Learning Through Loss
Written in July 2018
For reasons I will explain later in this post, I felt impelled to reflect on personal experiences with loss and their effect on me.
As children, the closest thing most of us have to loss is that of a beloved pet. We had so many kittens and cats growing up I can’t remember most of them. I vaguely recall crying once or twice at a passing. The memory so fleeting I can’t be sure which cat it might have been. I also recall a couple of “burials” in shoeboxes on the side of a hill down near the pond on our property. During my last visit home the hill is not recognizable anymore, any trace of buried pets has long gone disappeared.
I supposed I was lucky that my first recollection of a human death was my grandfather in 1969. I was thirteen years old. I recall a few things from that time period. I knew he had fallen and was in intensive care. I remember not being able to visit him there. I remember crying after he died – and equally remember one of my cousins not crying which left me baffled and feeling I was doing something wrong. I don’t remember much about the memorial service, but others tell me there was lots of crying going on. My grandfather was a beloved man by so many. But, once the memorial service was over and everyone returned home, I don’t remember anyone talking about it much more.
Being raised in Christian Science, people don’t die, they “pass on”. While my thirteen year old self probably wanted to grieve, the behavior of those around me did not teach me how to do so.
In fairly short order, two more grandparents died within the next year, my dad’s father and step-mother. There was no service for them. In fact, they were hardly mentioned at all. Were they gone and forgotten too?
Many years would pass before I would experience close, personal loss. By that time, I was on the West Coast and these deaths were on the East Coast. My maternal grandmother, a college roommate, aunts or uncles. I remember feeling sad but, being far removed from any activity going on in relation to these deaths, it was easier to brush the feelings aside.
And so it was in the year 2000, when I received a significant blow in my loss experience, that I found myself lost in a world I didn’t know how to navigate. When my first husband died, I found myself in counseling at the recommendation of one of my attorneys. Only then did I realize I had never learned to grieve in a productive manner. Only then did I learn how much those prior death events had impacted me. I needed to learn this process at the age of 43.
Looking back at that year of grieving, I realize there were many things I should have done differently. I was more self-involved than I thought I was - and I didn’t recognize what my daughters needed from me. Not one to want to be stuck in a quagmire, I was determined to push myself through the grief as quickly as possible and move on. I wanted to be happy again. It’s not bad to want to be happy, but the way I went about it was probably flawed.
However, in this process God put another man in my life. A man who would help me cope with some of my grieving issues, who could help put things into perspective, who allowed me to cry yet could also make me laugh. Someone I could lean on as I went through more personal loss in the years to come.
In 2006, my dad started to deteriorate from dementia. I was on edge just waiting for the phone to ring. Knowing this, George suggested I fly home to be with him and to help my mom. This time with Mom and Dad proved challenging yet rewarding at the same time. I was able to assist Mom with the care of my dad. By the time I arrived he was bedridden and not too responsive. I went between periods of caregiving in ways a daughter should never have to experience – to periods of just snuggling with him and being father and daughter. It was as if I had a toggle switch in my brain – being what I needed to be at any given moment. Daughter – caregiver – daughter again. I was with my dad when he took his last breath. That was such a profound moment. Heart wrenching yet peaceful as his pain was finally gone. To this day it is an experience I would never trade away. While I miss my dad, I recognized he had been fading away for a few years and thus my grief was not as deep as other experiences.
Over the next few years I lost other family members – aunts and uncles mostly. Again, not being back East when these occurred made it relatively easy for me to not experience much in the way of grief. When I lost a cousin who was just a few years older then me, I could scarce believe that “my generation” was starting to die.
Today marks the sixth anniversary of my mom’s death, which is why I pause for reflection. I was just days away from a planned vacation to visit her for a little over a week. I was super excited for this trip because I had been relegated to taking care of George’s mom for years at this point and needed to get away. To say that I was devastated to receive a call from my sister telling me that Mom had died would be an understatement. Mom’s death shook me to my very core. My vacation turned into a work week as my siblings and I took on the laborious task of clearing out our family home, organized a memorial service, and leaned on one another. As we went through the house to determine what to keep, save, toss, etc., we had some opportunity to reflect on memories. With my mind concentrated on getting through this house cleaning, my grief was temporarily suspended.
