these moments can lead to embarrassment, they also allow for greater connection with others as well as with myself. Sometimes these moments are in no way obviously related to my experiences with loss. I like to think that simply being reminded time and time again about the fleeting nature of life has given me an ability to realize emotions that were once seemingly unreachable. Regardless of whether my theory is spot-on or completely vain, sometimes you just need a good cry.
Death is something we need to talk about more.
Death is inevitable, no matter how hard we may try to deny it. If you really think about it, death is the last major event of life. We need to acknowledge this without letting fear get in the way. The least we can do is try to face our end with some dignity.
For the first couple years of my son’s life, I felt bad for him because before he was even born, he’d already lost out on so much love from people expected to be close to him. While I’m still bothered by this fact, it does help to know that I have the opportunity to teach him things that most parents aren’t equipped for. I’m still not sure about the timing or the exact technique, but I do understand the importance and I know that it’s something I won’t back down from.
Death and loss are part of the human experience, and we’re doing ourselves a disservice when we refuse to acknowledge that fact. Also, I like to think that as we become more comfortable with the certainty of death, we also find the clarity for better living.
It feels good to think I can help others.
One thing that lessens the pain is finding a way to come away with lessons from this experience. And it helps even more if I can find a way to pass those lessons on to others who may need them. I’m well aware what the pain of loss is like, and if I can help to alleviate that pain for someone else for even a tiny bit, I consider it a good deed done. I’ve also learned that it often helps to know that you’re not alone, no matter what’s ailing you.
But if I’m being honest, it isn’t all about helping others.
I wish I could claim to be completely selfless. But the truth is that talking about my experience is an outlet, and finding outlets helps me. Also, every time I’m able to share my story, I find something new. I find another layer to the onion. I take away something new, and I grow just a little bit more. And so I like to think that by helping myself I’m able to help others, which may not sound very altruistic, but I do think it’s real.
Refusing to be real about this part of my life took a toll on me in a number of ways. It beat me down and got the best of me. It filled a significant chunk of my life with darkness and robbed me of so much potential joy. In short, it simply wasn’t working. And when what you’ve been trying hasn’t been working, it’s time to try something new. And this post is part of my new effort to be more open about my experience.
Thank you for me letting me share a bit of myself with you.
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