Grief can be overwhelming and all-consuming when it comes to the death of a loved one. Whether the loss is expected or not, we’re never sure of how we will cope and it never goes quite as planned. No matter how prepared you might think you are. That profound grief proves to us that we are never ready to say goodbye. The emotional turbulence that follows is intense and relentless.
Questions seem to build up far quicker than answers can come. Was my loved one taken care of? Were they pain free? Were their needs met? Were they alone when they died? How am I going to continue without them?
Then doubt enters. What ifs and could haves come to steal what little peace you have left. Could I have done more? I should have visited just one more time.
Grief not only consumes you emotionally, but touches every aspect of our lives. It deteriorates our physical and mental health causing insomnia, disturbed eating habits and emotional instability. It also affects our social well being causing isolation or overindulgence, which often leads to depression.
Even though you might feel like there is no way out, I am here to offer you hope, just bear with me.
You might be wondering how would I know? What makes me so qualified to talk about death and grief?
Well, I have worked as a Registered Nurse for over ten years. I have seen and experienced grief and death in all its forms. I have also been in the terrible position of having to tell someone that I could not save their loved one and that today, death had won. I have grieved every single patient as if they were my own. Every baby, husband, mother, and friend. So please, even though you don’t know me, I would like for you to trust me.
I had a patient once whom I thought to be fearless. A twenty-year-old with cancer. He had been fighting this cancer for over twelve years, always positive and smiling. Never once scared of what’s to come, no pain too intolerable. His mother had given up everything to take care of him, she was his main caregiver day and night. She would often say that she would have peace should he pass, she just didn’t want him to suffer anymore. Then she would ask me what I thought life without him would be like and I would always respond the same.
We’ll cross that bridge when we get there. Because I didn’t want the fear of what’s to come to steal the last little bit of joy of being together right now.
Inevitably that bridge came. My patient had passed away and the world, unfortunately, did not stop turning for the bereaved. As ready as his mother believed she was, as many times as she had said goodbye, she couldn’t quite prepare herself for the loss. No one truly can.
So how do we cross that bridge? How do we overcome fear and grief? I am here to tell you what I told her after it happened. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. It is a highly personal and individual experience. I only ask that you have patience. We all know the saying, “Time heals all wounds”, but time takes long. So please have patience with the process, however long it may take. I would love to tell you that it’s a hop, skip and a jump, to happiness. But I ask that you bear with me as we travel through loss, anger, loneliness, acceptance, contentment and finally a new type of happiness.
Heartache. The initial finding out a loved one has passed seems almost surreal. As healthcare workers, we are taught to use words such as ‘died’ instead of ‘no longer with us’ as to leave no room for confusion. Yet, we all know that there is nothing but confusion after those words are uttered. It’s almost unbelievable, as if it is happening to someone else. Surely this can’t be real.
Then all at once emotion floods you and you experience a profound loss.
Suddenly, a life without.
This stage is the most painful and hopefully the shortest lived. Like being struck by lightning. The only way getting through here is rolling with the punches, because these emotions do not ask permission to be experienced.
It helps to have a good relationship with your loved one’s caregiver or hospice staff, in fact it’s quite important. They will be the ones who can quiet your initial doubts and fears. Who can reassure you and share your experience with you. They truly know what you are going through, after all they have been there since the beginning. When only sharing our grief with friends and family, although they have the best intentions, they often feed into our emotions or do not know what to say at all. Speaking to a therapist or hospice staff is necessary, because they give you factual advice and speak to you from a place of empathy and real understanding. They are also not afraid to say what needs to be said. It’s important to rely on all your support systems at this time. The hospice staff is as big a part of that as your family and friends are.
After the initial shock you might feel the need to be strong. You dive into the plans that have to be made and convince yourself that everything else takes priority over grieving. And somehow our definition of the word strong, has been twisted to mean, becoming emotionally detached.
Please, I urge you to feel your emotions. Whatever your grieving process looks like. It’s scary facing these feelings and saying them aloud, but hiding from them prolongs the grief. It takes a lot of courage to face your feelings and that, by any definition, is strength.
Days will roll by, along with the, “I’m sorrys” and “are you okays”, and you find yourself being pushed halfway onto a bridge you never agreed to cross. Words such as “unfair” and “why me” cross your mind and prayers often and you find yourself angry.
Anger and fear are old friends and we tell ourselves that we have replaced one with the other, but if we’re being really honest, anger is just fear dressed in pride. You’re angry, because you’re suddenly awakened to the reality that you can’t control everything. And now you have to live without someone that you don’t want to let go of. You are angry because medicine couldn’t save them and it was supposed to. Maybe you feel like you did nothing to deserve this and you become jealous, because others have what you so desperately want.
Forgiveness seems impossible, but it is vital. Forgive yourself, others, God, the universe and especially your loved one. Treat yourself as you would a friend and practice self compassion. Care about yourself, your needs, your thoughts and feelings. I know it’s easier to be angry, than cry all the time, but as I said before, just bear with me.
Loneliness makes you watch memories of the good old days, through eyes awash with tears, as you grieve the life you once knew. I want to tell you to surround yourself with friends and family, to see a therapist or grief counselor or do something you love, maybe try a new hobby. Go outside, have a good cup of coffee and smell the roses. Sure these things offer temporary comfort, but I also want you to know that this part lingers and it’s going to be tough.
