Revisiting Grief

I ran into a friend of a friend a little over a week ago that I haven’t seen in a long time at a local restaurant. One of the things Laurel and I have in common is that we have both lost people we’ve loved due to cancer (my mother and her husband). She was with a group of about six or seven others. There was nothing remarkable about anyone’s appearance. Everyone looked normal. I stopped by her table for a quick hello as I left the restaurant and learned she was eating with her grief group from hospice. Her husband died around three years ago and although they do not meet formally as a group anymore, she explained they still get together every so often to check in on how everyone is doing.

“So, how are you doing?” I asked her.

“I’m vertical,” she told me.

She looked great. I know. Even though I heard it in my head, it was my first reaction. Looking great has nothing to do with how a person is feeling. I even used the word “normal” above to describe her.

It’s cringe-worthy.

I was thankful I hadn’t said it out loud. I know so well that someone can look like they have it all together on the outside when the inside is a hot mess. This is true whether the inside is slammed with treatment side effects, pain from sickness, anxiety, depression, or grief. The inside often is in some state of constant churning. It may be such a present feeling that it is normal for you. Normal always fluctuates for me and has an overpowering element of uncertainty of the future. Normal has to be rooted in the NOW. I’m good at holding it together on the outside. Most of the time.

Grief is messy.

Being vertical shouldn’t be so hard. But it can be.

There is something comforting about being with others who have similar experiences. Support groups are great for this if it fits your comfort level. I went to one after my mom died. It was more of a workshop setting. It gave me a better understanding of my feelings and explained a few things that I wouldn’t otherwise have attributed to grief. Individual counseling is another option to support someone through grief.

Running into Laurel made me pause to revisit what I’ve learned about grief over the years. I reminded myself of many points worth remembering.

Grief Reminders

  • Grief is physically and emotionally exhausting. A grieving person needs more restorative sleep.
  • Grief is hard. It’s tougher to make decisions and trust others, including trusting your own abilities while grieving.
  • Many question truths in their personal belief systems such as religious beliefs, the meaning of life, and ideas of fairness.
  • There is a sense of having no control over anything.
  • Grief is distracting. Functioning in day-to-day activities or at work can be affected. There is a tendency to forget things.
  • Some people may bump into things, drop stuff, or be prone to accidents. They do not attribute these events to grief and wonder what in the world is wrong with them.
  • Some people find it easier to be at work and like having a focus away from grief, while others find it difficult to be in their work environment. Some who find an escape from grief at work find that it overwhelms them again as soon as they get home where the memories live.
  • Dates such as birthdays, anniversaries, holidays, and other important events will be bittersweet. The anniversary of a death will be dreaded and the day after will feel better again because there is a whole year before it happens again.
  • Grief is real and ongoing. A person doesn’t just get over it. The goal isn’t to get over a loss but to find a way to get through it.
  • People grieve losses other than death. Loss of jobs, a move, divorce, a friendship or relationship, failed plans, and changes in health are all sources of grief.
  • It doesn’t mean someone is over their grief if they are having a good day. They may just be getting through the day vertically.
  • Grief spurts come out of nowhere. They may not last long but can be intense.
  • There is no timeline. There are as many ways to grieve as there are people. What works for one person may not work for another.
  • Grief can teach us about life.

I find a lot of strength in affirmations. I’ve read and collected many, blended them together, and written my own when I have a specific need. I have close to one hundred in my affirmation file and I’m always coming up with more. Here is my group of affirmations on grief. Perhaps one or two will jump out as applicable to a situation in your life.

Affirmations That Acknowledge Grief

I allow myself to fully feel my feelings, both happy and sad.

I can still feel love in the world without my loved one.

I seek the help I need and accept help when it’s offered.

I hold on to love and will let go of the grief when I’m ready.

I am surrounded by seen and unseen love and support.

I am kind to myself while I grieve and heal.

I honor my lost loved one by living my own life in positive and beautiful ways.

I move away from memories that bring me pain and focus on memories that bring me happiness and peace.

Grieving is a part of life and I am doing okay.

There are many feelings involved with grief and loss and it’s okay to feel all of them.

I still feel my lost loved one’s presence and it comforts me.

I grieve loss in healthy ways that are right for me.

There is no timeline for when grieving is done.

Grieving ebbs and flows differently for everyone.

I recognize difficult moments and know they will pass.

I choose to grieve my loss and move forward at my own pace.

It is okay to feel happy again.

Moving on with my life does not mean I have forgotten someone I loved.

I am grateful for the time I shared with my loved one.

This experience has allowed me to discover new truths about myself.

I am done being sad for today and I move on to other emotions.

My life has changed and I will meet these changes day by day.

There are many people I can talk to who will listen to how I’m feeling.

I feel supported during this difficult time.

