The Rules of Grief

Recently I made a quick trip to South Dakota to attend my best friend’s father’s funeral. I lost my father 13 years ago, and as could be expected, this has brought many of those memories and feelings to the surface. At Christmas I visited his grave and was shocked that the minute I stepped out of the car, tears started flowing like he had died that day. Grief never truly dies down, we just learn to live with it like background noise.

My friend is learning some of the same things I learned 13 years ago. If you’ve never lost someone close, you are simply not prepared for how grief works and it brings shocks and surprised with each moment. There is confusion over how to react, and what the rules are. Here is the rule I learned from losing my dad.

Grief has no rules

Despite this one rule, there are still things to keep in mind when you, or someone you love, is in grief.

Every person grieves differently. Some hold it in. Some let it out. Some lash out. Some retreat into a shell of themselves. Some will move through the intense pain quickly and move back into life almost immediately. Some go for months or years, slow to let the loss go.

There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Grief is a combination of who you are, your relationship with the person who is gone, the circumstances in which they died, and your beliefs about life and death. Don’t judge yourself because you aren’t grieving the way others grieve, or get angry that someone else is doing it wrong. It is what it is, and to quote one of my favorite quotes from Tootsie, “I’m going to feel this way until I don’t feel this way anymore.”

Which brings me to the next thing to remember as you grieve – you are going to feel every emotion possible, one right after another. I think most who’ve never been through it assume someone who is grieving is sad for a long time, and then eventually they aren’t as sad anymore. Instead, a person who is grieving finds that one moment they are devastated. Then they feel they’ve worked through it and life is going no to be okay, and then in the next moment they are angry that the person left, and then moments later they are back to acceptance, then back to denial, then sadness, etc. Those 7 steps of grief never flow smoothly from one to another. You are all over the place like a tap-dancer on stairs. Don’t ever let yourself fall into the trap that you have closure, and have worked through the grief. It’s always waiting…

In amongst all the steps of grief, you are also going to experience joy, silliness, and laughter. This is almost immediately followed by guilt. How dare you have a moment of joy when someone you love is dead?!?! However, this too is completely natural and very human. We all have coping mechanisms and humor is one of them. A good screenwriter will sprinkle humor throughout a thriller, a drama, or even a bloody horror movie. The human mind needs moments of levity to break up horrible things, it’s just the way we are wired. Besides, the person you lost also loved you, and just as you wouldn’t want them to be sad, they wouldn’t want you to be sad. Grasp onto those light moments and let them carry you through the dark moments. Laugh with friends and loved ones, and celebrate the good memories you share.

Also, be forgiving – both to others and to yourself. When I lost my dad I kept thinking, “I don’t know what to do, I’ve never lost my dad before.” None of you have likely ever coped with the loss you are all experiencing. Things will come out of your mouth you will wish you could take back. You won’t feel certain as to what to do or say. It’s safe to say those around you feel the same way. Forgive mistakes quickly. Let it go and love those close to you.

There are probably other things to remember, but that is what came to mind during the trip. Hang on during a wild ride, don’t judge, share joy without guilt, and forgive quickly.miss someone

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Relax and Exhale

The grief of losing a coworker is still creating ripples across our lives. Grief comes in waves, leaving you feeling fine one moment, and devastated the next. It also comes in layers. Just when you think you’re moving forward, a new reality of the loss wraps itself around you and squeezes the breath out of you. We are all still adjusting to this new reality. It’s going to take a while.

Recently a friend posted this to Facebook.

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It summed up recent expereinces so perfectly. At first, life in L.A. was amazing. Then it was awful (for a loooong time). Then when I left  and came to Missouri, it was suddenly amazing. Then losing a coworker was awful. However, between each of those amazing and awful cycles, there was a lot of ordinary and mundane. I don’t do ordinary and mundane so well. I start to feel a little depressed. I begin to question, is this all there is? Week after week, getting up, brushing my teeth, going to work, coming home, watching TV, brushing my teeth again, and going to bed. Day, after day, after day with some occassional fun thrown it. Is this really life?

