Grief And Loss
Recently I spoke to a young woman who lost her mother to cancer. Naturally, she feels bereft. It’s so hard to lose a parent on the doorstep of adult life. She imagines the years ahead---marriage, children, and career without the guidance and support of her mom. She worries about her father, and how he will cope. She spent many hours and days in recent years helping and caring for her mother. She hoped and expected that her mom would recover. With her death, she feels defeated and lost.
Grief and loss is an inevitable part of life. With birth comes the certainty of death. This we know. But how and when life ends is unknown and uncertain. We all hope that our loved ones will live a long, fulfilling life and that we will too. But the natural conclusion of life occurs in many different ways—through illness, accident, war, suicide, or simply from time. The clock will run out on all of us. While we know this intellectually, survivors are never prepared for the emotions that follow loss, whether it is expected or not.
The first months are always the hardest. My mother, who lived a long and full life, died a week after her 91st birthday last month. Despite my anticipation of her death, after several months of her decline, and my sense of relief that her suffering was over, I feel sad. Waves of grief come unexpectedly, while driving to work, staring out the window, talking to family members, or looking at a small statue of a manatee that stood guard on her dresser. I am aware of a feeling of heaviness, even when I don’t feel sad. At times, I feel less connected to what is going on around me. I know that there is nothing to do about this. It is natural. I have to let it be and let these feelings and emotions take their course.
It is far more difficult when a life partner passes away. Spouses inhabit our everyday lives in both big and small ways. When they pass away, bereaved partners feel the full weight of loss. Almost every waking hour brings potent reminders of their absence. Holidays and birthdays can be especially hard.
The death of a child is by far the worst loss for adults. There is so much pain, guilt, and heartache. We are supposed to pass away before our children. Their death, before ours, seems unnatural. Friends and family feel helpless to soothe the pain of parents. It is long journey for these adults. My mother’s best friend, Shirley, age 95, lost her 72 year old son a few months ago. She is in agony. She doesn’t understand why the creator has given her so much pain and suffering.
So what can bereaved adults do to cope with grief and loss?
Acceptance is important. In our culture, death is often viewed as an enemy. A recent study in Great Britain found that health care providers spoke to patients with cancer or heart disease as being in a “battle” with their condition. These metaphors evoke a “siege” mentality. Of course in this way of thinking, there is a winner and a loser. Instead, providers who discussed end of life issues as a “journey” evoked greater acceptance and peace by patients and their families about coming to the natural end of life.
Grief comes in waves. We never stop missing the ones we love after they have passed away. Indeed, as time goes on, we miss them more. Grief comes in waves that may be set off by a smell, a touch, time of day, a memory, or by nothing we can identify at all. We simply have to ride these waves of sadness, let them break over us, be caught in their undertow, and wait for them to move on.
Accept your emotions. Don’t run away from your feelings, cover them up, or avoid them. Just accept them as they are. This is part of life.
Support groups can be very helpful. Sharing with others in the same boat can provide comfort. Here are some resources in Snohomish County.
What has helped you with loss?