Grieving a Loss
Grief can be a shared experience
One of my all-time favorite comic strips is Peanuts. Charlie Brown’s “Good Grief” expression came to mind when I thought about writing this article. In the world of cartoon characters, Charlie Brown’s “Good Grief” moments were created to make us laugh, but for those of us who have experienced the loss of a parent, child, sibling or close friend or relative, there is no such thing as “good” grief. Charlie Brown’s experiences don’t come close to matching the anguish of a loved one’s passing.
Over the years I’ve found that I relive my father’s death when friends or relatives have lost a parent. I lost my father twenty years ago, and it never ceases to amaze me how someone else’s loss can make me go back in time.
This happened again recently with the death of a friend’s mother. Her mother died from a brain tumor. The doctors found it about a month before Christmas. Surgery was performed to remove the tumor, and radiation and chemotherapy followed. But none of these remedies were a cure, and the tumor returned. After fourteen months, she passed away.
In contrast, my father’s death was sudden, he died from an aneurism. At the time it seemed like a horrible way to go. For those of us left behind, it brought out regrets about words unspoken and deeds that had been left undone. Over the years, as others I knew lost their parents, I would relive again the pain and heartache of my dad’s sudden passing and would miss him greatly.
But this time was different: I was not in pain and not grieving my father again. I found myself wondering if my friend who just lost her mother was having the same experiences I did twenty years ago - is the experience of losing a parent the same if the death was sudden or at the end of a long illness?
It was several days before the wake and funeral, and as the days progressed, questions occurred to me about my friend’s experience: how was the family handling the lost they knew in advance was coming; how did it go at the funeral home, picking out the casket, setting the times for the wake and picking out readings and music for the funeral; how did my friend survive the first several days without her mom, was her heart aching so badly, you did not think you could survive the pain?
Her mother’s wake made additional connections to my experiences with my father’s wake. As I was standing in line waiting to talk to my friend, someone came by and brought her family water. I was immediately transported back to my father’s wake, when my best friend did the same for my family. Small things like this mean a lot, especially when you are standing talking to people for several hours.
When I spoke to my friend, she mentioned that a very close friend had flown in unexpectedly from Kanas to attend the wake and funeral. Again, thoughts from twenty years ago flooded in, of those who attended my father’s wake, also unexpectedly.
Our family dentist was the first one I remembered. He had broken away from a group practice that was not working out so he had started his own practice and my parents were one of the first to follow him. The dentist remembered this and mentioned how much it was appreciated when we spoke.
The second unexpected attendee was a woman that I had grown up together, in same neighborhood, on the same street. I had not seen her in years but I still knew her face, and I was grateful for her taking time from her life to pay her respects. Other neighbors attended as well, that I had not thought of and did not expect to see them at the wake. Several were as upset as I was.
The loss of anyone close leaves a void within you, but I believe it is most especially true when losing a parent. I have lost several friends to cancer, and losing them was horrific, but we only have one natural father and mother. Their death leaves you with a hole which can never be filled. For a physical wound, the body will form a scab which covers it over, and new skin replaces the scab. But with the loss of a parent, that emotional hole never fully heals. It reminds me of the holes I had after my wisdom teeth were pulled. The dentist did not sew up the hole, rather leaving it to heal from the inside out, on its own, and where the tooth once was, it filled in again. Not so for the loss of a parent, their departure is one which can never be replaced.
But after listening to my friend talk about what her mother went through, I think sudden deaths are better. At least for the deceased. Time will tell for my friend if she thinks the long slow death of her mother was a good thing for her and her family.
Ways to cope
For those of you experiencing grief, or know someone who is, I share the following thoughts that helped me through probably the worst experience of my life:
Don’t be in a hurry to throw away or give away clothes and personal belongs of the parent who died. It won’t make the pain go away faster
Share your experiences – when your friend wants to talk, first listen, then share a related story about what you went through
This is not normal – and don’t try and make it normal. This event will only happen twice in your life
Be there for them, anytime or place, if you can. Grief can strike at whenever. My worse times were usually late in the evening
Hold them when they need comfort. Feel their pain, and try to absorb the energy their pain is emanating