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When Does Grief End?

November 22, 2011

It took me a very long time to integrate the loss of my mother. Perhaps this was because she died so prematurely, at just 48 years old, she was still a young person in the eyes of many. As for me, at 21, I was even younger.

We had only just learnt how to become friends —having battled through the high’s and low’s of my teenage years, just as we had come to see each other as allies, as women sharing similar challenges and interests—then she was snatched away. It wasn’t unexpected. Mom died from cancer and her death was a slow, long, drawn-out affair that took two and a half years, despite the fact that when she was diagnosed, she was given only three months to live.

The journey through grief was not an easy one. There were plenty of surprises, misty days, thunder storms, and moments when the car slid down the road revealing a sheer cliff-face which had me frozen in a state of fear. But after a couple of years the bad weather cleared, blue skies burst through the monotonous grey and there were occasional interludes of sun beams: small, but nonetheless brilliant. Here are a few of the poignant ones:

í    When I realized I had heard the word Mom without my chest being flooded with searing pain and sickness.

í    The first year that I noticed I was actually excited about Christmas, rather than totally depressed.

í    When I was able to talk about Mom as if she was in the room, without fearing I would melt down into a blithering mess.

í    The day I went to Bhakti yoga and the tears didn’t roll down my face for the entire one and a half hours of the class.

Slowly the empty void that had replaced the warm place of my loving heart gradually filled, with new experiences, faith that things would improve and that new relationships would arrive, even if none of them could ever replace what I had lost. None of this happened overnight, it took three, four, five, even ten years for some of the coins to drop.

Yet it began when I made a decision. Somewhere along the way I’d had enough. Grief had come into my life uninvited. Until it showed up, I’d been a happy-go-lucky person, I was sure this negative state didn’t fit my personality profile very well. So, I remember waking up one day and thinking; ‘Enough. This isn’t who I am. I don’t have to feel this way anymore. I’m choosing this and I can make another choice.’ Now, by this time I was pretty good at doing ‘grief’.  Prior to losing mom I’d also been good at joy, hope, trust, and laughter. So I wrote my Mom a note, telling her that it was time for me to remember her with love, but I was in need of a new beginning. I attached the letter to a beautiful red helium balloon, which I took to release at her graveside. As it floated heavenwards against the clear blue sky, I drifted too, into a new place possibility, infused with healing, hope and happiness.

How Do You Cope with Grief and Loss on Your Wedding Day?

November 22, 2011

I will be getting married in 38 days time. This is undoubtedly an occasion I am excited about and one that seems to have taken forever to arrive, not least because I am turning 38 this December and my fiancé will hit the 50 mark in October and neither of us have been married before.

Since getting engaged, we have both been acutely aware of the fact that we will both be missing a parent on this special day. My mother died sixteen years ago when I was 21 from cancer and his father passed away five years ago, also from cancer.

So far, I’ve only had one of “those moments” of a sudden resurgence of grief. I hadn’t been feeling well and happened to be on my way to a dinner when I drove past a bridal store, when I suddenly burst into tears at the thought of how much I’d miss my mum on this day and how she wouldn’t be able to share in the preparations or the experience of seeing her only daughter walk down the aisle.

There it was again, for the millionth time, that searing pain of emptiness in my heart and the pain, the deep pain of loss. It made me wonder, will I lose it totally on the Big Day?

Will my carefully applied vintage-style make up end up smeared in a Kleenex before I even reach the altar?

Will I make it through the “I do’s” without sobbing?

Worse, will the photograph’s depict contorted ugly crying faced bride and groom, rather than a radiant, so happy to be wed couple?

My fiancé and I had already talked about how we could incorporate the memory of our parents and their presence into the service and agreed to have a unity candle lighting ceremony, whereby the two already lit candles would represent the spirits of my mum and his dad, something the minister would mention in her address.

We’d planned to have an image of our combined family trees featuring all of our relatives, dead and alive, to include both sets of our grandparents who have also crossed to the other side. We’d also chosen songs that were favorites of our parents or had a strong association: a friend of mine will be singing John Denver’s Annie’s Song, my mum’s nickname was Annie.

I’d  also been wondering how I could “borrow” something of hers for my outfit having already obtained something new, old and blue. But it is amazing how little I have left of hers after sixteen years: a hat, a cardigan, some bits of costume jewelry, cut-outs of the magazine and newspaper articles she wrote, photo’s and lots of memories.

 I do have a camisole. It’s the one she wore on the last day of her life. I remember helping to carry her to bed that night, it wasn’t that she weighed much then, she was 5’5 and probably no more than 100lbs, she was slipping in and out of consciousness in those last few days and eating maybe a mouthful of soup every 4 hours. When we got her to the bedroom, my stepfather helped me to undress her, but it was I who removed the silky camisole, asking her to lift her bony arms in the air so I could slip it over her head.

As I tucked her in that night, kissing her on the top of the head, I whispered “Goodnight darling.” As I walked down the stairs afterwards I thought how odd it was that the roles had reversed so entirely, it had only been a few years earlier that she would come in at night to kiss me on the top of the head and say “goodnight darling.”

I pondered; perhaps I could create something with the camisole? I figured I’d be borrowing it in a way. After some thought I decided to make a locket, with a picture of mom inside using a small strip of the camisole to make a ribbon with which I could tie it to the inside of my dress.

This idea of keeping our loved ones alive, of bringing their essence into our waking moments, especially the ones we find so hard, the Lonely Landmarks is what I refer to them as in my book, Your Legacy of Love: Realize the Gift in Goodbye, is a healthy practice. Remembering is good, even when it brings about a few tears.

