Today marks the one year anniversary of my dear Dadio passing away. In many ways, his death is still fresh to me. In other ways, I find I'm coping with it pretty well. This is the story of loss and grief: up and down, just fine and then totally not fine, happily reminiscing and then bawling my eyes out. Everyone mourns differently. I know there are identifiable patterns and processes of grief, but to be completely honest, they don't mean much to me when I'm going through it. My experience is mine. And mine alone. Someone else's experience of even the same loss is their experience. And their's alone.
After my dad passed away, I felt like I was thrown into the jaws of an intense acceleration program on mourning and loss. My youngest sister passed away two months after his death. I also had several friends experience very terrible losses and I started to think, what in the WORLD is going on with MY WORLD? What struck me the most was even though I had experienced great loss, I still didn't know how to best support and mourn with those who were also mourning. I just wasn't good at it.
I've spent a lot of time reflecting on this and have recently benefited from professional grief counseling that has helped me to sort out my thoughts on this topic. Navigating the waters of my own grief and the grief of others is tricky business. I still don't have all the answers, but I have found a few things that have struck gold with my mourning heart. If anything, I hope my thoughts are helpful to anyone else who is drifting down grief river and trying their best to stay afloat.
Good for you, not for me
I recently read Amy Poehler's book, Yes, Please and this was one of my favorite take aways from it. As I mentioned earlier, everyone mourns differently. What works for me in working through my grief may not work for someone else and that is perfectly fine. In fact, it's a good thing. In my own experience, the key has been finding what works for me personally. Sometimes it takes some experimenting and making mistakes. I've read several books on grief and tried a few of their suggestions. Some of them worked better than others. With some of the suggestions, I had to tell myself, good for them, not for me. Many of my thoughts on grief will be the same way. Some might think, good for you, Nicole, but not for me. And that's ok.
Being aware of what grief looks like
Some people handle grief really well and that's awesome. For me and many others, grief doesn't look so pretty. This can be hard to admit in a world where we encourage and admire people who “handle things well.” Sometimes grief comes out in the form of anger, mistrust of self and others, forgetfulness, indecisiveness or lack of control. Before I was aware of the many side effects of grief, I spent a lot of time beating myself up (emotionally) and experienced a lot of invalid guilt that was completely unproductive to my personal healing.
I've found that being aware of what grief can look like has been incredibly helpful for me and my husband in being preventative and seeking out tools to help me if things start to not look so pretty. The awareness alone calms my soul and helps me trace my not so well-handled moment back to my grief. I wear a black bracelet that says “grieving” on it to help me trace it back to something tangible. I became aware of grief side effects through reading, grief counseling and talking with others who have also experienced profound losses.
The danger of comparing losses
I experienced two very close family members passing one right after the other. They were both very profound losses. Less than a year before these losses, I experienced a miscarriage during my first pregnancy. I found myself comparing my losses to each other and experienced other people comparing my losses to their own. I have learned that even though we (including myself) tend to quantify and compare loss, it is extremely counterproductive. The only thing it does is invalidate people's feelings.
Every loss is a loss. Whether it's a divorce, a job, a child, a spouse, a sibling, a friend, a miscarriage or a pet, it is still a loss. Telling myself that someone else's loss is worse or mine is harder doesn't get me anywhere. There's really no way to determine whose loss is worse anyway, because we never fully understand what exactly each circumstance entails. For example, losing someone after a long struggle vs. an unexpected loss. They both have their challenges. Two people can both lose a loved one, but they can have entirely different support systems and financial situations that make their experience unique. There's really just no point in comparing. I like to focus on validating people's feelings, no matter what loss they've experienced.
When it rains, it pours
I've noticed that people who experience loss tend to have a lot of other struggles going on as well. The truth is, people who suffer loss suffer a lot of other things, too, because of the loss. As I mentioned earlier, there are many side effects of grief. Some people turn clumsy. Others experience marital strife because of misunderstanding of grief side effects, financial stress or depression. I look at my mother who suddenly turned into a full-time working woman because she had to take on the family businesses when my father died. Personally, I was really struggling with work and deadlines. I couldn't remember if I had done something or not and had a hard time focusing. For a long while, I felt like I was incompetent and a failure. Again, tracing back many of these struggles to grief can be extremely therapeutic and emotionally healthy. I realized I needed to scale back and simplify my life so I could address and make room for these additional struggles related to my grief. Sometimes I had to figuratively pull out the umbrella and wait for the storm to pass.
The Book of Job
A few months after the passing of my dad and sister, my husband Alex and I decided to do an intense study of the Book of Job in the Bible. I just felt like I needed to delve deeper into the whole loss/despair/not-cursing-God-thing because, well, let's just say I wasn't handling it as well as Job did. I learned a lot from that study, but surprisingly, the most powerful lesson I learned from that book of scripture was what not to say to people who are suffering loss.
We tend to quote the first and last few chapters of Job, but skim the middle section (or skip it entirely). After reading the book from start to finish, I realized there are approximately 40 chapters of Job's friends saying all the wrong things to him and making him suffer even more than he already was. For example, they speculated that his losses were consequences of his sins and that he needed to repent. This was very enlightening to me. It reminded me of an article I read a while ago about how not to say the wrong thing to people who are going through something hard. You can read it here. Basically, it made me very aware of what comes out of my mouth when I'm trying to be supportive of others who are suffering. It's also made me really appreciate those people who have said all the right things to me in my suffering. Those people are awesome.
