Grief- The Top Five Things I Have Learned

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The milestone has been met, and whether I wanted to or not, whether I was ready or not, we have passed the one year mark of my parents’  passing.  I am making it plural because even though my mom died a few months before my dad, his death really set the whole process back to zero for me.  Going through their belongings, selling their home, and settling  their affairs really was a two in one experience that could not be separated.  It all sucked and I grieved them both through it.

After a long winter and a late spring I made the drive back to visit the cemetery, take care of a last few estate related tasks and visit a few familiar places to tweak some good memories.  I wasn’t ready to drive past their house yet, it belongs to someone else now and while I am very happy to know there is new life there, my mind’s eye is not ready to let go of the image of both parents waving from their front deck.  Perhaps another visit.

It was a bittersweet day and I am incredibly thankful to my friend Andrea who met me at one of those favorite places for lunch.  We were overdue to spend some time together and catching up added a bit of much needed laughter and levity.  Good friends are like like water for a thirsty soul.

The visit was meant to close the book so to speak on my year of grief, all of the firsts had been marked and according to culture we don’t seem to talk about it after that.  We just move forward. People stop asking how you are and we, the grievers stop talking about it.  That’s just how polite society does it.

Over the past year, I wrote three other posts about grief and if you would like to you can review them at the links here:

While I never really intended to write a series, I guess I kind of did.  This post then would be my final, one more way to close the door on 12 months and reflect on the whole process.  It feels fitting that I finish with a reflection of what I learned about myself and my corner of the world in, around and through loss.  Here we go.

  1. Grief doesn’t have an off switch.  Everything I said about the one year mark?  Lies. It’s a journey that you are not in control of.  Is there a faster way to get to the end? I actually don’t think you do.  Pain softens and fades, gratitude takes the place where sharp sorrow first resides, the waves of longing and loss come less and less and gradually become small enough so you aren’t overwhelmed by them, but the missing?  It never really goes away.  I miss their voices, I miss my mom’s cooking and her unsolicited advice, I miss watching TV with my dad even though I hated his choice of shows, I miss having time just to be near them.  I’m old enough that I can figure out all of the answers to all of the problems, but I will forever miss talking to them about it any way.  I think maybe the key is figuring out how to live with missing them, but I haven’t quite solved that yet.
  2. Some people get stuck in grief.  I once met an old widow who fit the stereotype perfectly: black dress, black pantyhose, black shoes and a big locket around her neck with a picture of her dead husband.  He had died over thirty years before.  She had never moved on.  When I went to the support group I met a few people that were years into grief, but stuck as if it was fresh.  Some people just can’t find the tools to get around and through it, they stay there and it is so sad.  I can’t imagine any loving partner or family member passing away would want their loved ones left behind live the rest of their days locked into acute grief.  There are counselors to help with that.
  3. People will surprise you.   I had community and friends that I knew would stand in the breach for me and they came through in spades. Your tribe is your tribe and they stand with you no matter what.  That wasn’t a surprise, but I was surprised by their faithfulness, the funeral was at least 1/3 full of people who made a long drive to make sure I didn’t feel alone.  I will never forget that feeling.  I also had friends who I didn’t think to expect to be supportive but they showed up with a hug, kind words, and an offer of help. These were the people who had already lost their parents and just jumped in, knowing what was needed even before I did.  The biggest gift being from those who drove hours to help pack up the house and be with me when everything was sold. Finally, there were those who didn’t know what to say or do, didn’t have the patience to wait while I grieved, or just didn’t get it.  And let’s be clear, up until a year ago, I was that person for others, so no judgement from me.  Sometimes when it’s awkward, you just lay low until it goes away. There were a few people who disappeared from my radar, but that’s OK.  The point is, sometimes you never know who will be left standing by your side when the dust settles.
  4. I learned how easily families can splinter, but also how they can come around.  Families are complicated.  All of them.  There are lots of reasons why an extended family can break apart and I’m no expert so I won’t even try to break it all down. Big feelings, deep pain and different expectations can create a wedge in a family, but time, some times lots of it can close the gap.  Many years ago when my grandparents died, my dad and his siblings lost some of their closeness due to things that really were and are none of my business.  Yet in the months after my mom died, they all reached out.  Phone calls, coffee, visits and friendship, it’s like they circled my dad to hold him up as if sheer will could get him through.  Whatever had weakened their bond, was erased in grief and in family as if it had never happened.  When my dad died, they circled me too, and so did their kids. Kind words, putting me in touch with the right people to settle the estate, phone calls, and the occasional email.  All deeply appreciated.
  5. Grief is hard work, be kind to yourself.  You don’t know what you don’t know, but take my advice.  Grief  is hard work to process, mainly because you have no choice and nowhere to hide.  It’s exhausting, depressing, sometimes debilitating.  You forget things, prefer to avoid people, feel out of place, get cranky, and can’t always sleep.  At the same time, you could eat too much, drink too much, sleep too much, watch too much TV, or just generally give up.  Be kind to yourself, of course you feel all the things, and numb, and angry, and sad.  Give yourself permission to cut a few corners, get out of town for a few days, feel the sun on your face and the wind in your hair and breathe.  Do what you need to do, then as best you can, pick up a piece here and a piece there and start putting your life back together.

At the end of it all, we are going to be OK.  This is part of life, of living.  I was in absolutely, no way prepared to navigate this past year.  I knew it was coming, I did all of the things I thought I knew how to do, set my life in order so I could take the time I needed, and it still took my breath away like nothing I’ve ever experienced or could have expected. I am so grateful to have had the time I had with my parents, grateful that our relationship was such that losing them hurt so much, grateful for my husband and kids who helped in every way possible, grateful for friends who came through in the most unexpected ways, and grateful that now I know how to be a better friend to someone who is grieving.  And with that, we pass this milestone and move forward.

How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard. – Winnie the Pooh

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