You will find that loneliness is most prominent when all the firsts come along. Your first birthday or Christmas without them. The first anniversary or family reunion. Something exciting happens and all you wish for is that you could pick up the phone and tell them. You might just be longing for your mothers comfort food and you realize you can’t call to ask her how to make it. In these moments the initial heartache comes creeping back and you wonder if it ever gets better.
Loneliness often leads to either isolation or overindulgence. Which could both lead to depression. We all know the pattern. You are grieving, you want to feel better or literally anything else. So you start drinking or you throw yourself into work or a new relationship. You become over invested to achieve the act of avoidance. These distractions offer momentary comfort or an escape, but to overindulge to escape your reality can never last. It will only leave you emptier, as you realize that trying to replace their loss is futile.
Or you do the opposite and you isolate yourself completely. For a while isolation might help. It gives you time to sort through your emotions and rest, but isolation to avoid dealing with reality is harmful to your mental health. It leads to depression or anxiety and before you know it, you can’t even get out of bed anymore. You will find that the longer you isolate, the harder it becomes to get yourself out of it.
Trying to find a healthy balance between having alone time and moving on is difficult, therefore it is necessary to listen to yourself and your emotions. Assess your emotions thoroughly and decide whether they are genuine or if you are looking for an excuse to escape. I’m not saying you shouldn’t escape, but if you want to try cultivating a healthier alternative, such as running or being creative or going to dinner with friends. Rather than creating a bad habit. Seek help from your healthcare provider, be it in the form of medication or therapy. Exercise discernment and compassion as you navigate the hardest part of losing someone.
Eventually, when the time comes, it’s important to forgive yourself and make your peace with moving on. No one talks about this, but there is a certain type of guilt attached to moving on and not grieving every day. You might feel like you’re forgetting about them. Somehow not honoring them by getting caught up in life or betraying them by being happy. Some people might not agree with how or how fast you are moving on and make you feel guilty about it.
It is here where I want to remind you that no loved one EVER would want you to cry and grieve for the rest of your life. They would want you to be happy. I promise. Remember that people do not know the intimate details of what you’re going through and although they may give advice, no one gets to police how you grieve.
By finding a special way to remember them, you are including their memory in moving on, instead of trying to forget about it. This also helps to dissolve feelings of guilt. Creating a memorial can be a good example of this. You could plant a tree or make a garden for them. Light a candle, celebrate their birthday at their favorite place or donate to their favorite charity. Contrary to what you may believe, talking about them will help heal the sorrow. Although it might be difficult to do at first, try sharing your favorite memories about them with family. Watch old videos or look through photos and keep their memory alive. Moving on doesn’t mean forgetting, it simply means acknowledging that it has happened, accepting that your reality has changed and allowing oneself to move on.
One day their favorite song will play on the radio or someone will tell you a story about them. Then instead of the heart squeeze followed by tears, you are met with a strange in between. Acceptance quietly starts to tip its way into your heart. Acceptance does not mean carrying on as if nothing ever happened and living in denial. It is a place in between grief and happiness and it’s here where the healing becomes somewhat easier. Allow yourself to be around laughter, to enjoy life and have grace for your healing journey. Remind yourself that you are doing something extremely difficult and even though it might not be perfect, you’re doing it nonetheless. And that is something to be very proud of.
Contentment soon follows if you allow yourself to practice mindfulness. Focusing on the here and now. Make plans or small goals for the near future, do things that bring you joy. You could take up exercising or start a book club with your friends. Soon hope will arise and you will start to feel better about tomorrow. You will find yourself getting back up on your feet and nearly over that bridge.
At the beginning of this journey you were convinced that you could never possibly be happy again. And that’s why I call this a different type of happiness. Not in a good or bad way, just an unfamiliar type of happiness. It might not be as sweet as the one you knew, but it will grow and the ache that once was so profound will become duller by the day. This happiness proves that there is still hope and joy to be found. The future may be different to the one you imagined, but that doesn’t mean it is less fulfilling. The sun will shine a little brighter and quietly, but continuously your world will start to turn again.
I recently saw my cancer patient’s mother. It had only been two months since his passing and also two months since she and I last spoke. We hugged for a long time and eventually, as one does, I asked how she was doing. She tried to hide her tears as she replied,”Broken”. Now, I don’t mean to take the wind out of your sails by telling you this. I’m sure you wished for a happier ending, but we tend to speak of grief as something that can be overcome and left in the past. Yet we know that’s never really the case.
Some days the world might weigh heavily on your shoulders and you will feel as if you’ve started grieving all over again. Other days you will experience pure joy.
You see, healing isn’t linear. It’s a constellation. It is back and forth and up and down, until eventually one day you realize you hurt a little less than the day before. Allow yourself to go through these tumultuous emotions. Yes, we as healthcare workers are there for you, but at the end of the day it is up to you to put the pieces back together. It may not be today and it may not be tomorrow, but I promise, you will eventually cross that bridge. And when you do, I hope that you will remind yourself of how far you have come and what you have accomplished.
For it is no little thing to go one on one with grief and win.