When tragedy struck my family, I felt a disorienting and unimaginable grief. Friends and loved ones offered expressions meant to support me, but instead, they often made me want to scream! During my darkest days, I heard well meaning friends and family say, “Time heals all wounds,” “You need to find closure”, or the most disappointing, “Let’s visit when you are feeling better.” Even though their efforts missed the target, deep down I knew they were well intended. Other expressions and actions were spot on. They lifted my heart, just enough to let me know that I was cared for, understood and loved.
A new friend, who soon became a weekly visitor, always delivered a homemade casserole to reheat at a later time. She sat with me and my pain and witnessed it quietly. She wasn’t afraid to laugh and cry with me. Two dear friends took my calls at all hours, sometimes three to four times a day, without any hint of compassion fatigue or boundary evasion. I called and they picked up, over and over again!
Grief stresses both individuals and family systems - rituals require decision-making and planning, that can’t always align with everyone’s needs and styles. Feelings are hurt, emotions are raw and loving relationships are often challenged. Ceremonial planning and the timing and pacing of the return to day to day activities is like walking on a high wire. Each family member struggles to stay centered, putting one foot tenderly in front of the other, but is vulnerable to the push and pull of other family members’ agendas and needs. An adult, grieving a parent, who needs quiet headspace, is challenged by a talkative and nervous preschooler. A wife who yearns for a large, spiritually ritualized service to celebrate the life of her husband, struggles to find compromise with his children who want to have a quiet, non-denominational and intimate burial and funeral service.
When relationships were complicated prior to loss, these dynamics are even more difficult to manage. Grief brings fatigue, anxiety, worry, reactivity, and a host of other emotional stressors. Further, each person has a different set of coping skills that support functioning - but these coping skills - positive and negative, aren’t one size fits all. For some, caregiving offers reprieve from one’s own pain and helps one in mourning move through the day. For others, though, having someone tend to your every need enhances the despair and hopelessness. A wise counselor told me, “We all grieve in character.” When otherwise loving dynamics became painful and complicated, I tethered myself to this statement, to steady the emotional swings I experienced. I saw how my strengths and weaknesses seemed to be amplified by my grief, but entirely aligned with my character - for better or for worse. My coping skills either served my loved ones well or distinctly bothered them.
One of my healthy coping skills is learning - I read voraciously about grief and I sought counsel from those with valued personal and professional experience. Reading helps me feel less alone, especially when I can relate to the author’s or characters’ experience(s). I found in one passage, written in a “Dear Sugar” advice column by Cheryl Strayed, words that resonated profoundly with me. When offering a response to a bereaved father’s letter, she shared, “No one can touch [your] love or alter it or take it away from you. Your love for your son belongs only to you. It will live in you until the day you die.” Karen Kersting writes that the old paradigm of “letting go” or seeking “closure” helps less than fostering a continuous bond with the one you have lost. She cites the work of Robert Neimeyer, who recommends remembering your loved one often, allowing a healthy internal dialog with her and imagining how she’d react to your life experiences as you move through them. My love for my nephew’s generosity, joie de vivre, compassion, voracious appetite, precocious smile, earnestness, loyalty and love for family and friends, and kindness - just to name a few - will live in me forever! I live each day with beautiful memories, his joyful spirit and my love for him - a bond I will always cherish and maintain for all my days.
I also made outreach to professionals, both colleagues and potential support for me and my loved ones. One phone call offered me counsel I cherish to this day. A professional in the field who had herself lost a sibling in her teens, whose life work is now dedicated to supporting the bereaved, took my call. “I find the weight of my grief unbearable. I can’t even move with it,” I wept and continued. “I feel as if I have a piano on my back and I can’t even get one foot in front of the other.” She replied, “You will always have a piano on your back. There will be days when you can barely move for it, but there will also come a time when you will build the emotional muscles to carry it with you throughout life. In fact, some day, you may even dance with it.”
Here is my wish for you. Find and derive strength from those who bake for you and answer all your calls. Read and reach out to the experienced to know you are not alone. Contact me or a professional of your choosing, for support. Grieve and let grieve - there is no one right way. Let the love you have for the person you mourn live large, bright and strong in you and build and cherish your bond with him. And most importantly, find ways to build those emotional muscles to carry your pain and indeed dance possibly with it!