I’m pretty sure I don’t understand grief. I don’t know how long it takes. I don’t know how to help a person get past it. I don’t know how to comfort a person when they are in it. But I do know a little more than I did a couple years ago.
It was six months ago last week that my sister lost her life-long partner. On her first anniversary without Patrick, she wrote on her blog:
It’s a million times worse than anyone can imagine. Each step is painful and the hole is huge. I have read a lot of books on grief and the best illustration I can find is that losing a spouse is like losing a limb. It’s complete amputation….without anesthesia. And even when everyone else has moved on and thinks the amputee is doing ok because they are functioning, that person is keenly aware that their former life is over and nothing will ever be the same. Some days the fog is thicker than others, but everything requires effort.
My close high-school friend, Pam Butler, lost her battle with cancer just four months ago. Her husband, Tom Butler, wrote on Facebook last night:
Grief is a difficult challenge. Difficult because while I am processing normal sadness and sorrow, the powers of darkness whisper lies in my ears telling me that my faith is weak or I would be happy for her instead of selfishly sad for myself…
There are times that I think I am doing great and then I hear a song or see an old friend or get a phone call and everything changes. It is like walking out of an air conditioned house on a 100 degree August day. The hot air just envelopes you physically, that is what grief does. I will be just fine and then hit a trigger and the grief envelopes me.
When I was 19-years old, my grandpa passed away suddenly. I was in Brownsville, Texas and flew up to Kansas for the funeral. I sobbed uncontrollably at the viewing. The hole from his departure was more than I could bear. It was my first adult experience of grief. It went deeper than I imagined and lasted longer than I expected. I’m sure my coworkers got tired of me talking about my grandpa. But he was on my mind all the time.
With Patrick, I spent 10 months in the denial phase. From the time he was diagnosed, until October when he received a prestigious award at his college, I couldn’t accept it. I was in a constant state of sadness. It was hard to function or think straight (on one trip, I lost my phone or license three times in an airport). I drove back and forth to Detroit every few weeks to be with Patrick, help my sister, and do what I could. Then in October, I saw him having such a great time with friends and family. He was just weeks from dying, but he was choosing to live life to the fullest. His joy helped me realize how privileged I was to be close to a man who was dying with integrity.
After that, from a couple months before he died, and through the past six months–I’ve been focused on helping my sister and her kids. A therapist would probably say I’ve stuffed my feelings in deep so I could help others get through theirs. I was busy. I just kept moving and filling my time. Then on Father’s Day, I was at home by myself on a Sunday morning, and some of the emotion bubbled to the surface. I spent about an hour looking through pictures of Patrick with Dena, Paige and Parker — and of all our family times together. I still can’t believe he’s gone.
I know hardly anything about grief, but I’ve learned a few things…
1. You can’t heal a grieving person’s pain. But you can help. When someone is grieving, even menial tasks are overwhelming. It might be something simple like filling their car with gas, mowing their lawn, or going to the grocery store on their behalf.
2. Grief lasts longer than you think it will. It comes in waves. And those waves are unpredictable. You can think you are doing great and a minute later be crying like a baby.
3. It’s OK to talk to a grieving person about the one they lost. We often don’t do this because we don’t want to remind them or take them back to their sorrow. But they are living in their sorrow and thinking about the person they lost every minute of every day. By avoiding it–we communicate that we don’t miss him (her). It seems as if his/her loss didn’t matter to us.
Probably above all, grief makes you more compassionate for others who are experiencing loss. And I guess that’s the silver lining with grief. We can all use a bit more compassion.