Some thoughts on Grieving
Experiencing deaths of loved ones (see list below) has taught me a lot - we each grieve and mourn differently. No one can truly understand one's personal relationship with the deceased and the void left in one's life. I have written in my journal many pages of remembrances, thoughts, and plans for future living. I met with a therapist and my doctor prescribed antidepressants. Its important to pamper oneself - to allow the emotions to surface and release. Because I choose to be single (my students are my 'kids'), the loss of a loved parent/friend was very significant. The deep sadness and emptiness required time and effort to overcome. Most of the time, I was fine; looking eagerly towards a good future. But the waves of grief sometimes overtook emotions and I felt the heavy loss.
Losing a loved one - while sad, tragic, and often catching us unprepared - is a great affirmation of life. It reminds us to celebrate the lost life, take inventory of those we treasure, and encourage us to live, love, and cherish each day.
Excerpts from How to Survive the Loss of a Love
When an emotional injury takes place, the body begins a process as natural as the healing of a physical wound. Let the process happen. Trust the process. Surrender to it. Trust that nature will do the healing. Know that the pain will pass, and, when it passes, you will be stronger, happier, and more sensitive and aware.
Stages of recovery
Recovering from a loss takes place in 3 distinct - yet overlapping - stages:
3. Understanding/acceptance/moving on
Each stage of recovery is necessary, natural, and a part of the healing process.
Books I recommend
The Grief Recovery Handbook
A Journey Through Grief
Healing Your Grieving Heart, 100 Practical Ideas
Some of what I experienced
The physical breakdown of human beings (and dogs).
The fragility of the human body.
The rollercoaster of emotions: pain, laughter (when tears were overwhelmed), sadness, and the joy of being alive and healthy.
Enhanced creative output, maybe compensation for grief. Maybe I experienced the value of 'there really is nothing to fear' that frees the mind for creative thoughts.
My capabilities and limits (or lack of) of compassion and care.
Some of what I learned
How to mentally prepare for my own later poor health and care needs.
Its okay and healthy to sometimes pamper myself - give myself permission to indulge. Grieving is not a great time to diet or change routine - we need familiarity, comfort, and to be centered and confident.
Dogs love us at a level we humans often don't quite attain.
• I enjoy being a caregiver (I might even volunteer at a nursing home).
Old people need care, compassion, and a listening ear. Some don't have that.
Old people have fascinating stories to tell.
I am more patient and understanding when old people are driving.
Empathy for those who are unhealthy.
Greater respect for my health and mental well being.
The value of writing my inner thoughts and feelings in a journal.
Nurses/health care people don't get paid enough (its frustrating that America favors military and killing over education and health care).
We each experience grieving differently. All of our personal relationships are unique. No one truly understands what I am feeling.
I should hug my friends more. Tell people I love that I do.
What is really important at deathbed. Career achievements and material acquisitions really don't matter. Only the love and care of friends and family.
When others grieve
I've also learned how to better deal with people who are grieving. I won't tell stories of a relative who died, how sad it was for me, or my experiences with grieving. These don't ease the pain of the grievant. More sad stories don't help. I won't wrest the focus away from the grievant with my own tales of woe.
The grievant is the one that is hurting and these comments don't help the grievant - the person is still gone, no matter to what wonderful place they may have gone:
I know exactly what you are feeling. I’ve been there, done that.
You are making it about you and marginalizing the uniqueness of the person’s experience. As a general rule, if the first word out of your mouth is the pronoun “I,” the chances are excellent that you aren’t displaying empathy.
It could always be worse.
Telling someone in pain that it’s really not so bad is undercutting and insulting. Fight the need to fill the air with words - just grab a seat and listen, because that’s what true empathy looks like. No one needs to feel grateful that what happened was only a category-three hurricane and not a tsunami.
Try to be positive. Maybe it was meant to be.
A true empath leaves their stash of positive-thinking magnets and memes at home. While you may think that this kind of cheerleading is exactly what someone needs to hear - "Life gave you lemons? Let’s make lemonade!" - chances are that you’re wrong. For most of us, the process of sorting out our feelings when something hurtful or destructive happens is a long one, and will need support. That support does not include people suggesting that this is a trial which will make us stronger - or any other clichés of that ilk. If, at some point, a person decides that’s how he or she wants to view the experience, that’s different.
Don’t you think it’s time to move on?
