There are so many books out there on how to deal with grief, but it is as individual as a fingerprint. No one grieves the same way, and there is no right or wrong answer. I am writing this to share my own process in hopes that it might be helpful to someone else… but again, my experience is going to be different from yours.
In some cases, the person you’re grieving might still be alive. In others, the process of your loved one dying might be so protracted that you will absolutely get a chance to wrap up loose ends and say goodbye. Lastly, some of you will lose loved ones in an instant, because tomorrow is never promised.
I have probably said this before, but I fall into the last category. At 65, after just retiring the last May, my mother broke her foot and kept it elevated so much that an embolism developed in late September. When it blew, it killed her instantly on October 2nd… not even really enough time to enjoy being retired. Because none of her doctors knew it was there, they could not have removed it while it was still in place. It was no one’s fault, because the best surgeon in the world, had he or she been standing right next to her, could not have saved her. She was in the midst of reinventing herself, because teaching had defined her for so long, and I would have loved to see the person she would have become…. especially since, selfishly, she would have had a lot more time to come and visit me. 😛
In those first few days, my sense of loss included lack of control… as if the most experienced surgeon couldn’t have saved her, but somehow, I could’ve. Eventually, it went away as I internalized what had really happened, but I still felt guilty that in the two weeks before, I’d thought about driving back to Houston to visit my father as he went through multiple surgeries to remove the cancer on his nose, and when I told my mother that I wanted to do so, she told me that she thought it was a bad idea. The guilt was that I had plenty of money in the bank to stay in a hotel, that my car gets 40 mpg so fuel wouldn’t have been expensive, and I could have been there to visit my mother in her last days, as well as been there for Lindsay when it happened had I stayed in town long enough. I still was, because I rushed to Houston immediately when I heard the news, but it wasn’t the same. I had to let go of those feelings as well, because I did the best I could with the information I had.
My grief process started out the way every emergency in my life ever has… make sure everyone else is okay, and break down later. What emotions I couldn’t stuff down naturally, I took anti-anxiety medication so nothing rattled me. In a sense, my natural response coupled with the meds made me feel as if I was having an out-of-body experience, as if this were happening to someone else. I needed it to be that way, though, because otherwise I would not have been able to function. The visitation and funeral would have been too much, and not because my mother died. Because I am not big on crowds of people I do not know, and though my family was in attendance, including my dad, it was a small number of people with which I was comfortable. My medication allowed me to rise above, and in most cases, return to the “show mode” of my PK upbringing. I was polite, my breathing deep and even, though I was screaming obscenities inside (come on… we’ve met). I felt sympathy for everyone who lost her, because it wasn’t just Lindsay and me. It was our stepsisters and their families, her first family, my dad (not only were they married for 23 years, they’d been friends since elementary school), and a whole host of friends, former students, and their parents as well. As an empath, it was hard not to pick up on all the pain in the room… but perhaps it was for the best, because it was another tool to keep me functioning. Again, I could break down later. I felt that in the moment, my best bet was to be strong for everyone else. Plus, I gave a short eulogy at the funeral, and I had to be able to make it through without falling apart so that I could be understood.
However, not everyone understood that about me. For some, I didn’t seem sad enough. They wondered why I didn’t cry.
When I got back to DC, the floodgates unleashed and I came undone…. just not in front of all the people that probably needed to see that I was grieving, too. Of course I was, just not in the same way. Part of the reason I was so incredibly calm was that I was in shock. I think I’ve said this before, but it was akin to the high you feel when you break a bone and adrenaline kicks in so hard that you really don’t feel the pain until it wears off. Even seeing my mother’s body at the visitation didn’t allow the shock to wear off, which was entirely surprising because in the beginning, I was convinced that I would believe she was dead when I could see it.
Not so much.
Again, the shock didn’t wear off until days later, in, strangely, the bathtub of all places. In retrospect, perhaps it was being naked physically that allowed me to be naked emotionally. I was reading a book and one line broke the dam. Before that, I was my own best dike (literally, although it’s okay with me if that makes you laugh. It made me laugh, too.).
So, in no particular order, here are the feelings I’ve had and the actions I’ve taken over the past few months… the things I’ve learned about grief that I didn’t think I’d have to learn quite so young:
- I am so angry at the time I view as “stolen from me.” I thought I would have 15 or more years with my mother.
- I am so jealous that I have friends much older than I am whose mothers are still alive.
- I am irrationally filled with rage every time someone says to me that this was God’s will, she’s in a better place, or it would have been so much harder for me had I lost my father rather than my mother, as if I was happier I lost my left arm than my right. I also wear an ichthus necklace that has my mother’s fingerprint etched into the silver, and people have commented that it’s creepy because they’re focused on how said fingerprint was acquired at the funeral home.
