Even though my dad was hooked up to the most high-tech ventilator in the hospital and had five chest tubes connected to his body, I thought he’d come home with us. Sure, the recovery wouldn’t be easy, but we’d take it slow, and eventually, he’d return to his healthy, energetic self.
At his funeral, I really wanted to say something, to make everyone there understand just how kind-hearted, funny, playful, brave, and resilient my father was. This was a special person, and I yearned, a yearning that knotted my stomach, for others to feel that. Instead, I stayed silent as the rabbi read through paragraphs we’d provided, paragraphs that barely captured the beauty of my dad.
When they picked me up from the airport, my aunt and cousin tried to warn me. But nothing could prepare me for what I saw when I walked into my grandmother’s apartment. My 5-foot-8 grandma weighed around 90 pounds. Her once rosy, full cheeks were hollow. I’d never seen her move so slowly. I usually had to almost jog to keep up with her pace. The bone cancer was whittling away her body, and all I wanted to do was drop to my knees and cry for days. That night, she hugged me and told me that she really wanted my mom to have her gold necklace when she died.
At her funeral in February, New York City looked like a snow globe. The snowstorm started that morning, and we feared we’d have to cancel the service. As we stood by her grave and one by one dropped red roses onto her casket, the snowflakes started coming down faster and faster and bigger and heavier. And it felt like our tears would turn into icicles, staying on our faces forever.
These are some of the bits and pieces I remember from my biggest, deepest losses, from the darker days of my life. Of course, there are many happy, hilarious, vibrant memories. Memories that have nothing to do with hospitals and death. But some days, these are the moments I replay in my mind, a decade later, triggered by something random on TV or something someone says, or triggered by nothing at all.
They say that time heals our (grieving) wounds. But I don’t think it’s time. Instead, I think we just get used to the person not existing in our day to day. We create different routines and rhythms that replace the routines and rhythms they inhabited. Our lives change. We have kids. Our kids go to college. We move to new homes, to new jobs. We simply don’t expect to see our loved one in these places.
In the book On Grief and Grieving, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross writes, “The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not get over the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same, nor would you want to.”
Grief is a shape shifter. It takes many different forms, said Stacey Ojeda, a licensed marriage and family therapist who specializes in working with grief and loss. It can resemble depression with sadness, irritability, hopelessness and helplessness, she said. You might isolate yourself from others and stay in bed all day. You might be easily distracted and forgetful.
Grief can resemble denial, she said. You avoid your heartache and focus on the day to day. Laundry. Work. Dinnertime. Dishes. You stay “productive” and busy, hoping to skip over the pain, or bury it so deep it stops coming up to the surface.
Grief can turn into a spiritual crisis, according to Ojeda, sparking big questions like: “What is life about?” “Why am I living?” and “How could God do this to me?”
Ojeda shared the below suggestions for navigating grief in a healthy way.
- Realize that grief is not linear. There is no timeline you need to abide by. “There is no date that you need to be better by,” Ojeda said. In fact, the worst thing you can do is give yourself a timetable or time limit, as in: “”I should feel better already” “Why am I still feeling this way?” “So and so only felt sad for X amount of time when she lost her ____.”
- Be patient and kind with yourself. For instance, you haven’t completed your to-do list and all you want to do is lay in bed and cry. Instead of telling yourself, “What are you doing? Get out of bed. You have so much to do. This isn’t good,” you say: “It’s OK,” Ojeda said. You accept where you are, and give yourself whatever you need. “Judging yourself and getting upset at yourself for whatever pace you’re healing at will only make that process harder.”
- Talk to others. “Seek support from those who allow you to grieve in a healthy way [such as] friends, family, coworkers or a counselor,” Ojeda said.
- Set time aside to grieve. If your life is hectic, carve out time to express your feelings, Ojeda said. Cry in the car before work or before going home. Scream. Replay a specific memory. Give yourself the space to process your pain.
- Allow yourself joy, too. At the same time, give yourself the opportunity to savor sweet moments. Go out with your friends. Start a new painting project. Start your next short story. Take a trip. See a silly movie.
- Plan ahead for bad days. For the toughest days, have a list of go-to strategies and people you can turn to for support. For instance, Ojeda said, your coping strategies might include: journaling; reading an article or book that comforts you; keeping sneakers by the front door to take a calming walk. Mark on your calendar “anniversary dates” that could trigger a wave of grief. These might be your loved one’s birthday, the day they died, a day that was special to you both.
- Honor your own path. Grieving looks different for everyone. Ojeda underscored that there’s no right or wrong way to navigate grief (unless, of course, you’re doing something that puts you in danger). “Everyone has their own path and journey after loss and it needs to be honored.”
“Grief, I’ve learned, is really love,” writes Jamie Anderson in this beautiful piece. “It’s all the love you want to give but cannot give. The more you loved someone, the more you grieve. All of that unspent love gathers up in the corners of your eyes and in that part of your chest that gets empty and hollow feeling. The happiness of love turns to sadness when unspent. Grief is just love with no place to go. It’s taken me seven years to realize that my grief is my way of telling the great vastness that the love I have still resides here with me. I will always grieve for my Mom because I will always love her. It won’t stop. That’s how love goes.”
And somehow, for me, knowing that our shattering grief is simply tied to our significant love brings some comfort. Maybe it does to you, too.