I know that I’ll have “one of those moments” on the Big Day, its inevitable. But I’ll have all my friends and family there, many who will be fully aware of the fact that it will be a sore point for me and my fiancé, and I’m sure my mom and his dad will make a guest appearance by way of the speeches. She’ll be with us in memory, in spirit and, as I’ve come to realize over the years, she’ll be there in me.

After all, we share the same DNA, and, according to my brother, the same eyes, and, as my cousin points out, the same shaped fingers. And I’ve always believed a wedding isn’t a good wedding without a few tears. And if all else fails I know she’ll be hiding under my skirt!

Ways to Survive the Horrors of Grief During Halloween, Thanksgiving and Other Holidays

November 22, 2011

Guy Fawks night is the British equivalent of the 4th July—well almost. Fireworks certainly spill into the night skies above every town in the country. Held on the 5th November its usually a chilly night with spectators wrapped up in hats, scarves, gloves and coats, grateful for the raging bonfire that is typically the centerpiece of the night, as they huddle together, necks craning to Ahhhh and Oooooh at the pyrotechnic display of twinkling lights overhead.

I remember one of these festive nights in particular.

It was at a time when my mother was struggling with her battle against liver cancer.

She had spent the week prior lying on the sofa slipping in and out of consciousness.  I hadn’t been sure if going out for the night would be a good idea, but we had been sitting vigil by her side almost 24/7 and we really needed a break.

Francis, mom’s partner was prepared to stay home, so I headed out with my younger brother to the local organized event. I spent the night trying to enjoy myself. As I looked up at the heavens I couldn’t help but wonder, “How much longer would mom be with us?” “Would she be there for Guy Fawks next year?” “What was life going to be like without her?”—each explosion sparked a new concern.

Two days later she passed silently in her sleep and my questions were quickly answered.

Our world instantly turned upside down and we entered the terrifying, isolating, confusing and emotionally exhausting world that is grief.

The following year I did not attend Guy Fawks night.

The associations I had with this event were no longer positive; the recollection of the uncertainty and the trauma of watching mom slowly dying were too much and I knew that the deep sense of loss would only be exacerbated should I attend.

My feelings were still too raw, and my emotions too unpredictable. I had learnt early on, when my 22nd birthday arrived just six weeks after mom’s funeral, that the “firsts” were always going to be rough. Days that had otherwise been cause for celebration, days when mom and I might have shopped and prepared and planned together to make the event “special” for those present.

The emptiness around these festivities always re-ignited my grief; the sense of loneliness; isolation; realization that life would never be the same, forcing me to compare my life against others’ who still had their mom or someone who was going to share the event and shower them with cards, presents, cuddles, kisses and special time. Christmas, Easter, Birthdays, Guy Fawks and Halloween no longer held the same appeal.

I found it hard to join in with the festive spirit, I struggled to feel excited, or enthused, in fact, I struggled to feel anything other than completely numb or heart-wrenching debilitating pain. Holidays were off limits.

Rather than happy celebrations they had become horrific reminders of a life I once had, where my loving mother inspired and created spectacular feasts, a group of fun, loving guests, beautiful gifts or surprises and a little dose of magic. The enjoyment and happiness of others upset me. It even annoyed me and occasionally made me angry. “How can they be so insensitive, don’t they realize what I am going through?” No they didn’t.

It is extremely hard for those who are yet to encounter a loss to truly appreciate just how devastating and traumatic it is to lose a loved one. They cannot see into your head or your heart to understand the kinds of suffering you are experiencing in your grief. Oftentimes we “pretend” we are okay on these days, that we are just as excited as everyone else, when really we are saddened by the whole affair.

So what can you do when holidays like Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas are just around the corner, how can you prepare, both yourself and those around you for the emotional impact of grief and bereavement that will inevitably affect you?

Here are the Top Tips for Coping with Grief and Loss during Thansgiving:

  1. Expect the old demons to surface, even if it’s been years since the loss of your loved one.
  1. Find a really close friend to spend the night with, someone who understands you so well they don’t have to say anything and will leave you be, if that’s what you need.
  1. Don’t overstretch yourself and watch out for patterns you might have around “stuffing” your feelings, like over eating, over working, over consumption of drugs and alcohol, you will end up feeling worse if you let these impulses get the better of you.
  1. Don’t let the cheer get you down. Trust that one day you too will feel festive again, and understand that for now you are healing and fragile, your enthusiasm will eventually return.
  1. Create your own ritual to remember your loved one and how you shared this event together, light a candle, write a note and send it heavenwards attached to a helium balloon, get out the pictures from years past and reminisce, express how much you miss them to your friends and family.
  1. Give yourself the space to grieve. The “firsts” are always difficult and even if you are well on the road to recovery they can still bring you down. Take an afternoon off work, sleep in longer, stay home or go out if you want, but try not to make plans you’ll have to cancel if you feel bad.
  1. Do something extra kind for yourself. Book a steam, spa, pedicure, massage, or take a yoga or dance class. Go play golf, go surfing or spend the afternoon on your hobbies. Order food in, or go to your favorite restaurant. Be gentle with you.
  1. Be prepared for the triggers. People talking about what they are doing with their mom, dad, brother or sister and expect to have your sense of loss aggravated. Don’t avoid this, but sit with it. Feel into it.
  1. Spend some time reflecting on all the good things you have in your life. Give gratitude for your own life, the love that surrounds you and the people you still have to share it with.

A problem shared is a problem halved. Find someone who understands: a friend, family member or grief counselor who can totally empathize with your feelings and isn’t trying to get you “back to normal.” Seek out an environment where your deepest fears and pains will be gently accepted in a loving, non-judgmental way.

Read more of Gemini’s articles and advice here.

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