With the passing of Queen Elizabeth and marking the 21st anniversary of 9/11 this weekend, I thought it would be a good time to discuss the complexities of the grieving and mourning process. As humans we often crave a blueprint for navigating difficult times. But as a recent article from Next Avenue points out, “Grief isn’t organized; it’s a mess and a natural human experience. There is no ‘normal’ way to grieve.”
I delved into the complicated relationships I had with my parents and how that impacted my grieving process in The Reluctant Caregiver. Diseases like dementia can also leave loved ones feeling conflicted; one may feel feel relief that their loved one is free of such a terrible disease yet still deeply mourn the person’s death.
Others may mean well but how one processes grief is an individualized process. What may seem “normal” for one person may be inappropriate for another. It’s also important to remember that there are many nontraditional family structures now and that we live in a time when people are more encouraged to share and process their family trauma.
For those who are grieving the loss of someone who they had a complicated relationship with, allow the feelings to flow naturally and try to ignore any societal expectations. If you would like help navigating the challenging journey, consult a therapist, grief counselor or grief support group.
What we’ve learned about grief is that it is a very personal, individualized process. No one grieves for the loss of their loved ones in exactly the same way. While plenty of guidance exists for those who are struggling through the grieving process, it truly is a journey we take alone.
When psychologist Carol Ellstein lost her first husband suddenly and unexpectedly, she developed a mantra to help with the grieving process. What she chose really resonated with me: “Grief sucks. Life goes on.”
I liked the realist approach, as it is what I embraced and wrote about in my book, The Reluctant Caregiver. This approach isn’t for everyone, but it can be liberating to stop trying to force yourself to see the bright side and sit with the meaning of loss until you’ve processed it enough to move on. That process may take months, years, or it may be ongoing for the rest of your life.
Mantras aren’t set in stone; they can be adapted along your grief journey. A friend of Ellstein’s offered a playful twist to her mantra by suggesting, “Life sucks. Grief goes on.” Ellstein found there were days as she was in the early, active grieving process in which her friend’s suggestion was fitting. She would offer herself more self-care on the days in which “life sucked.”
As time moved on, Ellstein’s mantra continued to evolve. By the second year after her husband’s death, her mantra became, “Grief still sucks, and life still goes on.” By year three, she found that she didn’t need to use her mantra as much, as she emerged into a new normal.
I hope Ellstein’s approach can be helpful to others who are embarking on that dreaded journey of grief. It does indeed suck, but there are moments of profound insight that emerge as well.
It’s the ninth anniversary of my father’s death, and that also means it is time for my annual PSA (public service announcement) about being gentle and non-judgmental with those who choose not to celebrate the holiday season because they’ve lost someone during this time of year.
The coronavirus pandemic that has claimed more than 300,000 lives in America will put a damper on this year’s festivities. But I also noticed the opposite effect, with neighbors putting their Christmas decorations up well before Thanksgiving. Both are natural reactions and we should respect the way individuals choose to cope.
This year as I reflect upon the anniversary of my father’s death, I remembered a detail I came across in a card he had attempted to write one of his sisters, but no longer had the cognitive function to address and mail. He had written in the card that he had been diagnosed with the swine flu. He had not received such a diagnosis, but the H1N1 pandemic was in the news at the time. Dad had latched on to that to explain what was happening to his body. That memory came back strong this year as the coronavirus pandemic unleashed its fury across the world.
Related to the pandemic and the need to wear masks, I also am reflecting on the fact that Dad would likely have been anti-mask. In 1986, when I was 12, wearing seat belts became mandatory when driving a vehicle in California. I remember many heated arguments in the car because of my father’s stubborn refusal to put on his seat belt. He claimed wearing the belt was constricting and made him feel like he was choking. Sound familiar this year? As an ill-advised compromise, Dad would drape the belt over his torso, but not latch it. Fortunately we never had any serious accidents. According to the Los Angeles Times, my father was part of the majority who at the time did not wear seat belts on a regular basis.
It has been the strangest and most challenging of years and the holiday season is no different. Connect with those you love however you can safely. Offer words of comfort and healing to the many who are grieving.
It seems strange not picking up the phone today and wishing my mother a happy Halloween.
Even though we never spent the holiday together after I was grown, my mom always went out of her way to make Halloween special for me as a kid. That included a nifty handmade “Planet of the Apes” costume when I was very small. As I got a little older, my parents faithfully took me to a nearby park for a community event which was like a carnival, complete with games and you guessed it, candy!
