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A Window Inside

two white rod pocket curtains

Six years out and I’m still amazed at this process of walking out of grief. I’ll confess that on the 28th of August, 2016, when I went downstairs to get a late lunch and found the note, my concept of grief was in for a radical change.

It wasn’t that I didn’t know about people who grieved the loss of other things; it was the reality that the loss meant something different to me now. This was my husband—my marriage—and it was different. I’d mourned the loss of a parent, grandparents, a sister, our four cats that we’d had to put down, another graduate degree, a home, not having biological children, and friendship. I thought I understood what grief was about. I wasn’t wrong, and I wasn’t right either. I needed to learn some new things.

My father’s death was the one time I was prepared for to death enter my life. I was privileged to serve as one of his caretakers until he entered the hospice unit to stabilize and to allow his body to shut down gracefully. Even that final week was amazing. He’d lived a good life and was ready to die. It was, for me, both difficult and celebratory. The feelings of loss came about five years later when my husband entered my life. I learned for the first time that grief and mourning may enter our lives years or even decades later. I worked through the sadness that my father would not know Jon. This time—and this death—was radically different. This wasn’t easy at all: this felt like grief on steroids.

Five months later my mother died of a heart attack, and I’m thankful that our relationship was one of friendship, giggles, honesty, understanding, and mutual respect. The family had to laugh that she died on Friday the thirteenth. Her death was overshadowed by Jon’s death.

My understanding of my own process now is that it took two years of dealing with the trauma to be able to adjust to a new life alone. Stuff sets you off after a suicide, and stuff set me off! I was in no shape to work. I wasn’t ready to socialize because things got triggered and I’d start crying. It took year three to begin to stabilize. There was so much to do, to understand, and to discover. While time is an ingredient in grief journeys—mourning and doing the work that needs to be done—time itself is not the healing ingredient. Our inner strength and reserves are the healing factors.

Somewhere along the path we walk, the existential crisis rears its ugly head. You may or may not be a person of faith, and that doesn’t matter. Sooner or later we all question our known reality and wonder if our certainty or uncertainty will stand up in our grief process.

One of the huge lessons most of us learn about ourselves is that questioning is normal and healthy. Questioning can make for a robust inner dialogue! Asking ourselves both simple and deep questions propels us towards resolution in our process. This didn’t occur for me until I was in year five of this process. I wasn’t able to think clearly enough about some of the questions I needed to ask myself about our marriage, relationship, and where we were headed in the future. I realized that the questions I was able to ask myself five years out were only possible because I was stable, had done some basic work, and had returned to the work I loved. It wasn’t time that had carried me here: it was my personal stability and the work I had done up until that point that opened up this new avenue of questioning myself.

Looking In, Calling it Out

The universal cry of most who find themselves in the grief process during the early days is “When will this ever end?” The pain is unbearable, raw, unsettling, and triggering. In the beginning we might be triggered hourly or daily. It is true that with time things change, and with time we eventually arrive at a place where the grief is still present, but the texture of the grief softens and allows us to relax with it.

What I’ve noticed over time is that most friends and family forget the “Please Do” items that most of us may still need a year—or four years—out. It is as if the funeral/memorial and dinner afterwards are over, and so is the requirement to show up and offer comfort. Is it any wonder that down the road there is a collective cry of rage from the grief camp? What, do people think this is a simple process where, once our beloveds are buried, cremated, and the ashes sprinkled, it all goes magically away?! That type of closure is overrated.

There is no grief formula. Grief is as unique as we are. How we feel, think, and behave are all part of our personality constructs. What we each do with loss—whether it be loss of vision, a faith transition, or loss of a life partner—will be different from each other.

When we peer into the window of another’s existence, we gaze on them with our life’s prejudices and experiences. As we do this, we’re often tempted to offer up what we want or need rather than what the person who is in a state of grief and loss is needing. Please, no more “I’m sorry for your loss.” Every time I hear that, even on a TV show or somewhere else, I cringe with the thought of “Can’t you think of something more authentic to say?” Have you ever thought that the person, while grieving, may not be sorry? Sometimes death, divorce, loss of a job, or something else might turn out to be the gift we needed in our lives, and it may have been a gift for them as well.

The Window Inside

What people need to know about looking in is that you are offered a glimpse—and only a glimpse—into our passing along the path we walk. At any moment it may change, because at any moment we might discover some piece of life-altering thought that sends us sailing into new territory. It will never fully be over. How do you move on without holding the memory of the one you dearly love? We mourn the loss of what was and could have been. We anguish over the fact that we might have made a really lousy life decision and it brought more pain than happiness into our lives. We hold the memory of our beloved pets in our hearts. We speculate about what our child’s life would have been had they lived into adulthood.

You look in and ask, “Aren’t you over it yet?” We must reply that “No, I’ll never be over it because it all involves love, and love is something precious.”

We’ll draw the curtains closed and continue forward. Ultimately, grief is a thing of the heart and soul. We’ll let you in when it is safe and we’re strong enough to hold you in our presence once again.

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