Your inner cheerleader may think this is helpful, but the emotional distance implicit in sympathy becomes fully realized with this statement suggesting that grief, mourning, or recovery come with a use-by-date stamp like perishables in the supermarket, and that “wallowing” is bad for the soul. Unless you intend to make it clear to the person that you are sick and tired of their story - and you really don’t mind losing the relationship - no one except the person suffering loss can decide when the moment is right to move on. Empathy is not judgmental.
I've learned to do three things
1. Ask if the grievant would like a hug (even though our culture says men shouldn't).
2. Ask if they would like to talk.
3. Offer to listen whenever they'd like and offer to hug whenever they'd like.
Nothing more need be done.
Text to a friend
She had to put her dog to sleep because he was too aggressive.
Wisdom from a veterinarian
Dogs are a gift in life like no other thing. I was once told that when we chose to live with beings whose life span is even more brief than our own that we live in a fragile circle. A circle which will often and sadly be breached. However, I cannot imagine a life so poor as what a life would be without the presence of a dog. Dogs give so much and ask so little in return. You were the sun and the moon and the stars to your girl. She trusted you to make all of her decisions for her, and you rose to that confidence that she placed in you. You always did your best for her and she thrived in the care which you gave to her. Her trust in you was earned by you with your devotion to her. Her life was blessed because she spent that life with you. Of course you grieve for what you have lost, but please, do find a moment here and there to remember all you had, and all she gave to you and the richness with which she enhanced your life. You were entrusted with your girl’s care for her lifetime; you made that lifetime a heaven. I share the sadness of your loss and celebrate the life you gave to her. My thoughts are with you at this difficult time. My condolences, Marguerite
Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened.
Deaths I have grieved
Why dog deaths hit me so hard: Humans have a nurturing, raising children instinct. I have chosen to be single, with no children. My dogs fill some of that void. I raised them - they become my kids. Kids shouldn't outlive their parents. Mine do.
Delta flight, August 2, 1985
Plane crash while landing at DFW. From downdraft.
Laird McDonald, March 25, 1994
My best friend since high school. From colon cancer.
Murrah bombing, April 19, 1995
Downtown Oklahoma City. From Tim McVeigh.
Austin, August 1, 2002
Greyhound pal for over 8 years. From surgery to remove a cancerous leg.
Conor Henderson, November 23, 2002
Student in Graphic Design I. From a car accident.
Lorraine Remmel Watson, December 19, 2002
Mother and friend. From complications from a stroke.
6631 Orchid Lane, Dallas, September 15, 2003
House. Moved there in 1958 - many wonderful memories.
James Webster Watson, September 29, 2003
Father and friend. From complications from a stroke.
Dallas, March 25, 2006
Dog pal for over 14 years. From spinal arfritis and tumor.
William Remmel Watson, September 5, 2009
Brother. From liver cancer.
Vegas, July 16, 2010
Greyhound pal for over 7 years. From kidney disease.
Mike Roland, June 16, 2015
Nabor and friend. From old age.
Manhattan, January 16, 2017
Greyhound pal for over 9.5 years. From aggressive throat cancer.
"My friend just died. I don't know what to do."
A response from some old guy on Facebook:
I wish I could say you get used to people dying. But I never did. I don't want to. It tears a hole through me whenever somebody I love dies, no matter the circumstances. But I don't want it to "not matter". I don't want it to be something that just passes. My scars are a testament to the love and the relationship that I had for and with that person. And if the scar is deep, so was the love. So be it.
Scars are a testament to life. Scars are a testament that I can love deeply and live deeply and be cut, or even gouged, and that I can heal and continue to live and continue to love. And the scar tissue is stronger than the original flesh ever was. Scars are a testament to life. Scars are only ugly to people who can't see.
As for grief, you'll find it comes in waves. When the ship is first wrecked, you're drowning, with wreckage all around you. Everything floating around you reminds you of the beauty and the magnificence of the ship that was, and is no more. And all you can do is float. You find some piece of the wreckage and you hang on for a while. Maybe it's some physical thing. Maybe it's a happy memory or a photograph. Maybe it's a person who is also floating. For a while, all you can do is float. Stay alive.
In the beginning, the waves are 100 feet tall and crash over you without mercy. They come 10 seconds apart and don't even give you time to catch your breath. All you can do is hang on and float. After a while, maybe weeks, maybe months, you'll find the waves are still 100 feet tall, but they come further apart. When they come, they still crash all over you and wipe you out. But in between, you can breathe, you can function. You never know what's going to trigger the grief. It might be a song, a picture, a street intersection, the smell of a cup of coffee. It can be just about anything...and the wave comes crashing. But in between waves, there is life.