Every time I passed a Halloween card display this month, I felt a pang in my heart. Never again would I pick out a Halloween card for my mom. And never would I receive another one from her.
But, I also have kept the cards she sent to me over the years. So I pulled a few of those out, and read the messages from happier times. This lifted my spirits.
I have no shortage of written memories from my mom. Much of the correspondence may be of the mundane variety, but there is her writing, her words, her expressions of love.
So perhaps there are more treats than tricks this Halloween after all.
I know many of you out there are celebrating a less-than-ideal holiday. You may be visiting your loved ones in a care center. They may not be able to communicate with family anymore.
Or like me, you may be grieving the loss of a loved one today.
But as many of you have illustrated on your own blogs, wallowing in pity will not make the holiday season any brighter. While it takes effort, we must find ways to appreciate what we do have, and cherish the happy memories with those who have departed.
No day is perfect, just like no person is perfect. But every day and every person is special, if we only take the time to seek out the good.
Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you and your family.
The dreams of Dad continue for Mom. She will dream of conversations with Dad, but not remember the exchange of words when she awakens. She has hit a plateau recently, at least on an emotional level. She told me last night that she thinks she doesn’t have much longer in this world. Of course, none of us know our exact time of death, but I have a feeling it’s wishful thinking on her part. While she has made great strides in her recovery from surgery, life with a colostomy is not a great quality of life. Some manage better than others, and certainly, Mom has become quite independent in managing it, but it wears on her emotionally.
So I think because of that, she is clinging to Dad’s memory more than ever. She told me how often she feels Dad’s presence at home now. I know some people claim to see dead loved ones before they depart. I certainly don’t discount those experiences, but there’s no way to prove whether those visions can predict death or not. I think Mom is lonely and sad and her 40-year relationship with Dad still brings her comfort, at least in the memories before his dementia took hold.
I had my own mourning dream of sorts recently. I watched this ridiculous (yet adorable) Swedish commercial about cats that can fly, and it made me dream about my sweet kitty that I had to put to sleep earlier this year. In my dream, he wasn’t quite flying, but he was levitating quite well. (Maybe another Hover Cat in the making!)
It made me realize that those who have departed still linger in quite imaginative ways in our memories.
The home health care agency asked Mom this week if she wanted to join a widow’s group. Mom balked at the idea: “A bunch of women sitting around and telling sad stories. I think that would make me feel worse.”
Yet Mom will tell a stranger at the drop of the hat about Dad’s passing, how he had dementia, how she took care of him at home for three years, etc. The group might have done her good, at least she would have a captive audience to talk to. But I know better than to push her.
But now as the calendar inches closer and closer to the first anniversary of Dad’s death, I’m fascinated by the various ways we grieve as humans. Honestly, considering what I’ve been dealing with this year, I don’t even feel I’ve had time to properly grieve Dad. For me, it’s a much more internal process, and my outward grieving is done through this blog.
If Dad had outlived Mom, I think he would have been a lost soul. I think I would have arranged to have him fly home to Ireland, to live with his remaining family there. I don’t think he would have been able to “fly solo” as Mom has done.
Grief is never easy, but we all have our own ways of processing our feelings about the loss of a loved one.
Last week, I was at Mom’s and there was a cold snap. I did not pack a jacket from home, so I started going through Dad’s jackets to see if one was suitable. Dad’s security guard jacket still hangs in the closet, like he would put it on for a round of sentry duty at any moment. His trucking company jackets were also in there. They must be at least 30 years old. They are a bright orange, so I declined to wear one of those, as I didn’t want to look like a hazard cone.
Dad at a friend’s house, circa 1975, wearing the famous purple shirt.
It’s funny how reminders of Dad continue to flow into my mind with the change of seasons. There’s a great singer named Martha Wainwright who just released an album called Come Home to Mama that explores the emotions she went through after her mother, the wonderful Canadian folk singer Kate McGarrigle died. The whole album is wonderful, but “All Your Clothes,” a song inspired by her going through her mother’s closet after her death is particularly moving. Sure, memories are more important than tangible goods, but there is also often a deep connection between tangible goods and family memories.
What I didn’t find was Dad’s groovy purple shirt that he wore in so many of our family photos when I was a baby. That would be a keeper!