Grief: My experience and advice

Hey, you foxy foxes. I’ve had a few ideas in my head for this thing lately but, it seems, I never take the time to sit down and hammer them out. This one seems a little important, though. Not in the grand scheme of things or anything like that, but to me, in my own head, lately. Maybe it will prove important to you as well. Maybe not. But get yourself a hot chocolate or something before you start reading. This is a long one.

I’ve been thinking a lot about grief and grieving. I lost a cousin last weekend. We weren’t particularly close. In fact, I had met him maybe twice in my whole life. But his brother, my other cousin (let’s call him C) has to be one of my favorite people in the world. It just so happens that C was headed up to my house for a visit and got the news about his brother maybe five minutes before boarding the plane. So that’s probably why the subject is in my head.

I’ve had my share of grief. None of my grandparents are alive. I’ve said goodbye to extended family, close friends, distant friends, and numerous pets. But most importantly, I lost my mom a couple of years ago and it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done. It hurt physically. I never thought I would recover from the trauma of losing her. I still miss her, actively, every day. People say things like that all the time, right? “I miss her every day.” But I’m serious. There is not a day where I don’t recall her somehow. Our lives were so intertwined that it is impossible for me to go more than a few hours without her memory interjecting itself. It used to kill me, but really, I love that about her. I love that we had the sort of relationship that would hurt so much to lose. It’s taken a few years to reach this point, but I get so much pure enjoyment out of things that remind me of our time together. I feel like a part of something when I can trace my mannerisms, my habits, back to her. Especially the ones she always traced back to her dad. I’ve come a long way, baby.

Here are some tips for anyone going through the loss of someone close. Each experience is different and these may be worthless to you. But they are things that have helped me, personally, get to this point.

First, and this is an obvious one, accept the support of your family and friends. If ever you have a license to impose on the people you care about most, this is it. Be nice as much as you can, but ask for people to keep you company, to bring you dinner, to help with the funeral arrangements, or whatever. Ask for people to share their experiences. People are happy to relate, but frequently hesitant to offer their stories for fear of sounding insensitive. “I know your relative just died, but let’s make this conversation about me.” But really, it helped me more than anything else to talk to people who had survived the same crushing grief I was facing. C gave me the most hope, though. He lost his dad a few years prior, and told me that he eventually was able to talk about his dad and be happy. My mom and his dad were two of the coolest people I had ever met, and very similar. If he could make it, then there was hope for me, too. Having that hope kept me going through some of the hardest times. “C can laugh about his dad,” I would think to myself. “C can laugh about his dad,” over and over again.

Know that the pain is temporary and that hurting less does not mean that you love less or remember less. A friend told me that you always have a hole where that special person was, and you’re always aware of the depth and breadth of it, but it gets filled in. Does that make sense to you? Because, having gone through it, I feel that’s a great analogy. It is always sad, of course. But it’s not always crippling. In fact, it has frequently made me stronger. I know, totally cliche. It’s true, though. I feel like I really came into my own when my mom died. I don’t mean to say that she held me back at all when she was alive, but rather that knowing I didn’t have her spurred me to action on my own behalf.

You might not even feel the pain at first. I was so busy planning her services that I didn’t feel like she was gone for a few weeks. I caught myself trying to fill out some papers for the funeral home and couldn’t recall some of the details about her history, like what city she was born in. I thought, “I’ll just call her and ask some of this stuff.” I was able to laugh it off, then. After the dust settled, I had a similar moment and lost my composure in my car in the parking lot of a McDonald’s. I thought about who I could talk to who would understand. She would understand, I thought. She lost her dad and they were close. I should call her. It happened so many times I cannot begin to count. The hardest part for me was not planning her funeral, or even attending it. It was not sorting through her belongings, holding her estate sale, or anything like that. The hardest part for me was not calling when I wanted to call her for something stupid and trivial. When someone misused a word in class and I could not tell her about it, that was the hardest part.

