Let’s Talk About It: Will we ever understand grief?

Posted in the Senior Times Jan/2017

As 2016 comes to an end, we wonder what the year meant to us. It’s been a rough year in many accounts, with many world tragedies, from terrorism to natural disasters. I will always remember 2016 as the year I became an orphan.

Even writing these words makes me shudder. I have been affected by death of loved ones too many times, each death chipping away at me. Yes, I eventually adjust but emerge as a changed person.

While I have studied ‘death and dying’ and have come to use the word ‘death’ more often than ‘loss’ or ‘passed’ it still amazes me how most of us don’t understand grief. We all travel different journeys but we need to be better educated on how to respond to those suffering the death of a loved one.

People mean well. Some are uncomfortable and tend to withdraw from the grief-stricken person. We struggle to find words of comfort, not realizing that some well-intentioned condolences are painful to hear or read.

My mother lived a long life but that does not make the pain less than if she had died at a young age. In fact, in some way it is harder to deal with since she was with me for so long. Imagining life without her is unbearable. Hearing that I was fortunate to have my mother for so long, that it was her time, that I will feel better in a few months, is of little comfort. There is no point telling the person to call you if they need anything or want to talk. They won’t. But don’t give up: leave messages, send food especially if there are children at home (not my case). Do not leave a message saying that you understand their need to be alone so they should call when they feel better.  Really?

Friends reacted differently to my grief. Some would check in regularly expressing understanding at my need for alone time but sending warm thoughts. A few people were so wonderfully empathetic and understanding that being with them offered comfort and a safe place to shed tears and express my rage. I realized later that these few people suffered great losses as well. Sometimes it is best to give a meaningful hug, acknowledge how hard it must be, and just say less. Reminders about how people loved and admired my mother were good to hear. My reaction to these shared thoughts resulted in tears, good tears. I appreciated handwritten notes with warm thoughts and beautiful words describing my mother and acknowledging my difficult time.

I needed time to curl up and be alone. Avoiding friends and social activities was not planned, it was just where I was. I am constantly being asked if I feel better. I don’t know how to answer. I don’t understand the question. I am functioning better in the world, but feeling better? I would say I am adjusting better, it’s not a feeling.

Part of my salvation was work. Work was my distraction, a place where I could focus and not have those around me know what I was experiencing. In fact I worked harder than ever, needing a temporary escape from my pain.

When my father died, over a decade ago, I would visit his grave regularly, needing to feel his love and strength. I have not been able to visit my mother’s grave. There is no explanation. Grief is very personal, there are no explanations and there should be no judgments.

Not a day goes by that I don’t think of the four people who died and left a hole in my heart. It’s just part of my day, it comes and goes, without rhyme or reason. My best friend, my soul sister, who died too young, understood my suffering when my father died. She knew I didn’t want to go out or chat on the phone. She understood my need to be alone. She sent me a certificate for a massage — a place to be alone and have the tension in my body worked on. When she died, no one knew how to respond to my grief. Since we were not related, I found that people offered less support because she ‘was only a friend’. Too much is defined by family vs friends. As boomers we are experiencing the deaths of our peers, and some of those peers are family to us.

We all need to try to learn how to respond to those grieving, mourning, and coping with hardships. I hope that 2017 is a better year for those of us who found 2016 difficult.