The answer to that – yes it is. That restlessness, that desire to create distance from the miracle of the ordinary, tells me I’m no longer in the moment. Rather than become restless for something else, I need to enjoy those moments as much needed breaks from the upcoming awful and amazing. Because, as amazing as the last few months have been, they cannot be sustained. Eventually the shiny dulls. Thankfully the periods of awful are also usually brief. If you’re lucky, you spend most of your life in the ordinary. Wouldn’t it be a shame to miss out on most of your life?

For me, meditation is the answer to this dilemma. Making a committment to be still, focusing on nothing but the ordinary act of breathing in and out, makes it completely clear how rarely we are present. The mind is full of thoughts it seems to generate itself… thoughts that, upon examination, can be tied to either running away from awful, or chasing amazing – two states that simply can’t be sustained. With practice, those thoughts can be stilled, and the heartbreaking, soul-healing, amazing, awful, ordinary life reveals its beauty – The quiet moment of trust when a kitten curls up on your chest and purrs. When crickets sing you to sleep. When a stranger holds your gaze on the street and breaks that barrier between souls. When a cooking casserole fills your home with a salivating aroma. When a coworker tells a story that makes you laugh so hard you can’t breathe.

What breathatking beauty ordinary life can hold. Relax and exhale, and try not to miss a moment of it.

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Death, Grief, and Rejoicing

Today, millions of words will be written about the collective loss we all experienced on 9/11. Friends, spouses, brothers, sisters, cousins, friends, parents… all ripped from the people who loved them. We lost our feeling of safety, discovering that oceans and friendly nations could not protect us. In our rage, we lost our way, lashing out at people we could get to, instead of the people who harmed us. We lost some of the lofty ideals our nation stands for, simply because of our fear and pain. There was so much more than 3000 lives lost on this day 14 years ago.

I often wondered if the loss each individual felt was eased by the fact that the nation shared their loss. To anyone who has suffered the death of someone close, it’s confusing that life just keeps humming along. People laugh. They fall in love. They go out to dinner. Inside, the grieving want to shout at the world to stop. The person they loved is gone, and it’s not right that people act as if nothing has changed. But, with 9/11 the world did stop. Almost everyone across the planet grieved in the days following the attacks. Did that help? Or only make the pain worse? And what of those families who had the misfortune to have loved ones die near the 9/11 date? Was it made worse by the fact that everyone was grieving the victims of the day, but grief for their loved one was largely ignored.

Today, some of those confused feelings are my own. Much like 9/11, yesterday was a beautiful, sunny day. The first hint of how the day would go was when we realized a client was waiting and her instructor was nowhere to be found. It’s easy at first to assume it’s a missed alarm, or a family emergency, or something benign. But as the hours ticked by, and phone calls and texts went unanswered fear began to grow. The morning was spent searching online and in our records for contacts that could help. Our work family mobilized, each taking on a role to find our missing member. Despite our fears, there was still a sense of shock and overhwelming disbelief when she was found, likely taken from us by an unknown medical condition. 40 years old. A life only half lived.

Today most people are focused on the lost potential of 14 years ago. Today my community is focused on the lost potential of yesterday. There is a sense of disconnect from the rest of the world.

When thinking about what I wanted to say today, I still feel at a loss. There are no great words of wisdom to share. It is too soon for lessons learned, other than the much repeated phrases that life is short, and the knowledge you should never leave kind words unsaid or kind actions undone. There is no understanding of why a very fit woman got 10 years less than obese me has had. There is guilt in not reaching out to connect more. There is also comfort in seeing that our work family really is a family. We came together with support and love, making sure we were all okay.

One thing did occur to me as I chased sleep last night. Death also gives us the opportunity to rejoice. Pain reminds us that we still live. We still have a chance to say those kind words to those who are here. We still have a chance to reach out with love and caring to those around us who need those gifts. We still have a chance to become the kind of person we want to be. It pains our hearts to be without the people we care about. We can take that pain and lash out and cause damage as our country did on 9/11, or we can use that pain to rejoice at the fact that we have been given yet another day to experience the joys, pains, loves, losses, beauty and ugliness of life. Those we have lost would tell us we should do the later.

As you grieve today, what will you do with your grief? Make a good choice and rejoice that you have it to make.

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