April 10, 2017
or, What to Expect When You’re Expecting to Never Feel Okay Again, Ever
I’m no stranger to loss. My dad died in 2003, my mom in 2006. One of my four brothers passed in 2012, another in 2013. And one of my dearest friends offed himself like an idiot in 2012.
But this past week has been hard.
Last Tuesday, after a freakishly quick sequence of unlikely health events, my nephew Dan died at the age of 33. There was no time to prepare, no feeling of reluctant relief at a cessation of suffering. He was fine…then he was sick…then he was gone. He left behind a wife of four years, who moved from South Africa to be with him, to join our vast family. (They met in World of Warcraft—a fairy-tale relationship in many senses of the term.)
Today was his funeral, and I couldn’t be there. (Work obligations, you know; when you’re self-employed you can’t always get bereavement time.) But I went to visitation yesterday, hugged his parents and three siblings as hard as I could, and told them that it will get easier. In time.
That’s a hard thing to believe in the moment. In the moment it feels like things can never get easier. And maybe, as my wife pointed out, on some level you maybe don’t want things to get easier. Maybe it feels like a small betrayal to let yourself heal. But like it or not, we heal. Things do get better. In time.
With that in mind, I wanted to share a few things I’ve learned about that process, from my experience going through it—as well as from being raised in the family business of funeral service.
1. However you grieve is the right way to grieve.
This may be the most important thing I’ve learned from my experiences with death. Everyone grieves in different ways; some may get angry, some may get goofy, some may make inappropriate jokes, some may go silent. It takes different forms even in the same person, over time—and no, it doesn’t always follow a handy five-step process. So grieve in the way that you grieve, and don’t give yourself grief over it! The important thing is to let it happen; the only “wrong way to grieve” is to not grieve at all. Don’t suppress it, and by all that is holy don’t be embarrassed by it! Allow yourself to feel what you feel.
And a corollary: Allow your loved ones to feel what they feel, too. There will be situations when your grieving process conflicts with someone else’s. Recognize that both are valid, and try to be respectful of each other: If it’s a problem for you, communicate that you don’t feel comfortable with that approach, and ideally you can find ways to do your own grieving out of each other’s way. But try not to judge. And try to forgive.
2. Take care of yourself.
In this country we have this odd relationship with death, where you’re supposed to be sad but not express your sadness too loudly. Where you’re supposed to put on a brave face but not experience any strain from doing so. Where you’re supposed to look out for every other person in the deceased’s life…except, sometimes, yourself.
You’ve just suffered one of the most horrible, stressful experiences a person will ever have to experience. I hereby give you permission to be selfish for once. That can mean stepping out from the services whenever you feel like it; it can mean taking that vacation you had planned; it can mean unashamedly walking away if you don’t like what the person you’re talking to is saying about your loved one. You do you. It’s what your loved one would have wanted, isn’t it?
3. It will get easier.
I know it’s virtually impossible to picture right now. So I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking about it. But I just ask that you trust me: There will come a time—and no one knows when—that you discover that when you think of the person you’ve lost, the good memories have, improbably, started to outweigh the bad. Just a little. I wish I could tell you when that will happen.
4. But it might get harder first.
I hate to have to be the one to tell you, but I want you to be prepared. Right now, you’re probably in shock. And you’re definitely in an unusual life situation: You’re planning or participating in or have just participated in a funeral ceremony, which is weird and totally out of the norm. At some point, though, you have to try to go back to “normal” life. And that’s hard.
At first, you will feel that person’s absence always. You’ll feel it everywhere and in everything you do, like a missing tooth that you can’t stop touching. And that’s hard. You will carry this absence with you, like dark matter: invisible, defined only by negatives, and unbearably heavy. But in my experience, that’s not all that different from what you’ve already been doing.
No, in my experience, when things get hardest is when you’ve just started to heal. Your brain will have begun to block off the pain, and so eventually it’ll turn out that you don’t think about that person’s absence for minutes, even hours at a time.
And then you remember.
Please realize that grief doesn’t have an expiration date. You get to grieve however you want to grieve; you get to take care of yourself; you get to trust that it will get easier—for as long as it takes. Only you will know when you’ve healed enough to feel that you’re “done” grieving. Don’t let anyone tell you any different. And if you find yourself in this situation…
5. Ask for help.
By now you’ve probably lost track of the people who have told you “if there’s anything we can do…” That’s a great sentiment, but you’ve probably realized by now it’s not terribly helpful on the surface. People say that because they don’t know what specifically to offer to do, but if you’re like me you’re not about to just call someone up and say, “Hey, remember when you asked what you can do for me? Listen up.”
But what you need to realize is that people actually mean this. They genuinely want to help, they’re just not sure how. So try as hard as you can to put any awkwardness aside and take them up on it. Here are some phrases to get you started:
“Hey, so, it turns out I actually could use some help…”
“I didn’t think of it at the time, but would you be able to…?”
“Hey, I’m not quite on top of things yet, could you possibly do me a favor?”
I promise you that everyone who cares about you will be delighted to be able to help.
6. Get mushy.
Finally, I want to formally give you permission to be as expressive to your surviving loved ones as your heart can stand. If there’s one good thing about death, it’s that it reminds us that life is finite—but love is not. So hug your loved ones tight, tell them how much they mean to you. Cherish the opportunity to love and be loved. And know that, no matter what happens, that love will always be there.