I am learning how life works for me with these new circumstances.

After I’ve given all this unsolicited advice, I think it’s also important to avoid offering easy answers or clichéd expressions to someone who is grieving. As an example, I often hear people say God needed another angel when someone has died. It’s meant to be comforting. I don’t believe this. Heaven has enough angels. Keeping people around longer on Earth that spread goodness seems like a better idea to me. We need those people to stick around. Someone who is grieving needs to feel listened to and feel comfortable enough to cry and express their feelings with the support of their friends. Telling someone how they should be feeling or dismissing their feelings with some tired or cute remark invalidates grief.

I have grieved my parents and other family members, friends, neighbors, and people I have never personally met who have died from cancer. I don’t think I’ll ever be done grieving some deaths, and that’s okay. It’s there. I can still be happy. I’ve grieved a child and an unfulfilled dream when cancer put a screeching halt on plans to become an adoptive parent. I’ve grieved relationships that have changed. I’ve grieved my teaching career when it became clear it was in my best interest to retire. I’ve grieved my past because I can’t reclaim my life and health to what it was before cancer. I’ve grieved my present because of disappointment and anger and changes that still don’t fit my plans. I continue to grieve my future because of fears. Although it isn’t what this post is about, I also have hope for my future and I will not let go of my hope.

There are many parts of myself that I grieve. I choose to keep many of those thoughts private for now. It’s my work to do, difficult to share, and very hard for me to put into words.

Grief is universal but everyone does it differently. There is no one right way to do it, but it needs to happen in its own time and in its own way. I don’t want to forget my loved ones who have died. I do want to quiet memories that haunt me. I do want to remember all the happy times I’ve shared with people who’ve died.

Laurel is incorporating grief into her life as she keeps living and moving forward. Looking fine on the outside doesn’t tell the whole story. It seldom does. I hope I can meet people with compassion and empathy to offer whatever support is needed.

Three affirmations from my list jump out at me as I write today:

I honor my lost loved one by living my own life in positive and beautiful ways.

Moving on with my life does not mean I have forgotten someone I loved.

My life has changed and I will meet these changes day by day.

 

What are your thoughts on grief?

My Mom: Memories of Love and Loss

My mom made the biggest impact on me from anyone I have ever known. She has been gone for six years and I haven’t written anything about her, not even notes.

Why?

Grief.

I couldn’t handle jotting down ideas. It’s still too fresh, but at the same time it feels like it’s been a million years without her.

Today is Mother’s Day.

I am ready to share.

I think.

Violets hold strong memories for me. It started with a violet that first belonged to my grandma. The porch off the kitchen of my grandma’s farmhouse was a greenhouse of sorts during the summer months. The light was perfect to grow an assortment of plants, one being violets. One such violet came to my mom when my grandma died from cancer. It was already huge but continued to thrive for another fifteen or so years. My mom had a knack like my grandma. It went uncared for when my mom was so sick and I thought it was past help when I discovered it. I took it to a local gardening store for a second opinion with the hope that I was wrong. Unfortunately, they agreed with me. However, I decided to give it one more try before I gave in to what I thought was inevitable. Do you know what happened? The violet came back! It had more blooms on it than ever. I started many new plants from the grandmother violet. Many of those have been redistributed to family, friends, and former co-workers.

Eventually, the grandmother violet stopped thriving. Its stem arched and twisted like an arthritic finger. It was very old and long past its expected lifespan. Being so twisted, I didn’t notice when the stem broke away from the roots. By the time I did, it was too late. I struggled to throw it out. I rescued it and had kept it going for years. It was a visual reminder of my mom and grandma. I couldn’t lose it on top of all I had already lost. One day, I finally accepted it was gone, and took what was left and buried it, figuring it was better to return it to the earth than chuck it in the garbage. Something that held so much value didn’t belong in the trash, discarded like it meant nothing.

It meant a lot.

I also needed to reframe how I thought about this magnificent violet. It was a life-giving plant. So many new plants came from one plant, much like the offspring from my grandma in my family tree. Friends and family still send me photos when the violets I’ve given them bloom. In this way, I feel like small parts of my family live on. Maybe the memories are just mine, but good memories deserve to keep blooming. Violets in bloom do this for me with fond memories of two of my favorite people.

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These are two of the many violets in my home.

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Now that I’ve chosen to write about my sweet mom, allow me to share a couple more memories.

I remember one summer day when she was mowing the back lawn. My father was still alive and not yet retired. I was also out in back reading and not being helpful. Yes, I know I should have helped more. The mower had stopped. She restarted it and the mower lurched forward with remarkable speed and headed across the lawn. It was a self-propelled model. My mom grabbed it and held on as her little short legs hurried to keep up with it. She regained control so it didn’t careen into a tree. I know I probably shouldn’t be smiling right now, but smiles are better than tears.

