Over the last few months, there’s been a lot of bad news impacting some of the people that I care about. People dealing with sick parents that are losing their battles and moving towards their final days. People losing close relatives and other’s that have been diagnosed with cancer at a very young age and struggle to think about a future for their young children that may not include them. Now that I’m in my “mid-life” I feel like it never stops and it’s all heartbreaking. As a bystander, I sit back and feel helpless. Most of us can relate to grief because we’ve all felt it in some small or major way in our lives. I am a true believer that pain is not relative, it just is, which means that we can’t compare our pain to others. We don’t get to decide that certain people have it better or worse, it just doesn’t work that way. Whatever we’re suffering with is our battle to fight and when we try to compare it, we diminish what we all desperately need, and that is to be seen, heard, and loved in times of loss. But this doesn’t mean people can “fix” how we manage grief. The hardest part about grief may be the loneliness we feel regardless of how we are being supported; managing grief is a lonely business.
My first experience with grief was probably like many. I lost several pets and felt how disoriented our house would feel when one of our fur babies was no longer with us. Misty, pictured here, was the first dog I loved and lost. My parents would typically handle this with a small amount of time to feel the loss and then shortly after they’d introduce a new sweet puppy or kitten into our family and our hearts would be full again. It wasn’t until I got older that I realized how difficult pet loss can actually be. As a child it was fleeting, but as I’ve become more attached to my pets it’s devastating when you lose one of these loyal members of your family.
The next loss was of grandparents and this was, in many ways, underwhelming for me. For one, I wasn’t very close to any of my grandparents so I didn’t have a relationship that would be missed or unresolved. And, typically, grandparents are an expected loss. When they live to be in their 80’s or 90’s it seems inevitable to lose them. My Dad’s parents were his foster parents and they were much older. “Uncle Fred” as we referred to his foster Dad was born in 1899 and “Sister” as we called his foster Mom was born in 1903. They were very kind people and all of my memories of them are positive but I wasn’t around them much and I was very young so the loss was associated more with how hard this was for my Dad. The people that took him in at the young age of three, when his own parents were unable and unwilling to raise him, were now gone and he had lost “his people”. This was hard to watch and I hurt for my Dad but had very little of my own pain. Then my Mom’s Dad died, this was very painful for her. I wanted to be there for her but had few of my own emotions tied up in my grandfather. Eventually, my grandmother would pass after years of fighting dementia. She was often unkind to my Mom due to feeling unworthy her entire life and even more so in the years that followed her dementia diagnosis. I don’t think I skipped a beat when she died. I actually felt relief that my Mom was free of the woman that treated her so badly at times. We never had a service for her which felt odd but I was more shocked at how indifferent I was to this. It felt wrong to feel this way or in this case, not feel the grief.
The most difficult moment of my life was when we lost my Dad to a sudden heart attack at the prime age of 51. It felt surreal, like I would wake up and it would be a terrible dream. But I never woke up and I still find myself, to this day, weeping after 20 years of him being gone. Grief hit me like a mac truck and in some way, I never fully recovered. I was 23 years old and my life was already spiraling out of control before the loss. Grief now consumed me and I struggled to breath when I was alone with my thoughts. So I got busy and I got focused and I never stopped. Accomplishment and success became my coping mechanism and I was going to run like hell to escape the pain of losing my Dad. I suppose there are worse things I could have leveraged to cope but after 20 years I’m just starting to undo the need to be busy in order to avoid the pain.
More recently the loss of both of my in-laws in many ways matched the pain I felt when I lost my Dad. There are so many reasons it was different, I was not only devastated by my own feelings of loss but for Greg, his siblings and my children who were loved so deeply by these people. I remember the same feelings of intense sorrow and begging to bring them back but I didn’t have any of the “baggage” or rich history that typically comes with a parent/child relationships. My feelings of loss were wrapped up in empathy for all those around me that were experiencing the loss of a parent for the first time. I delivered my Mother-in-law’s eulogy and felt honored that the family trusted me with this task and grateful that I had the opportunity to share everyone’s feelings about this amazing woman. I still cry to this day when I think of her and how deeply she loved my husband, my children and me.
Up until recently, I’ve always associated grief with death. The loss of someone you deeply care about, and this is for sure the epitome of loss, there’s no coming back from death. But for several years I’ve felt this deep sense of loss in my life. This loss is centered around the lack of control over what’s happening to Greg and my Mom, both suffering from incurable diseases. My Mom, who is the woman with all the answers and a true intellectual, is slowly losing her mind to dementia. And then there’s Greg, the man who never stops trying and has a talent for fixing and building things is slowly and painfully losing his ability to move. I’ve spent many hours in therapy talking about these two people and my inability to manage these very heavy challenges. I am an incurable optimist so I have done my best to out smile, out work and deny that watching these two extremely strong people suffer loss every day has not had a profound impact on me. This is when I started to understand that I was dealing with “chronic grief”. This is not to say that I can’t move past the stages of grief but that I’m watching loss every day and the people that I’m losing are still standing right in front of me; still accessible, still present, still fighting and both still loving me fiercely! It’s not like either one of them is giving up. Quite the opposite, they both approach each day with a mental strength that is not only astounding but admirable. And it is their ability to move through the world still figuring it out, even with constant obstacles that I feel the need to suck it up and get over myself. Who am I to feel the pain of their loss? It’s a question I ask regularly and then I have to remember my own words. Pain is not relative. It is our own. I believe this but the urge to just smile past it, work harder and bury myself in “busy” in order to avoid the pain seems so much easier than facing the “what’s next” and the “what ifs”.
Truthfully, we are all just taking each day as it comes. No one knows what tomorrow will bring. I know this first hand. One day you wake up to a normal extra-ordinary day and the next you wake up to a very sick pet or news from a doctor that your life has changed forever or a phone call letting you know that your very young and healthy Dad has suffered a catastrophic heart attack and died instantly. We just don’t know.
So I choose to keep moving and to keep smiling and try to accept each day as it comes. I also choose to allow myself to feel the pain and the loss and to feel deeply sad at times. I am forever grateful for the number of family and friends that are always just a text or call away. Often the universe speaks to us and people reach out at the most necessary moments because we are all connected by this greater purpose to support one another. If there’s one thing I have figured out, it’s that we can’t do this alone. And alone I am not.