First, there was my father. I made the three hour round trip to the hospital several times a week for months just to sit with him. I watched his blue eyes fade and his complexion turn to ash as he slowly slipped away. One bright October morning, at 80 years of age, he died of congestive heart failure. I’d left the hospital late the night before and at 6:00 am the phone jarred me awake. My mother delivered the news: “He’s gone.” That was it.
A week later my housemate was hospitalized with a coronary issue and died. Two more weeks went by, and my brother called to tell me my mother had become dizzy, fallen, and broken her hip. Doctors quickly determined that a brain tumor caused the dizziness. Complications from Stevens Johnson Syndrome, which is a tragic and painful allergic reaction to certain medications, resulted in my mother being treated primarily as a burn patient, and secondly as a cancer patient. She suffered a brutally slow and painful death and finally left us on January 13, the anniversary of her mother’s death, and my father’s birthday.
Within three months my father, mother, and housemate were gone. That year I also said goodbye to three other friends, two of whom were taken by HIV.
There I was, feeling orphaned at 32 and completely overwhelmed. I decided counseling was necessary, especially with so many losses. Money was tight so I turned to a County Clinic that offered sliding scale payments. The counselor gave me valuable tools and advice to help me begin to navigate the grieving process. It took more than two years before I was comfortable talking to friends and acquaintances about what had happened. How do you casually say, “Oh, by the way, my parents died, and so did Lester and Keith and…” Condolences made me uncomfortable, and though I knew they were sincere, I could only hear “I’m sorry for your loss” so many times. I preferred not to discuss my grief socially until I was emotionally ready.
Counseling, reference books, exercise, travel, gardening, meditation, prayers, and all the usual advice was helpful. Love and understanding from a large supportive family carried me through the dark days.
Ten years later, my sister became terminally ill, and it took every ounce of courage I had to set foot in a hospital again. The fluorescent lit rooms filled with all those haunting beeps, buzzes, and smells, triggered my anxiety once more. Her sudden death brought a new sense of grief and caused old grief to resurface. Though I knew what to expect, it didn’t make it any easier. As the years pass, the list of those I’ve lost continues to grow, but I’ve learned to celebrate each life, remember anniversaries and birthdays, and be thankful for the time together as I carry their love with me.
From my personal experience, there are some key issues that aren’t often discussed when we talk about grief:
No Road Map to Recovery
In 1969, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross published On Death and Dying, which included her five stage grief model of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. At first thought to be groundbreaking, it later received criticism, mainly because people mistakenly believed there was a specific order in which people typically experience each stage. Kübler-Ross later clarified that these stages are not linear, and some people may not experience all or even any of them. A recent article in Psychology Today addresses this. There is no right or wrong way to process grief. Everyone follows their own path.
Grief vs. Depression
There is a difference between grief and depression. A loss can cause you to exhibit all the signs of depression, but that does not make you clinically depressed or in need of medication. The Guardian recently examined the history of diagnosing depression, how it’s evolved, and also how it relates to grief. Anguish and pain are natural, normal, and even healthy steps in the grieving process. You and your doctor should decide if medication is necessary.
Complicated Bereavement and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder
When I wasn’t at the hospital with my parents, I was sitting by the phone waiting for “the call.” For many years, the ringing of a phone would cause my heart to race and anxiety to flare as a result of my PTSD. Witnessing the painful or violent death of a loved one further complicates the grieving process. PTSD is a serious, life disrupting condition, but thankfully, it can be successfully treated. If you experience PTSD-like triggers seek treatment immediately.
More information about PTSD and bereavement can be found here.
Perhaps your loved one was seeking forgiveness before they died. Or perhaps you wanted forgiveness from them and suddenly it was too late. Maybe you feel guilty because you didn’t visit them enough, or perhaps the last words you exchanged were unpleasant. There is no room for guilt when you’re grieving. You couldn’t predict the future and you can’t change the past. Forgiveness comes from the heart and has no boundaries. Remember, love never dies. Forgive them, and forgive yourself.
Traditional medicine combined with spiritual counseling was especially helpful for me, but what matters most is that you TALK to someone. This may begin with family and friends, but remember, they may be grieving as well. If need be, find a professional counselor you are comfortable with and start the process as soon as you feel ready. There’s no magic bullet. Healing takes time.
After each loss, I had to remind myself that the pain and grief following a death is as natural and normal as the joy and happiness following a birth. It’s okay to be sad. Embrace your feelings and take the path that brings you the most comfort.