- I am ashamed of all that rage because I know that they have no idea that they’re saying the wrong things and only meaning to be kind… except for the necklace comments. That’s just mean, and it’s been said to me more than once.
- My cost of living is very, very low and I had a lot of savings in the bank. I used that money to be able to completely fall apart, and in retrospect, it was the wrong thing to do because I didn’t have a routine to allow me to return to some semblance of normalcy.
- Alternatively, no one had to see me in the stage of my grief where I was metaphorically tearing my clothes and literally unable to take care of myself… even with medication, I was still completely undone.
- Now that months have passed, I am able to take care of myself, but rarely amenable to leaving the house, for two reasons. The first is that I still have anxiety attacks and I don’t want anyone to see them. The second is that when the subject of my mother dying comes up, people start to treat me differently. If you don’t know what I mean, it is such things as pushing me away, treating me with kid gloves, and asking how I am every five minutes when the way I feel hasn’t changed in months, much less between the coffee being served and the bacon & eggs arriving.
- I have empathy for the people who push me away, because they’re not doing it on purpose. They simply don’t know what to say, and view saying nothing as “better.”
- If you are reading this and have never lost anyone close to you, please know that you don’t have to say anything. I would much rather have touches- a hug, a cheek kiss, an arm around my shoulder, and you not minding if in the middle of that hug, I start to cry and you get tears (and possibly snot) on your shirt.
- Also, do not say “call me if you need anything.” I will not call you under normal circumstances, and I need a lot of things. I just don’t know what they are and guessing is a losing battle. If I wrap my brain around something that I think will make me feel better, it won’t five minutes later.
- Do not listen to anyone who says “everything will be okay,” because it won’t be for a long time. That’s a piece of advice I got from a friend, which I have extrapolated into nothing will ever be okay again. I will get moments of extreme joy, and life will go on, but there’s never going to be an event in which I don’t wish my mother was there. I will grieve in some measure for the rest of my life.
- I’ve pushed away people I really love, and have come to regret it immensely. At first, I just wanted to be left alone. Now, I’m more careful what I wish for.
- My grief also presents as not eating and then EATING ALL THE THINGS when I get hungry enough. I thought about setting alarms on my phone for meal times, but discarded the idea when I realized that I couldn’t force myself to eat, either.
- I have little motivation for my dreams, because again, my mother is not there to witness them materialize. I find myself willing to settle in all areas of my life. I have no doubt that the motivation will eventually return as I get a sense of “the new normal,” but right now I would be just as happy working at Taco Bell as I would starting a new church plant…. because What. Is. The. Point?
- I am realizing more and more that I can’t wait until grief is over and my mood changes. I am in charge of changing my own mood, but sometimes I don’t have the motivation. I want to sit in my sadness, because thinking about and grieving my mother is all I have left of her. When I don’t want to sit in sadness, I play happy music, like Aqua, and go for a walk. There is room in my life for both.
- I am a lot more scatterbrained than normal, a brain fog that will not lift. Just a small example… I’ve told many people that I’m watching Wentworth. I’m watching Westworld.
- I read books on grief in small doses, because I am determined to finish them, but I can’t take it all in one sitting. I would rather escape into novels that have nothing to do with my current situation.
- Alternatively, over the past few months I’ve also escaped into TV shows where people come back to life, fantasy I wish was reality, such as:
- Santa Clarita Diet
- The Returned
- There have been so many things I perceive I’ve done wrong during this transition, and just have to hope that they were right for me. I am jealous of people that are able to achieve post-traumatic growth quickly, as if it is a flaw in my character. Again, I’ve only done the best I could with the information I have.
Grief is so weird and terrible, but it also teaches you, in some measure, who you are. It will separate out who you were before and who you are now. It will shatter all of your illusions of what you thought life meant…. in some cases, allowing for a greater purpose. In others, shutting you down into the smallest version of yourself. Sometimes, both ideas present all in one day.
I never knew until last October that the smallest version of myself is I miss my mommy. The process is how not to get stuck there, because there will always be moments.
Getting “bigger” hasn’t happened all at once, because there are moments where I feel six feet tall and bulletproof, then a movie will run across my mind and I am paralyzed with fear… mostly the fear that I’ll never feel better than I do in that moment.
And then another great moment comes along, a bulwark against the storm…. because grief often feels like being pushed overboard into terrifying water- you can’t see land. And if you could, it wouldn’t be a beach you recognize.