Death has always been an acquaintance of mine. It was someone I knew of distantly, but as I grew older, I watched as it grew closer and closer to those I knew well. When I was in college, a close friend lost her brother in a car accident. I remember shrinking away, feeling ill equipped to help her battle something that I’ve never experienced. But last year, death aggressively became better acquainted with me. Its suffocating presence became my roommate, moving into my mind space. After it intruded, I met grief.
Last year on December 28, 2014, my mother unexpectedly died of cancer. She routinely went to the gym, tried to eat right and walked everyday. But one day, she started to experience debilitating breathing problems. After being admitted into the hospital multiple times, her doctors found blood clots. They began conducting a month’s worth of exploratory procedures. Then my mom was diagnosed with cancer. Four weeks later, she died.
I felt like the ground shifted from beneath my feet and I’ve been falling ever since.
I’ve learned that it’s true when they say that you don’t know how to care for those who are grieving until you’ve grieved yourself. I’ve noticed many of my friends display the same uncertainty that I did in college. Hopefully this piece can offer insight to those who don’t know what grieving feels like.
1. Loneliness = Invisibility
There is a loneliness that comes when you are without some one’s physical presence. But then there is a much more difficult loneliness that comes without having some one’s emotional empathy. I remember returning to Atlanta after caring for my mother and being in a room full of friends. My mind was adjusting from IV drips, the stark lights of the hospital, funeral arrangements and then closing my beautiful mother’s casket. It was surreal; the ease of my friends’ smiles and conversations seemed so misplaced in the midst of what I saw inside. They didn’t do anything wrong but they couldn’t relate to how I felt and that was and still can be lonely.
This loneliness can at times make you feel invisible. That is how I felt the day after my birthday. I went to church, I worshiped, and I listened to the sermon. At the end of service I exchanged customary pleasantries. But I felt so detached. I smiled as people offered birthday wishes. But all I could think about was the absence of my mom’s handwritten cards and thoughtful gifts. I pictured her long fingers and soft brown skin and how those same fingers were left emaciated during her last days alive. I was not at church. I was in Philadelphia in my mom’s bedroom and then by her hospital bed at Temple University Hospital, fighting to be present.
But then at the end of service someone tapped me on the shoulder, embraced me and whispered in my ear,“I know it must be hard, you don’t have to be strong, she is looking down on you and is so proud”. I wept on her shoulder because someone saw me. Someone realized what I was carrying and I no longer felt the pressure to be “okay”. Someone honored my mom by acknowledging that I must be thinking about her. That acknowledgement shattered my invisibility . It shattered my loneliness.
2. Lost Identity
I’ve heard that you feel like you lose a piece of yourself when you go through a break up. The same is true when someone dies. When you are close to someone, you share daily rhythms and routines with them. This may be morning phone calls, kisses on the cheek, hugs, texts or emails. Then the sudden absence of a person can leave all of these moments feeling hollow. This hollowness is crushing and can be a daily reminder that you lost a part of your life, a part of yourself.
3. Hopes Deferred
You never know how much another person is a part of who you are until you lose them. That is very true of my mom. I loved my mom so much that I felt very responsible for her happiness. I saw how she loved and sacrificed for me, and I wanted to repay her, I wanted to give her, her happy ending. My biggest dream was for her to move to Atlanta where she would have a better quality of life and be near people that truly loved her. She was actually set to move three months before she passed. With a broken heart, I realized that I could never provide her with the material stability that I worked so hard for. Losing her eroded a huge part of what I thought my purpose in life was. Proverbs 13:12, says that a “hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a longing fulfilled is a tree of life”.
4. The Grieving Process is Best Addressed by Letting it Run its Course
A step in the process of grieving is shock. During this step all of your feelings are suppressed and you exist on autopilot. You are numb to the pain and do what needs to get done. This is very much the case for the weeks following my mom’s death. I planned her funeral, hosted family and began looking for new jobs. The gravity of what I’ve witnessed didn’t hit me until a month after her funeral. The sadness would drown me during a car ride, while watching a movie or just seconds after laughter. Grief does not discriminate where or when you feel it. It is also important to know that it is best addressed by letting it run its course. I’ve learned not to fear those moments and that by being present and okay with “just being” is healing.
5. The Road to Healing is Constant
Grieving is a process that never ends. I recently watched the movie Rabbit Hole (2010), and heard the best explanation of this lifelong process. When asked how grief changes one of the character responds:
“ I don’t know… the weight of it, I guess. At some point, it becomes bearable. It turns into something that you can crawl out from under and … Carry around like a brick in your pocket. And you… you even forget it, for a while. But then you reach in for whatever reason and – there it is. Oh right, that. Which could be awful – not all the time. It’s kind of…[deep breath] not that you’d like it exactly, but it’s what you’ve got instead of your [your loved one]. So, you carry it around. And uh… it doesn’t go away. Which is…fine”.
I know why it’s fine. It’s fine because my mom meant too much to me to not acknowledge the imprint her life left on my own. And if I can’t be reminded of that imprint by her physical presence then I’ll proudly carry a brick around in my pocket.
Even if grieving wasn’t a long process sometimes the experience of losing a loved one is extended, especially if you are a caregiver. You may have to settle matters of their estate, request autopsies and handle other various legal matters. These are very blatant triggers that are associated with a loved one’s death that can last months or even years after they have passed away.
6. Losing Someone is Traumatic
This is the toughest part to write. Because mainly I relate to the trauma that I’ve experienced in images. Even as I write this sentence my chest tightens and a knot rises in my throat. I see my mom losing weight. I see my mom crying out asking, why God has punished her. I see the pain in her eyes until I see only their absence while her chest heaves up and down, powered only by the defibrillator. I remember looking at the side of her face, the rise of her cheekbones and the pattern of her moles, I’ve spent my whole life memorizing. She was so beautiful and this is never a place, never a circumstance that I would imagine looking at her. She was my queen, she was my world…my motivation. And there I was half praying that her heart stopped on its own because I knew she’d never wanted to be on a breathing machine and I didn’t have the heart to grant her wish. This is trauma.
Many times there is a disappointment that is so crushing that I liken it to trauma. For instance, I fasted, I prayed but most importantly I had faith that God is a healer. Even after my mother’s heart stopped beating…I told God that he could raise her like Lazarus. The seconds after that prayer were deafening. I realized he could, but didn’t. I was disappointed in God. I was also disappointed in myself; did I fast long enough? Were my prayers strong enough? Was my faith pure enough?
A Note to Those who Carry Bricks in their Pockets:
You are amazing. Even in your weakest moments you are amazing. Your courage to face each day is inspiring. You’re not crazy. You don’t need permission to feel the way you do. You don’t need to shield anyone from your lows or strive to make others feel comfortable. Take the time and space that your heart requires to heal. This process may take away your joy and make you resentful but I pray that those changes are only temporary. I pray that with each day that passes you can take all that you’ve lost and gain something beautiful. It’s okay to not be strong…you are amazing anyway.