Updated: Sep 21
Hello! After an 11-day hiatus, I'm back to blogging! I've missed being able to post between all of
the scheduling shifts in our household over the last couple of weeks, but I'm back in action and in the swing of the routine again!
I find it funny how the end of summer brings a sense of relief and a sense of sadness. I was talking to some friends over the past couple weeks about how summer passed "so fast." It was gone before we even got a chance to really do all that we wanted to do.
We all shared the sentiment. Then, it occurred to me that this is a conversation I've had with many people many times before. Whether it's the holidays, vacation, and event itself, or season, the passing of time always seems to pass so quickly that we feel that we are trying to squeeze onto sand. The tighter our grip, the quicker it dissolves. It occurred to me that some of this feeling may actually be tied to a grief reaction. Surprised? I was a little too, until I started to think about it more...
Over the course of years working in the hospice field as a social worker and nursing assistant, I learned so much about grief by just watching and being curious about what I was seeing. Observing grief play out in a special and unique pattern for each person has been a gift. It's special because whether a person is grieving the loss of a relationship (separation or divorce, etc.) or the life of a person, they are experiencing grief, nonetheless.
The 5 stages of grief identified by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross was created not for the surviving, grieving person, but for the person who is in the throes of dying. I've witnessed this to be some of the most intense grief, but also the type of grief that most often results in the final stage of Acceptance. My theory is that those who are in the dying process and have enough time (however much time that is) to grieve in a healthy way, are able to accept at some point that they are going to die. Leaving this world and all that it holds with it. I've seen that the acceptance also brings a sort of "readiness" to die. Once acceptance is reached, the dying person is ready to "move on" so to speak. (Here's a quick rundown in case you don't recall the 5 stages: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance).
No matter your spiritual orientation or lack thereof, grieving is uniquely human. We are wired to grieve.
Unfortunately, our culture is what creates the taboo effect of making others cringe when they aren't in the same headspace or grieving at the same pace as us.
That, too, is uniquely human. Everyone grieves differently. Some people spend longer in the stage of depression or denial than others. That's okay. That's their journey. Some people bounce in and out of acceptance more than others. That's okay. That's their journey too. There's no right or wrong way to grieve a loss. Let's stop being judgmental towards others, and even more important, let's stop being judgmental towards ourselves for feeling in the moment as it arises.
Grief usually rears its ugly head more violently when we ignore it than when we let the distressing feelings wash over us and wait for them to pass. Grief turns from a natural process into an unwanted, relentless creature that seems to appear when we are at our most fatigued, vulnerable, and burned out.
This is because we have no more energy to keep our guard up against the emotion processing. We are an empty well. This is, unfortunately, the most uncomfortable type of grieving. The distress that comes when you have no energy to process what is actually happening. This is where substance misuse, self-harm, or self-loathing, even full-on depression can stem from when a loss is not allowed to be processed. The loss festers and will not go away until you make meaning from the loss.
Now, before you scoff, I don't mean that you should "look at the bright side." Believe me. Sometimes (most of the time) there is no "bright side." Instead, I mean that when we find meaning behind our new identity after loss and accept our own human limitations, needs, and wants, then we are able to assign a greater meaning to this experience. Before I get too existential, I'll give you an example:
I once worked with a young woman (early 30's) who had been diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She was married to a caring young man who was father to her 3 year old little girl. After months of surgeries, chemotherapy, and radiation, the cancer had become so invasive, and she was so weak that doctors decided to let her return home to rest, and hopefully, gain enough strength to return for more aggressive treatment.
On arriving to their home for the first time to bathe her, I noticed how utterly drained they were. That was, everyone except for the bright little songbird of a girl who bounced around the living room, eager to play with anyone who entered the door. This time, it was my turn.
She showed me the doll she was caring for, putting down for naptime at the foot of her mother's hospital bed. The bed dominated the small living room of the 70's-something four-room home. The vague odor of "hospital" hung in the room. When not directly engaged, mom and dad both gave their last drips of energy to staring into space, near motionless with fatigue and overwhelm of what they had just been through. All that included, I never found out. What was clear, however, was that their spirits were utterly drained. Their daughter seemed unphased. She had been spared by being young. She was playing in her own imaginary world, seemingly unaffected by the lack of attachment to the here and now that plagued her parents equally. My heart sank.
I slowly proceeded with a calm introduction, trying to be as undisruptive as I could. I was quickly shown where to find a basin, washcloths, water, soap, and lotion. Sheets and an oversized t-shirt (with a slit all the way up the back for easy dressing) were waiting in a pile beside the hospital bed. They were pro's at this now. My heart sank further.
In my usual way, I prepared for a bed bath. I greeted my fatigued patient and she responded with a forced, tight-lipped smile. She cautioned me to nerve damage in her legs that caused touch to be incredibly painful. I hesitated, and she reassured me that she would communicate any discomfort.
I proceeded with caution, worried what movements might send her into pain. Aside from the occasional wincing, we made it through okay, as far as I could read, which wasn't much.
Her husband came to the bedside and mentioned something about taking a trip "when this whole hospice thing is over." I couldn't tell from either of their expressionless faces whether he was including her in the plans or not. I smiled as comfortingly as I could, placed my hand on hers, and told her I would be back in two days.
I saw her for the last time two days later. She was in a similar state of spirits. So was her daughter. So was her husband.
One week later they celebrated the life that she had lived with ovarian-cancer awareness-colored balloons that were released into the sky. One for every person that attended. The number was high, somewhere in the mid 200's as I recall.
I'd like to think that this was meaning making at its finest. Calling attention to awareness of the illness that might be caught earlier by others who will inevitably suffer from the same disease that put an end to this young woman's life. Celebrating her life without making it into only mourning what will never be. The young girl that will never have a mother to influence her identity. A man who will never share an intimate moment remembering the early years in their marriage.
Grieving in this heart-rending situation meant taking the hurt and moving forward with the capacity for love that could be used to accomplish incredible things for others.
I later found out that the husband and daughter of my patient had taken several trips to see family and enjoy some time sightseeing. Hard to say how these trips went, but it seemed that there was a sense of relief in not being tied to a hospital bed without actually being the one in it. Was there any guilt from not being tied down anymore? Probably. There usually is.
But isn't that bargaining or depression in another disguise? Making meaning of the freedom that comes from not having someone in your life with the baggage that we all carry into relationships with us is.... okay. It's normal. It's human.
Because I'm a total nerd for all things mental health, I became so excited when I luckily stumbled across this TED Talk from Nora McInerny. She has a very healthy, "call it as it is" type of mindset. Laughing in the face of cultural taboo around death and dying.
Nora puts it in a nutshell perfectly: "Research shows that everyone you love has a 100% chance of dying." I'll do you one better. Research shows that 100% of people grieve at some point in their lives.
I would love to hear from you on what you remember people saying that you hated the most while you were grieving. If you've ever had a pet, a car, a friendship, or a marriage literally or figuratively "die," I'm sure you can relate.
You are human, just like the rest of us. So, let yourself be!