Since I'm on this topic, I thought it might be helpful to be more specific about what to say and do because most people just don't know what to say. To me, less is more. When hard things happen, there usually aren't words to convey the depths of the sorrow. So say less. I loved the people who just gave me a long, sincere hug or just looked into my eyes and connected with my breaking heart. I knew they knew. They would say very little, like, "There are no words for all of this" or "It's too much, just too much" or "You know I love you so much, right?" The other people I loved didn't say anything. They wrote cards, dropped off flowers and food or saw a need and acted on it. I knew they knew.
Especially in the thick of it all, the last thing I wanted to hear was, "At least we know that families are forever" or "I bet your dad is so happy up in heaven right now." They seemed to say, "Cheer up, you'll see your dad again, so it's ok! He's not suffering anymore, so that should make you happy!" Even though I knew that's not what they were saying, that's how I felt. Those things were kindly meant and probably even true, but they didn't help me in my immediate sorrow. Couldn't they see that I was left behind and I was suffering? Who cares about heaven when I'm not there yet! Yes, it gives me hope for the future, but I'm living in the present. And my present is hard to face.
We're all in this together
A friend of mine recently passed away and this quote was from one of her art projects. I like it because it reminds me that all of us are struggling. All of us are trying to help each other and we're not perfect at it. I've learned that even though people may say things to me that come off as trite, they have the best of intentions and never mean to say something that makes my suffering or grieving even harder. I'm 100% positive that before I experienced my own losses and learned more about what not to say and do, I probably said something trite or not very helpful to someone suffering a loss. It's tricky business, so we all need to be more merciful with one another. When everyone is mourning together and struggling with various depths of grief, we can all benefit from quick forgiveness.
A helpful analogy
Many of the books I've read compare profound loss to having an amputation. It sounds a little intense at first, but I've found it to be fitting for helping people understand what it's like. Losing a limb is physically painful and jarring. It causes many limitations and frustrations. Though the pain may fade over time, the lack of limb is always there as a reminder of what happened. Physical pain can still shoot through the body from time to time.
When you first lose someone, it can be extremely painful and jarring. You learn to live with the pain day after day, week after week because you have to. People around you move on, but when they see you, the first thing they think about is the loss. It seems to be the only topic of conversation. It can get awkward after a while because you're tired of always talking about it, but it's also a major part of your life. Over time, which varies in length depending on the individual, the pain wears off slightly and you learn to function despite your limitations. But the loss is always in the back of your mind. The pain may be less, but the emptiness or lack of that person in your life is ever present. Emotional pain and overwhelming emotions still occur from time to time.
Though not for everyone, it's a good idea to be open to grief counseling. I didn't think I needed it at first. I also just plain didn't have time for it. I was sick and pregnant and then had a newborn baby to take care of while juggling work and a hectic schedule of responsibilities. I read books and tried to manage my grief on my own, but it got to a point where I knew I needed more help. The things I was doing on my own just weren't enough and I was floundering. It was humbling and hard for me to go, but I've never been more grateful I did.
My life was so crazy that I literally had to schedule an appointment to take time to grieve and work through everything that happened. My appointments are sacred time to me. They are times to reflect, work through and focus on my grief. It's actually really exhausting, but always therapeutic and beneficial in the long run. I know there are many ways to work through grief, but counseling works really well for those who can't or just don't have time to do it on their own.
At about the six month mark, I found myself having a really difficult time. I felt like most people around me had moved on and forgotten about my loss. This is normal and let's be honest, it's not like I wanted to talk about it all the time either. But I also felt like my father and sister had disappeared from my life and I didn't have anything solid in place to keep them alive in my memory. In January, my sister, mother and I came together for a retreat. We reflected on many of the things we loved about my dad and sister and all the things we used to do with them. So we decided that if there was any time we were sad about something we used to do with them, we would do it anyway in honor of them. Here are a few things I've done in honor of my dadio:
- My dad loved waking my family up early in the morning with Rocky soundtrack music blaring through the house. I decided I need to put the main theme song on my phone as an alarm.
- He had some funny things he used to always say. I decided to improve my calligraphy hobby and make some signs of these sayings to give to my mom and put up in my home where I could see them everyday.
- Every year on the first day of spring, my family would wake up early and drive to a lookout that had a beautiful view of the Wenatchee Valley. We'd eat breakfast and watch the sunrise. My mom recently decided to do this in honor of dad's one year passing away mark, since it's close to the first day of spring.
- Every summer when I was in college, my dad would take me on a fun motorbiking/hiking/camping trip in the Cascade mountains. I've decided to take my family camping there every summer.
- He loved to garden, grow raspberries and make fresh apple cider from his own homemade press. My family had many seasonal traditions that involved the garden and fruit, so I want to keep these traditions alive as well.
There are many things that I looked forward to doing with my dad that I won't get to do. He always talked about helping me build a home for my family, making wooden toys for my children and traveling. Sometimes it's not only important to grieve in reflection of the past, but to grieve for those things lost in the future. My husband Alex has decided he wants to learn woodworking so he can make toys and things with our children that my dad would have made. I definitely don't think I'm capable of building my own house, but every inch of it will be built in his honor and as sturdy and precise as he would have wanted it to be.
Resources that have been helpful for me:
Some of my most therapeutic/healing moments have happened while reading books or scriptures about loss and grief. Below is a list of the resources I've read and studied that have been most helpful to me.