22. Lessons From Grief

Today is my mother’s birthday, she would have been 75.  If she were alive, she’d have reveled in it, and our family would’ve all gathered to help her celebrate.  It is also the day of the funeral for Dave’s childhood friend, and these two milestones will forevermore be inextricably linked.  While I wasn’t able to travel to D.C. for the funeral (radiation schedule, compromised immune system and bone-numbing fatigue), it has been top of mind.  More than anything, I wanted to be able to offer Dave support through physical comfort, by standing next to him, reaching for his hand, giving him a hug.  In times like these, words from a distance just don’t have the same effect.  Stupid fucking cancer.

I’ve been thinking about the loss of loved ones, and the lessons I’ve learned from grief.

There is no way around losing people that we love.  In the years after my mother died, I held onto my grief as a way of holding onto her.  I thought that the depth of my grief was a testament to how much I loved her.  For a long time it felt like I was carrying a lead blanket draped over my body, sometimes I had the strength to lift it up and look out, but most of the time I didn’t.  It consumed me.

When I look back, I feel sorry for and compassionate towards that broken version of myself, and very sorry for my husband too, who had to deal with me in that state.  I wasn’t able to be a friend to him, and still feel remorse for abandoning him to my grief.  Why?  I came to realize that I couldn’t have been more wrong, because it’s the absolute last thing that my mother would have wanted.  She had a zest for life and was adventurous.  Stubborn as a pit bull too.  By no means perfect, but a very good mother, she would not have wanted me to waste so much time bereft at her passing.  I know that she would have preferred that I feel it, process it and then let it go, to use adventure and zest for life as better ways to honor her.

As I sit here typing, I’m wearing a pair of light pink jeans.  Pink in all its variations was by far Mum’s favorite color, and perhaps spawned my love of blue, green and grey -- all those colors completely opposite.  I was not a girl to wear pink, much to Mum’s chagrin.  Recently though, I have started to embrace pink because it reminds me of her… she would have totally worn these jeans if she were here!

When I think back to the time soon after Mum passed, I did what I always do when faced with difficult situations, I researched.  There were two books that helped me understand grief, and understand the road (or trail) it takes.  The first one is called, “Grieving: A Beginner’s Guide.”  What I liked about this book is that it had very simple language and contained illustrations.  Sometimes I only had the capacity to read one paragraph, but flicking through the pages and looking at the pictures definitely helped.  What I remember most about this book is the concept that while the sum total of your grief doesn’t change over time, your capacity to hold it does.  The diagram for it had two bottles with balls in them, where the bottles represent your life and the balls represent your grief.  The first bottle had a large ball in it, which took up most of the space.  The second bottle contained the same large ball, but the bottle was quadruple the size of the first, making the ball look comparatively smaller.  Over time, the size of the bottle expands to hold your grief, so that the space it takes up in your life is significantly less.  I kept going back to that image.

The second book is called, “Grieving Mindfully,” written by a clinical psychologist with real world experience through palliative care for cancer patients.  The author was able to explain the process of death and grief clearly and simply.  All that he wrote made sense to me, and it was what started me on my meditation journey.

In the end (and of course I mean that with no pun intended), death provides the contrast that makes us value life, value time, and value connection.  Without that contrast, we’d all be immortal, taking everything and everyone for granted.  Nothing would be special.  We’d probably be cranky too.

Grief has taught me that life is precious, fleeting and to be cherished.  This week’s two high profile suicides in the context of fighting for my life provides further contrast.  I wish I could have spoken to them (or anyone lost to suicide) beforehand and told them that no matter how hard life can be, it is worth it.  Even the shitty, sticky, hard bits.  That the depression, sadness, fear, or whatever they were feeling in those moments of making that ultimate choice, would eventually lift and they’d be able to again feel happiness at simple joys, like the sun on their face or hearing their child’s laughter.  That I, and many others, are proof of it.

From these tough experiences you learn and grow.  Through fire they forge you into a more rounded person, bestowing skills you wouldn’t have otherwise.  Hopefully when you come out the other side you aren’t bitter, but more resilient, compassionate and empathetic.  You’ve experienced first-hand that death and loss are inevitable parts of life, and as a consequence you might have a better sense of what your life is about.  I always felt that losing my mother inducted me into a club that no one wants to be part of, but once there gravitated towards those in that collective experience.  You’re able to be supported and also offer support, and perhaps your perspective if asked.  Thanks for asking!

What I would share with anyone starting on the grieving path is this: Be very kind to yourself, and make room for your grief.  Take time to understand what it is trying to tell you, befriend it if you can.  It’s now part of you and will facilitate learning about yourself, whether you like it or not.  Most importantly, you will come out the other side and feel joy and happiness again.  

Don’t try to put on a brave face.  Don’t worry about the expectations of others.  Know that if you stuff it deep down, ignore it, deny it, or pretend that you’re fine, not only do your family and friends intuitively know that you’re not fine, but your grief will probably come out at times and in ways that are most inconvenient.  Make sure that you’re talking about it, group support sessions are better than solo ones, because you’re now a member of the club.  There is something about being with those who share a similar experience, you don’t have to explain it.  Somatic Experiencing and EMDR did wonders for me too.

Probably the most important lesson I learned from grief was that I didn’t have to stop or change the way I love my mum.  In my naivety, I thought that I had to say goodbye to that love as well.  Although the physical presence of the person you’ve lost is gone forever, those loving feelings you have and the memories are yours to keep forever.  These are your emotional support animals.  Yes, the relationship you have with your dearly departed changes, but it can be on your terms, by your choice, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.  There are times that I still talk to Mum, tell her how I’m feeling or ask for her support.  And it definitely helps, even after all this time.