Find balance between allowing yourself to grieve and resuming normal activity. Both have their ups and downs, it all happens differently for everyone, and you cannot predict how you will respond. It started the first day, for me. My mom died when I did not expect her to. I mean, I knew she had leukemia and knew it was coming, but I thought she had a few more weeks, even months, in her. She was in Oklahoma, but I lived in Colorado. I went down to see her and, as a display of hope, intentionally did not pack funeral clothes. Then, she died. When I was done throwing up in the hospital lobby and my family had been notified, I called one of my friends and went shopping for a dress for the service. That blows my mind, looking back on it. I don’t know how I was out in public in that state. But really, it was the only thing I knew to do. Everything had just collapsed, no plans had been made, I could not make sense of anything, but I knew a) that I did not want to be alone and b) that there would be a funeral and I had nothing to wear. Going shopping was me grasping for something I could understand and act on. You will grasp for something yourself, and it will not make sense later. I have talked to several people about this. You just go into survival mode and what makes sense to you in that state will not be what you would do if you could think straight. Anybody else who has grieved will understand and not judge you. If someone doesn’t understand and does judge you, you have full license to tell them to piss off. They will chalk it up to stress.

The thing is, you can’t survive in that state of grief forever. You just can’t. You can’t have friends, you can’t relate to your family or take care of your own business. You can’t do any of the things that compose your life. So, at some point, you have to go back to your routine. It will be extremely hard. I have a daughter who was, at the time, just over a year old. I did not want to be a parent right then, but my husband had a limited amount of time he could take off from work, and my daughter had to eat. I could not cry in bed all day every day because my daughter needed to eat. It became a mantra. “I cannot (stay in bed / run away / etc.) because Abby needs to eat.” That was the responsibility I had, and it helped me so much I cannot do it justice in print. My daughter was my reason to keep going. Feeding her breakfast, lunch, and dinner gave me a reason to get out of bed. Some days it was reason enough to take a shower. Eventually, it moved from feeding her to entertaining her, and then finally back to being a good role model for her. I wanted more than anything to shut down and just detach from the world forever, but being needed elsewhere forced me to reconnect with my own life. You may not have a child. Your child may not be your reason for recovering. But you will find something that needs your attention, and you should give it.

There were several times along the way when I was angry. I was furious because I felt like people should be able to merely glance at me and see the grief engulfing me. They should be able to smell it, to touch it. It should have been obvious to anyone that I was suffering, and they should act accordingly. But nobody could tell. The lady at the dress shop on the evening of my mother’s death asked me how my day was, without caring about the answer, just like she had asked everyone earlier in the day who was looking for something to wear to a party. Those instances were painful. But just like my daughter kept needed meals, the rest of the world kept chugging along, flags at full-mast, uncaring. That is fine. It hurts, but it is fine. Sometimes, it’s a comforting knowing the whole world hasn’t changed.

My good friend lost her mom a year before I did. We have talked about our moms in depth. We can reference our situations and understand each other. It’s been a vital portion of my healing. If you know anyone else who has had a similar experience, talk to them. Bring it up. Compare notes. There are, of course, exceptions but, for the most part, those people you know will want to share with you, too. Healing from grief is a years-long process. I, at this point, don’t know if there will ever be a time where I will feel like I don’t want to talk about my mom. The more I talk about her, the more people hear about how incredible she was, the less I feel like she is completely gone. Other people feel the same way about their loved ones.

My last post included a link to Letters of Note, a blog that houses a bunch of letters to and from celebrities, mostly. There was one I just encountered last week that had some great advice for people in the thick of it. Here it is.

I’m sure there’s a lot I’m leaving out and that some of this is nonsense and plenty of people would roll their eyes and call me a cliche. But this is what’s been on my mind, and now it’s on my blog instead. If you have anything to add or any stories to share, feel free to leave them in the comments. I’d love to hear from you.

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