I’m not sure if I would call grief good but it is a factor of our lives that we all experience. We have all suffered a loss in our lives….some, many!! We are reaching that age when a close family member has passed away, usually a parent or, to a more devastating consequence, a child. Certainly we have known peers who have encountered severe health problems and left us at an age too early.
My first experience with this was a close friend with whom I had attended high school, then travelled for several months through Europe with. We were very close but Pat, although a big handsome and health-conscious man, had always struggled with health problems. During his late 30s, with wife and children, Pat developed cancer. He struggled with it for about 10 years, sometimes appearing very healthy, and other times, very ill. About his mid 40s, I visited him in Victoria and couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t commit to a visit until the very last minute. I later learned that he was overwhelmed by pain and only allowed me to visit when his medication permitted him to present himself as comfortably as possible. We had a nice visit but a week later I received word that he had passed away. Living in the Okanagan, and just having returned from a trip, I decided against making the return trip for his funeral. That was a mistake. My friends all gathered in Courtenay, where he had been raised, and celebrated his life together. I endured his passing alone and never felt as if I had honored his life. A mistake.
A person like my father, at 90 years of age, must have experienced this a multitude of times. He goes to every funeral of every friend and seems to accept each passing with a solid grasp of mortality yet seemingly unconcerned about his, perhaps, luck in good health. He is a relentlessly upbeat guy, always keeping busy whether it be chopping firewood or building a fence. He must have enough firewood stored to heat his whole neighborhood for a decade. “These things keep happening when you’re over 80,” he told me. He goes to funerals because, “It’s just the right thing to do. It shows that you feel bad, that you’ve lost a friend.” What can I say to this? I would like to offer something reassuring, something to lighten the sense of loss, but you can’t evade the reality. He has outlived his friends and many family members. His cohort is thinning.
Well, it seems I am reaching this time of life as well. This topic came to mind with the discovery that two friends had passed away in the past week. A co-worker, who was always very healthy, positive and only a few years older than myself appeared in the obituaries. Ian had entered hospital a few weeks ago for a procedure and never left. A second friend, Jerry, although much older than myself, played tennis with us two weeks ago and expressed no complaints of ill health or pain. He died of cancer, quietly, with his family. This was a bad week.
So, how do we deal with our grief and what is it doing to us? Doing a bit of research and recalling my own experiences, grief is a natural response to loss. Grief isn’t something you choose to experience; it just happens. Everyone’s grief looks different. You and someone else in your family may experience the same loss, but chances are you’ll grieve differently. You will also grieve differently from one day to the next or from one minute to the next. We have little control over this, at least, I didn’t.
Your loss might mean the loss of a loved one through death, but it might also mean losing your health, some physical ability, your job, or a beloved pet. Loss could be the result of a divorce, miscarriage, infertility, or moving to a new community. Loss generally happens in the context of sad events, but it could also occur as a result of happy life events. For instance, new parents experience many losses while simultaneously rejoicing the birth of their child. New parents may experience a loss of freedom, loss of adult conversation, or loss of the life as it was before the child. Feeling that loss does not mean you are depressed or secretly unhappy. It just means that life is sometimes complicated, and some experiences are both happy and sad, but it has changed.
Grief can feel like sadness. It can emerge as anger, betrayal, loneliness, fear. You might feel grief as emotions. You might cry and know that you are sad. You might also feel grief physically. You might feel a knot in your stomach. Your heart might race. You might feel tired or have a headache. You might feel everything all at once, and feel mad/sad/crazy and just want to scream. You may feel like you’re just drowning and overwhelmed. Or you might feel…nothing. Sometimes grief just makes you feel numb.
I had the terrible misfortune of losing my 11-year-old son. I can attest to the numbness that accompanies such a significant loss. In my experience, there were several months after the funeral that I do not recall. I seemed to survive on autopilot, but survivors survive and I guess I am one. I am naturally a fairly upbeat person but still experienced a feeling that there was a dark cloud floating over my life. Colours lacked vibrancy, relationships were less than average, music and food were bland, life was just not as good as it had been.
Well-meaning people will say well meaning things, but possibly, unhelpful things to you when you’re grieving. They say clichés such as “He/she is in a better place now” or “It was just their time to go”. My personal least favorite is “God needed another angel.” Yuk!! People are trying to help, but please don’t use clichés on me. Hugs are good though. I think a hug is the best thing that people can give a person suffering grief. Just a simple heartfelt hug. Reserve that for the big losses, though, such as the loss of a child or spouse. It will be appreciated.
There is no right way to grieve. Many people cry, some scream, some stomp their feet while others just sit quietly. Some may be inclined to run, act out, draw, paint, sculpt, or write poetry. They may hug a close friend. They may want to be alone. They may want to talk….or not want to talk. They may want to talk one minute and then change their mind or have no idea what they need. In that case, talking to a counselor might be helpful. Counselors can help you understand what you are experiencing and develop strategies that may work for you. My answer, of course, was to run and write. I could run mountains and feel no pain while spewing reams of words that nobody will ever read. Being an obsessively health-conscious person, I refused to take medication. Unable to sleep, I took only one sleeping pill before flushing the rest down the toilet. I just ran harder. I learned of St. John’s Wort which is an herb that may help depression, and found that it took the edge off my black cloud. I expect everyone’s solution is unique to themselves, but the runs, the words, friends, hugs, and a simple herb helped me through.
The loss that caused you to grieve probably isn’t going to go away. Likewise, your grief isn’t something that’s just going to disappear. It’s not something wrong with you that needs to get fixed, but I can attest that it will change, over time. The intense feelings won’t last forever. Time heals, or at least, time takes the edge off. You may find it helpful to journal or talk with a counselor periodically so that you can reflect on the ways you have changed, and the ways your grief has changed. These changes are normal, and not feeling overwhelmed does not mean you have stopped grieving, nor stopped loving the person or thing you have lost. It only means that you are adjusting to a new normal…..to your new changed world.
When you grieve, you will undoubtedly also mourn. Mourning is the action – all the ways in which we give voice to our grief. We learn how to mourn by those around us – our families, our friends, our faith communities, our ethnicity. This means emotive expressions like crying and wailing, for some. It also means public acts like attending funerals, visiting cemeteries, hanging black drapes, or wearing black clothes. Participating in mourning rituals does not make your grief go away, but it does give it a voice. It gives it a name, and a place in the world. It’s important to participate in these rituals. In my experience with Pat, I didn’t give my mourning a voice, or at least not enough of one. I will never avoid attending rituals again and still visit his grave yearly. You will always see me at the funerals of my friends and family as life progresses…..and watch out for those hugs.