In the ensuing months, that grief would slowly take over my life. I carefully hid it from my loved ones. Yet I could feel myself slipping further and further into a dark hole. By the end of the year I didn’t mind that I had to help take care of my mother-in-law as I had no desire to be out with the living. I didn’t care about going to church or seeing friends. I was “perfectly content” to hole up at home. Thanksgiving and planning for Christmas were tedious – doing them out of a sense of obligation. Then, over the Christmas “holiday” time, I knew that I had to somehow pull myself out of my self-made hole and start to live again before it got any worse. It was then that I stumbled on a volunteer job that would not only pull me out of my slump but lift me up and give me such joy again. I knew that Mom was my angel as I did something she loved to do (volunteer). This volunteer job turned into a paying job for me within a few months. Wow!
Today I spent a little bit of time in the backyard that I designed with some of my “inheritance” from Mom. In a way, it was spending time with mom as I trimmed a few things that needed to be taken care of. I can picture my mom in her yard and her garden as she bent over to weed, trim and plant flowers.
While it was difficult last year to lose George’s mom, her death also brought with it a great sense of relief. Like my dad, my mother-in-law had been disappearing for more than a decade as she spiraled into her Alzheimer’s riddled brain. Although we had experienced some truly joyful and fun moments in the months before she died, in the last few weeks she had truly started to leave her physical body.
As I sit here today and tell you about some of the people I have lost in my life, I am remembering some of the fond and fun memories I have of these people. Lessons they taught me, laughter we shared, conversations that connected us – these are things we gave to one another and things we must remember beyond the pain of loss.
My grandfather had a great smile. He used to take us “grandchildren” for walks on a lazy Thanksgiving afternoon. My cousin recently informed us that my grandfather will be inducted into a local Hall of Fame later this year to honor him for decades of blazing walking trails the area.
My grandmother was a short, stout woman with a great smile and laugh. One of my favorite photos of Grammy and Grampy is them in their dining room, my grandfathers arm around the shoulders of my grandmother and both with smiles on their faces. Their home was always open to family and we did have many family times there.
My college roommate was a tiny woman with a fierce loyalty to her family and a great sense of humor. She married her high school sweetheart and had three children before her untimely passing.
My dad did much with little, raising a family of five on a limited budget. He was a role model of someone who worked hard to make a living. He also took us on many vacations, giving us a sense of the world around us.
My mom, well she was our role model for love, for learning acceptance of others, for learning how to give to others. I enjoyed my chats with mom, ones I had with her weekly for the last eight years of her life here on earth. We could chat on almost any topic, bounce ideas off one another, relive memories together. She had and amazing memory – so much better than my own. The last time I visited her I recorded some of my talks with her so that I could remember them (I didn’t know it would be the last time I would spend time with her.)
My parents together gave us a home that was safe, warm and loving. One always felt welcome there.
My aunts and uncles are woven into the tapestry of my life. Reunions, holidays, spending time together. I was fortunate that most of them lived close enough and some were close enough in age to be playmates when we were young. While many of us moved away from our “home”, my memories of them are fond ones. All so different, yet all so loving and supportive of one another.
My first husband, unknowingly, taught me how to be independent. I had to do a lot on my own as his jobs or his hobbies kept him away from home a great deal of the time. I watched and learned some basic “repair” skills as he did those things which seemed to come naturally for him. He was playful, he enjoyed creating things, he enjoyed fixing things, he loved his kids. He was passionate which could be good but also bad as he could easily get fired up about things not going right.
My mother-in-law taught me patience. I had to have a lot of it to help her over the years as there were times she could be a sharp pistol as she fought to maintain her memory and dignity. She couldn’t understand that there was no way to fix herself. There were times she would yell or fight – and five minutes later not remember a bit of it! A roller coaster of highs, lows, ups and downs for so many years. But I will always remember the funny things that occurred over those years. She gave us many things to laugh about – yet had no idea she did that!
Loss is inevitable in our lives. The stronger our love for that person was, the harder we feel the loss. For if we didn’t love, we wouldn’t hurt. Yet if we allow ourselves to look, we will find the positive things those losses teach us. We have to look for the rainbow, look for the pot of gold that waits for us as we begin to heal. It may seem cliché to say that heartbreak and loss makes us grow stronger, but it does. It truly does. It may not happen right away. Not everyone finds that pot of gold because they don’t know how to do so.
I am stronger for having known these people who are now guardian angels. Each one gave to me something which has made me into the person I am today. While I don’t relish the thought of more loss journeys, it is inevitable as “my generation” creeps closer and closer to our twilight years. I will cherish these relationships while I can. As I experience more loss going forward, I will be able to look inside myself to see what it was these loved ones gave to me. So, while I am thinking of it, I want to say “thank you” to those who are reading this blog – because likely you are one of those people who has made an impact on my life, someone I am glad to have met in my lifetime whether for a short time or a long time. Because of you, I am a better person!