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.
Today is rainy, chilly and dreary, just like three years ago when I received the dreaded phone call that my father had died.
Everything else is so much different.
One of my favorite photos.
Little did I know at the time that I had taken the first of many significant dips on the roller coaster of life. Mom, always the picture of health, was diagnosed with stage III colon cancer just seven months after my father’s death. I quit my job to take care of her for the next six months. It would be another year before I secured any regular work.
I discovered that freelancing is best approached when you have time to plan and build clients, not for a sudden source of steady income. I learned that being a really good employee doesn’t get you very far in this job market.
And perhaps most importantly, I immersed myself in the world of Alzheimer’s activism, and learned so much from the stories I read.
So I am definitely a different person than the one who answered that phone in the middle of the newsroom on December 20, 2011. I hope I’m a bit wiser, and a lot more compassionate.
Tonight I will light a candle, toast Dad’s spirit with a glass of Irish whiskey and remember his wonderful singing voice, realizing that one can smile and mourn at the same time.
When you lose a family member, well-meaning people usually say that things will get easier as time goes on.
But I don’t think that’s entirely true for everyone. Certainly, time marches on. But how one reacts to a death of a loved one, how they process their grief, well, that’s really a very individual process. I’m sure there are plenty of statistics and surveys out there that say generally speaking, people’s grief lessens after x amount of time. I think most of us know that when it gets personal, stats go out the window.
Mom and Dad in Ruidoso.
I’ve been thinking a lot about Dad lately, and that is understandable. The one year anniversary of his death was December 20th. Then it was the holidays. Certainly I have not been sitting curled up in a ball crying my eyes out with grief, but the pain still ripples through my heart. The guilt over what I would have, should have done differently still is something I’m working through.
Mom also remains grief-stricken, so I have to deal with that as well. On New Year’s Eve, she found a copy of the message she wrote in the 40th anniversary card she gave to Dad, the one she had cremated with him. While everyone else was ringing in the new year, Mom was grieving.
Tonight, she broke down again, letting me know she tells Dad every day that she loves him. Her message is always the same. She misses Dad dearly, but the way he was before Alzheimer’s. She could not wish him back the way he became with dementia.
So for some people, grieving the loss of a loved one does become easier. For others, it may change shape and form, but it is still a pain buried deep within the heart.
It has been a strange, bittersweet Thanksgiving holiday for me. I am spending the week with Mom, but now she’s having some troubling health symptoms that we need to go have checked out tomorrow. So she can’t even enjoy any food today, not that we were going to do a traditional feast.
We decided to skip the turkey and fixings, but the memories of past holiday meals linger. We never had the big family gatherings that many other people enjoy. It was just the three of us, so I think we miss his presence even more because it’s such a huge hole in our little family.
By far, Dad’s favorite holiday was Thanksgiving. He loved all of the traditional dishes served on that day, but I think the turkey was his favorite. He would always ask for seconds on that day! I wish Dad could have enjoyed a real turkey one year, as we always bought those little “turkey roasts in a box” since it was just the three of us.
He wasn’t that big on desserts, which left more pumpkin pie for me, which I was just fine with. 🙂
Holidays and illness unfortunately do mix sometimes. It’s just one of those unavoidable facts of life. Thankfully, I’m not that sentimental about holidays, but I can’t help but think about how it’s been one year now that my life has revolved around illness and loss. These life-altering experiences make you reassess your priorities and what is truly meaningful. It also makes me wonder when I see all of the Facebook posts where people so casually give thanks to family and friends. I’m not saying people are not sincere, but it’s so easy to take all of those special people in your life for granted. I’ve certainly been guilty of it. This past year has taught me a difficult, but important lesson.
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.
Mom was telling me about someone she knows who just revealed they have pancreatic cancer, stage IV. Realistically looking at their odds, he has already started planning for his departure from this world. An Irishman, he wants his life to be celebrated via an Irish wake versus the sad mourning of a traditional funeral.
Dad had no ceremony when he left this earth. It was impossible to know if that’s how he would have wanted it, because he had a fear of death and would not discuss the particulars when he still had his mind. Dad’s family is in Ireland and Australia, so there’s no way they would have come to New Mexico for a funeral. And while Dad was liked by the locals, he didn’t have any close friends, so the invitation list would have been small. Then there was that winter storm, combined with the Christmas holiday that delayed Dad’s physical departure from this earth. (His cremation was delayed until a doctor was available to sign the death certificate. He died five days before Christmas, but was kept in the morgue of a funeral home for several days until the paperwork was completed.)
I do like the idea of a wake, where one’s memory is celebrated. Mourning certainly has its time and place, but I prefer to do that privately. And the sadness, the grief comes because of what the deceased person meant to others. I think Dad would have approved pint glasses of Guinness raised high in his honor and memory.
As we march closer to the one year anniversary of my father’s death, Mom seems to be sensing Dad’s presence more at home. She told me the other night she fell asleep only to be awakened to the sound of someone wheezing. She instantly thought that it was my dad. He had suffered from both COPD and emphysema in the last several years of his life.
Then she reminded herself that Dad was no longer suffering anywhere on this planet.
She then thought it was me, but I’m in Atlanta at the moment. She then convinced herself that she was the wheezing (or snoring) culprit.
Our loved ones leave us on a mental and physical plane, but sometimes part of them lingers in the minds of those that mourn them.