Another time she was outside gardening in a flowerbed I had encouraged her to start. I was older and home visiting for the weekend. This memory finds me once again out in back not being helpful. She stood up a little too fast from weeding and lost her balance. With surprising agility, she jumped over the flowerbed and just kept running across the yard until she slowed to a stop. I didn’t know she had that athletic ability in her! The flowerbed was a source of enjoyment for many years. Black-eyed Susans thrived and prospered.

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Black-eyed Susans took over the garden.

When I moved back to my hometown and got a teaching job at my former elementary school, my mom was there to help. I would bring her to school to help set up my classroom at the end of summer. She was my number one helper. Truthfully, she was my only helper. My mom did a good job cutting out laminated materials, putting up bulletin boards, and other small odds and ends that were huge time savers. She was great company. I’d stop by and visit a bit after the first day of school and let her know how the day went. I have countless memories of her being in my corner.

Another frequent memory I have of my mother is how she’d expect me to know answers to her questions without providing me much (any) information. She called me up so many times to ask, “Who’s that person that we saw at that place doing that thing?” I knew her so well. Most times I could figure it out. We talked every day. I miss that a lot. Whereas I can still talk to her, the conversations are not quite the same. I wrote to her in a grief journal for a few years after she died. It provided a much-needed connection that was part of my grieving and healing work.

We took many trips to Door County in summers when it was just the two of us. It was so easy to travel with her. We walked on trails not knowing where they would lead. Thankfully, they were always circular and we ended back where we started. We indulged in cherry desserts at dinner. We savored ice cream at two particular ice cream establishments. Our pace was never hurried. Sometimes we just sat by the water and visited. We watched a couple of beautiful sunsets. One year she got three consecutive holes-in-one at miniature golfing. She didn’t mind the attention it drew. I am glad there are memories of her around every corner when I visit today.

My mom died from metastatic breast cancer. It was painful to watch her worsen for her last final months. Slowly. Irreversibly. All the while, I was recovering from treatments from the very thing that was killing her. Pain for her. Pain for me. The various benchmarks of death inching closer are not things I care to remember. It’s excruciatingly hard to forget images that haunt me. Trauma mixes in with grief. I look far too much like her. Most of the time I consider this a very good thing. I can even see how she looked like my grandma. It’s when I relive memories of my mom during her last days that I’m not so fond of the resemblance.

These gut-wrenching memories don’t help me. They serve me in no positive way. There is no beauty in them. I am never going to be glad for those moments. It’s really hard work, but I am trying to shift to happier memories when the bad ones get triggered. Happy times are the beautiful moments filled with joy that I’m glad to remember. I finally started my list of happy memories I don’t want to forget. They are nothing more than bullet styled ideas that I can add details to later.

Grief is a lot like paper in a paper shredder . . . the original piece of paper still exists but has changed to an unrecognizable form. It will never be the same again. It never can be put back together. Maybe the paper gets recycled and becomes whole once more, but it’s a different wholeness with different print and perhaps a different texture.

Another shredding is always possible.

That’s grief.

I still have moments where I feel completely shredded.

March and April are months that are filled with more grief for me than other months. May historically is a happy month for me. I am always glad when May arrives. Mother’s Day isn’t meant to be sad. It is for many though who have a sick mother, have recently lost their mother, yearn to become a mother, or may even be a mom herself who isn’t well.

Grief shows up on unexpected days as easily as on expected days like birthdays, anniversaries, or holidays. It comes and goes in waves. I can be okay at a funeral or visitation and then almost lose it in a grocery store. Whenever grief washes over me, I need to acknowledge it and let it pass. It washes back out to an imagined sea soon enough. Grief is ongoing. I swim in it, towel off, and am okay until the next wave. I work through grief and try not to get stuck there. No one should stay stuck in grief.

On Mother’s Day, I need to focus on good memories. The disturbing memories I have need to be banished, or at least minimized, so I don’t have a visceral reaction. So I don’t stay stuck. There is no point in remembering my mom immobile and unresponsive in a hospital bed, still breathing but unable to eat, speak, or open her eyes, and already gone in so many ways. When I look at photos of my mom in better days, she is happy. These remind me of pleasant memories. Even if I’m not in the picture, I go back and am happy in that moment again with her. Happy memories are the places I need to linger every day and not just on Mother’s Day.

I close my eyes and let the good memories fill my heart.

I see her stand in the front window where she’d always wave goodbye to me.

I hear her voice and uncontrollable laughter.

I smell the angel food cake she always baked for my birthday.

I taste her special cran-raspberry and lemon jello dessert salad.

If I try hard, I feel my mother’s hug.

I know how much I was loved.

That’s the best memory of all and never leaves me.

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