A few weeks ago, I said goodbye to a long time, dear friend who had become a sister of choice, a traveling companion, a ‘kvetch and moan’ sounding board, as well as a compassionate confidant who didn’t hesitate to call me on my stuff when needed. She died after a nearly two-year encounter with cancer.
I hesitate to call it a battle as many do when given the diagnosis that she was. She was more a reluctant dance partner with the disease, attempting to improvise her way through the steps and turns, choreographing her own strut and sway. No tiptoe through the tulips.
Ondreah was a career nurse who knew her way through the medical model, being on one side of the stethoscope until she found herself on the other. She took on the role of instructor as well as patient, educating her treatment team about how to provide not only stellar physical care, but in addition, emotional and spiritual care, to her as a unique individual. She expressed both courage and genuine, from-the-gut fear. Both equally legit reactions.
She passed on December 9, 2018, a bit before 1 a.m. in the presence of her sister, two friends and me. She drifted onto her next place on the wings of a Hindu mantra known as the Gayatri Mantra. It was the boat that ferried her to the Other Side.
In dreams recently, I recognized that there are far more than five stages of grief that companion Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s theory.
I initially found out about this theory in the guise of a 1979 movie called “All That Jazz”. The main character, who is based on the hellbent on death choreographer Bob Fosse lives each one of these stages before he dies. It fascinated me as a psychology major in college and made sense at the time, before I experienced the passing of family and friends over a period of years.
As I have crossed the threshold into my 60’s, hearing of the transition of those in my life, has been happening with head spinning rapidity. In addition to Ondreah, two more friends ‘left the building,’ in the past month.
As a career therapist who is also a bereavement counselor, I have discovered that grief is not cookie cutter and is as diverse in expression as those experiencing it. I have likened it to a roller coaster with unpredictable twists and turns that may have you turned upside down as it speeds down the track, is not time-limited, the track changes and switches position once you are on board. There is not always time to fasten seatbelts or put the bar down across your lap. It is quite the wild ride. In the process of saying goodbye to family and friends throughout the years (husband and both parents included), I have been on this roller coaster ride of reconciliation of the past. In a dream, I heard the words “grief and relief go hand in hand.”
- Euphoria. That might sound strange. Who would feel anything remotely connected to happiness when a loved one dies? I received a potent and certain message from my husband Michael a while after he died, now 20 years ago as of 12/21/18. I was driving on winding back roads in rural Bucks County, Pennsylvania, with my arm out the window on a warm summer day. A breeze was blowing on through, rustling the vivid green leaves on the trees I passed. It came out one word at a time. “This. Is. What. Heaven. Feels. Like. All. The. Time. You. Don’t. Have. To. Die. To. Experience. It.” I called it my transfusion from Heaven. When my mother died, I had that sensation again. I was relieved that she was no longer in pain and in my belief system, she had been reunited with the love of her life who had died 2.5 years earlier. One of the hardest parts of her widowhood was watching her miss my father, even as she created a new normal without his physical presence.
- Surrealism. This is not the same as denial. It is more a sense of this feels weird, like a cat or dog would look around if a companion animal died and wonder where they went. Someone is missing, but we can’t quite wrap our minds around their absence.
- God-wrestling. When my husband was in the process of dying, which I didn’t acknowledge at the time, since we were convinced that he would receive a liver transplant and recover, I would have God-versations in which I would attempt to keep him on this side of the veil. “He’s mine and you can’t have him,” were the words I uttered. The definitive statement that came rebounding my way was, “No, he is mine and he is on loan to you, like everyone else in your life.” That helped me then and assists me now in appreciating the people in my life, since we never know when anyone will breathe their last.
- Reconciliation. Although this might seem like acceptance, it has a different flavor to it. There are so many jagged and sometimes ill-fitting pieces of our relationships. Being dead doesn’t turn anyone into a saint and often even expected deaths come toting so much baggage that it may take years to unpack. Even 20 years later, I am still dumping out the satchels from my marriage.
- Gratitude. Appreciating the connection with loved ones, regardless of the duration, has helped me to ease the sting. When I am able to focus on what we had and not just what we lost, I feel them with me still in ways I wouldn’t have otherwise.
- Peace. When I can allow myself to feel it all; the pain and pleasure of having known this person, the tears of joy and despair at missing them, the relief that they are no longer in pain (if it involved prolonged illness) or if it was sudden, that hopefully, they didn’t suffer, I have begun to integrate the experience of saying farewell for now.
A Buddhist friend offered her observation on the subject: “Impermanence is the golden thread that runs through our life and gives it meaning.”