Somewhere down the line, and it's different for everybody, you find that the waves are only 80 feet tall. Or 50 feet tall. And while they still come, they come further apart. You can see them coming. An anniversary, a birthday, or Christmas, or landing at O'Hare. You can see it coming, for the most part, and prepare yourself. And when it washes over you, you know that somehow you will, again, come out the other side. Soaking wet, sputtering, still hanging on to some tiny piece of the wreckage, but you'll come out.
Take it from an old guy. The waves never stop coming, and somehow you don't really want them to. But you learn that you'll survive them. And other waves will come. And you'll survive them too.
If you're lucky, you'll have lots of scars from lots of loves. And lots of shipwrecks.
Avoid saying these things to a friend (or relative or colleague) who's sick
By Bruce Feiler, The New York Times, June 2011.
What can I do to help?
Most patients I know grow to hate this ubiquitous, if heartfelt question because it puts the burden back on them. As Doug Ulman, the chief executive of Livestrong and a three-time cancer survivor, explained: "The patient is never going to tell you. They don't want to feel vulnerable." Instead, just do something for the patient. And the more mundane the better, because those are the tasks that add up. Want to be really helpful? Clean out my fridge, replace my light bulbs, unpot my dead plants, change my oil.
My thoughts and prayers are with you.
In my experience, some people think about you, which is nice. But the majority of people who say they're sending "thoughts and prayers" are just falling back on a mindless cliché. It's time to retire this hackneyed expression to the final resting place of platitudes, alongside "I'm stepping down to spend more time with my family," or "It's not you, it's me."
Did you try that mango colonic I recommended?
I was stunned by the number of friends and strangers alike who inundated me with tips for miracle tonics, Chinese herbs or Swedish visualization exercises. At times, my in-box was like a Grand Ole Opry lineup of 1940s Appalachian black-magic potions. "If you put tumeric under your fingernails, and pepper on your neck, and take a grapefruit shower, you'll feel better. It cured my Uncle Louie."
Everything will be OK.
Unsure what to say, many well-wishers fall back on chirpy feel-goodisms. But these banalities are more often designed to allay the fears of the caregiver than those of the patient. As one who recently had brain surgery complained: "I got a lot of 'chin ups,' 'you're going to get better.' I kept thinking: You haven't seen the scans. That's not what the doctor is saying." The simple truth is, unless you're a medical professional, resist playing Nostradamus.
How are we today?
Every adult patient I know complains about being infantilized. When the adult patient has living parents, as I did, many mothers in particular fall back on old patterns, from overstepping their boundaries to making bologna sandwiches when the patient hasn't eaten them since childhood. "Just because someone is dealing with a physical illness," Mr. Ulman said, "doesn't diminish their mental capacity."
You look great!
Nice try, but patients can see right through this chestnut. We know we're gaunt, our hair is falling out in clumps, our colostomy bag needs emptying. The only thing this hollow expression conveys is that you're focusing on how we appear. "When people comment on my appearance," Ms. Linn said, "it reminds me that I don't look good."
So what do patients like to hear?
Don't write me back.
All patients get overwhelmed with the burden of keeping everyone informed, coddled and feeling appreciated. Social networking, while offering some relief, often increases the expectation of round-the-clock updates.
To get around this problem, I appointed a "minister of information," whose job it was to disseminate news, deflect queries and generally be polite when I didn't have the energy or inclination to be. But you can do your part, too: If you do drop off a fruitcake or take the dog for a walk, insist the patient not write you a thank-you note. Chicken soup is not a wedding gift; it shouldn't come with added stress.
I should be going now.
You'll never go wrong by uttering these five words while visiting someone who's sick. As Ms. Pogrebin observes of such visits, don't overstay your welcome. She recommends 20 minutes, even less if the patient is tired or in pain. And while you're there, wash a few dishes or tidy up the room. And take out the trash when you leave.
Would you like some gossip?
One surefire tip: a slight change of topic goes a long way. Patients are often sick of talking about their illness. We have to do that with our doctors, nurses and insurance henchmen. By all means, follow the lead of the individual, but sometimes ignoring the elephant in the room is just the right medicine. Even someone recovering from surgery has an opinion about the starlet's affair, the underdog in the playoffs or the big election around the corner.
I love you.
When all else fails, simple, direct emotion is the most powerful gift you can give a loved one going through pain. It doesn't need to be ornamented. It just needs to be real. "I'm sorry you have to go through this." "I hate to see you suffer." "You mean a lot to me." The fact that so few of us do this makes it even more meaningful.
Website of essays and thoughts for the non-believer