A few days after my Dad’s passing, as if in a dream, I found myself huddled over my Mom’s tiny computer desk Googling “how to write an obituary.” Although we knew Dad was slipping away from Alzheimer’s disease, we weren’t emotionally prepared to actually do the tough stuff like planning a memorial service, writing an obit, or arranging for his cremation, until the time had come. As I scanned the article results, I felt gratitude that the internet could be of such service now that the time had officially come. The ability to uncover answers and assistance was the first of many gifts that appeared as shining stars in the dark sky that is grief.
Gift #1 – Help Comes When Needed
Buried among the internet search results was a news item announcing that week marked the ten-year anniversary of the passing of renowned psychiatrist and grief researcher, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross. A friend had brought her groundbreaking work, “On Death and Dying,” to my attention just a few weeks prior. Another friend whom I had done volunteer work with knew Kübler-Ross personally, so coming across her name in that moment was a sign that I was supposed to pay attention. The article outlined Kübler-Ross’s “Five stages of grief.” These stages provide a comforting framework in which to view the tumultuous road that loss leads us down, including:
Because Dad had been sick for seven years, I had bounced around each of the stages for a long time. I finally had clarity around the unexpected peace I had been feeling. I was finally in “acceptance.” Incidentally, after flying home from visiting my Mom, I began reading a book a friend had suggested on codependency. Unexpectedly, it contained a reiteration of the “Five stages of grief.” I appreciate that Spirit/The Universe/God really wanted me to have that important information, since by then I had been knocked squarely back into the “depression” stage.
Gift #2 – There is Nothing to Fear
Ever since I was a very little girl, I have struggled with intense worry and fear. My parents had me when they were 41. As a precocious child, I understood that their advanced age meant the odds of them seeing me through to adulthood weren’t ideal. Add to that Dad’s dangerous job as a lineman with the telephone company, and you have one big ball of nerves. Even though prayer was never taught in our home, I instinctively prayed for my parents’ safety. I actually grew up bargaining with God. I would say, “please just let me get through high school with my parents.” Then, “please let me get through college,” then “please let my Dad walk me down the aisle on my wedding day.” I felt like I was racing against a clock of doom.
When I first noticed Dad was exhibiting the more pronounced signs of Alzheimer’s in 2008, I began having panic attacks. There were other contributing factors including chronic illness and work stress, but without a doubt the constant worry I faced over his illness was the most debilitating. A few years prior to his passing, I sought the help of healers, while also pursuing a master’s degree in Integrative Healing. The anxiety attacks stopped. However, there was still a lingering sense of dread that I couldn’t quite shake. After Dad passed away, I finally felt true peace. Turns out, when your greatest fear comes true, life does in fact go on. It is the ultimate realization that what FDR famously said is true, “there is nothing to fear but fear itself.”
Gift #3 – You Can Not Understand Anyone Else’s Pain
In addition to being a worrier, I was also a very sensitive and empathic child. I was able to suppress those traits somewhat as an adolescent, but they came back with a vengeance in adulthood. I made a practice of putting myself in other’s shoes, attempting to feel their pain as a way of connecting with them. As such, funerals and wakes were unbearable. I would sometimes cry uncontrollably, or avoid them all together because it was just too uncomfortable. I was imagining what their grief and pain must feel like. Yet, now that I have experienced profound loss, I realize that it is impossible to understand another person’s pain or loss. We each experience things through our own personal lens.
More importantly, it is not helpful to wallow in grief with someone else. It is akin to jumping in to save a drowning person without wearing a life vest – you both end up going under. This has been an incredibly helpful lesson that shapes everything I do going forward. When I start to find myself feeling sad for or worrying about someone else I remind myself, “you can’t know,” and then I send that person loving thoughts. Because I don’t have to actually understand their pain to know that what all humans really need is love and compassion.
Gift #4 – There is No Wrong Way to Grieve
Throughout my life I have been held to high standards. In honors classes and on all-star sports teams, the pressure was always tremendously high. That hasn’t subsided now that I am a writer expected to hand in flawless, grammatically perfect work. Life carries many expectations for all of us. The beauty of death is that there are no longer expectations. Death is often messy and not at all how we plan or expect it. But, it happens anyway. Grief is the same way. You can’t control it, and there is no “right” way to do it. The beauty of the grieving process is that expectations temporarily lift. Or, at least they will if you give yourself permission. I finally gave myself permission, and it has helped me break through the pain.
One of the most comforting pieces of advice in regards to grieving came from a close friend, who also happens to be a recovering perfectionist like me. She said, “Let your body/mind/spirit heal as they need. Believe that they will. In the process, just remember to be kind to others, especially those close to you. Those are your two most important jobs right now.” In essence, she was saying, “be authentic and be kind.” When you really think about it, that is all we ever really have to do.
Gift #5 – The Road Rises to Meet You
There is an Irish blessing that says:
May the road rise up to meet you.
May the wind always be at your back.
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
the rains fall soft upon your fields.
And until we meet again,
may God hold you in the palm of His hand.
The support implied in this blessing seems to ring especially true when you are consumed with grief. People offer hugs and words of solace. Prayers are said on your behalf, and in general people are more willing to help you than ever before. In that space, you really get to understand what if feels like to be held in the palm of God’s hand.
Bonus Gift – A New Sense of Belonging
I know that many others have experienced loss and grief as I have; it is a binding tie of being human. That in itself is a bit of a gift. It is a reminder that we are all connected through the power of shared experience. When you lose a parent, it is as if you become a member of a secret club. So many friends conveyed that sentiment – that on some level you never get over the loss. It becomes somewhat of a badge of courage, a sense of “I lost a parent, but I am able to live on.”
For all of those who have lost a parent or close loved one, life does go on. And, you are forever stronger for having endured the pain and the grief, but even stronger still for having experienced their never ending love.
Merry Christmas – may the greatest gift yet be the sense that nothing is ever really gone when it lives in your heart.