My mom died. There is no other way to say it. Using euphemisms does not soften the blow. I sit here writing this fully able to accept the reality of her death. I knew it was coming. I have been doing anticipatory grieving for the last year and a half. In this time, I watched her decline, as she slowly and defiantly was no longer able to fight the process her body was going through because of her disease. What I have come to understand is that the ability to accept the inevitability of someone’s death does not give you the sudden superpower to not feel the intense grief that comes with the finality of that person no longer being a presence in your life. I write this article with the hope of helping others traverse bereavement in a healthy way.
Grief comes in stages. I believe these stages do not happen in the particular order that Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote about in her iconic book On Death and Dying. We travel these stages one moment at a time, they cannot be rushed, denied or avoided. They must be experienced. No two people grieve in the exact same way or in the exact same order of stages of grief.
Here is my definition of grief:
To be in the state of sitting still in the ebbs and flow of pain. When you are grieving you must allow the ebbs and flow of the waves of pain to wash over you and at the same time allow yourself to ride them out. Allow yourself to be in the flow of it but not be drowned by it.
The feelings that come with grief can become overwhelming. It is important to remember that those intense, stabbing feelings of grief are short and once intense pain subsides the ache of it is still there. There is also uncertainty that comes with grief—the uncertainty of not knowing when the next ripple of stabbing pain will hit you.
When faced with uncertainty many people become anxious. Uncertainty leaves you feeling out of control and no one enjoys being out of control. What is certain about grief, and the accompanying pain, is that you will feel the pain again and again until you are done feeling it. That is just the way of it. When you are able to accept the reality and the certainty of the ongoing waves of pain then you have nothing about which to be anxious, nothing to worry about avoiding. It becomes the truth of your present moment reality.
We cannot run away from it and also survive. When we attempt to do that we cause other emotional problems within us. We may become depressed, angry, or feel guilty. It is vital to accept that the waves of grief will continue to hit. Accepting that and not to trying to outswim, avoid or fight that wave of pain is actually what allows for healing. Healing comes from embracing the pain, not avoiding it. Avoiding allows the pain to take hold deep within you. When emotional pain is held within, avoided, and not expressed you are at high risk for getting physically ill. Unexpressed grief and pain must go somewhere. So, if you do not let out, it goes in.
After the loss of a loved one life can never fully be the same again. How can it be? Our reality, our daily life, has changed. Whom you call or text each day may be forever altered. These changes, sad as they are, are real. We cannot fight them. We are called to step forward, to step into them, to rise up, to lean in, to learn, to heal and to grow.
Life is an ever-growing and transforming process of loss, change, healing and growth. Nature shows us how to do this beautifully. Think about the great oak tree at the height of summer. Its branches are full of big, beautiful green leaves. These leaves offer life every day, contributing to our environment and the life-force energy of the air we breathe. In autumn the leaves change colors and eventually fall to the ground allowing the tree time to rest and heal in the dormancy of winter. In the spring, new buds emerge, and new leaves once again grow. The tree still stands, and its cycle of life continues just as ours will, the same but forever different.
Our pain feels intense in the wake of the waves of a loved one’s death. It cannot be any other way. We must go through it; we must live it, and live through it. We must get beyond where the waves break and reach the shore again. It may at first feel like wet sand that does not give you much support. As you keep walking the sand becomes firmer offering you more support. Eventually, you will reach the boardwalk which is steady and shows you a new way back home to yourself. You will be a new you, one who has been shaped by the loss you have experienced: one who has survived, who is healing and who is growing. Grief is a process and a journey. Allow me to leave you with this poem:
Being allowed to not know.
Flowing into the unknown with confidence and grace.
Holding onto the trust in yourself and the trust in the universe.
You will be guided to the exact right destination.
Allow that destination to be your new being state until you are ready to travel again.
This article is dedicated with love to my mother, Jackie. She was beautiful inside and out. She taught my sisters and I strength and gave all of us of her never-ending, non-judgmental, unconditional love. We all have a new angel now. Mom was an avid reader and wordsmith. There is no better way for me to honor her than with the written word.