You can’t rob grief.
I don’t mean you shouldn’t, but that it is impossible to do so. One way or another grief will have its due. My father’s death when I was 21 taught me this. My mother’s death confirmed it. Since my son died a year and a half ago, I’ve had to struggle to learn it again.
I visualize grief as sharp arrows of bloody, festering emptiness. A nothingness that shreds our insides and leaves us hollow. When you feel the first sharp stabs, it’s only natural to want to run from the pain. It’s no wonder that denial is the first stage of grief. Letting all those arrows hit us once, especially when the lost one is your child, would annihilate you. But there isn’t any way to outrun grief or hide from it forever.
My junior year in college, the day before Fall semester final exams, I received a 4 a.m. phone call from one of my brothers-in-law informing me that my father had died. I had been home for Thanksgiving just a couple of weeks earlier. My dad hadn’t been sick, and he was only 54. There was no reason to suspect that would be the last time I saw my father. But on December 11, a cold Sunday morning, he had a massive heart attack and died. Not only was his death completely unexpected, he died before his time. In today’s world, fifty-four is young to die. I am now older than my father ever got to be.
I had lost previously lost three of my four grandparents, but their deaths in no way prepared me for my father’s. Not only was my relationship to them not as close as the one to my father, my grandparents had been old and sick. In many ways, their deaths, when they came, were a blessing, a comfort. They were now out of pain and at peace. But my father hadn’t been old or sick, and he was just suddenly gone.
My younger sister was a freshman at the same university. One of her friends drove the two of us the one hour from Provo to Bountiful, Utah, while one of mine drove my car down. That night I drove the two of us back to school to take our final exams. My father had been a college professor, and we were told that taking our exams is what he would have wanted. Looking back now, taking my exams at that time was a terrible idea. It may well have been what my father would have wanted, but it wasn’t good for me, and I shouldn’t have been made to feel obligated to do so. I couldn’t take exams with those arrows of festering emptiness descending on me. I had to put up a shield to hold them back.
I was young and had no one to teach me any other way to deal with grief. I took my exams and did okay on them, but I felt lost, cast adrift. My family was all caught up in their own grief, and my friends, all of whose parents were still alive, didn’t understand. It didn’t take me long to discover that most people are uncomfortable with grief. I quickly found myself pretending to be okay to make others feel better. But I wasn’t okay. I was in pain without the ability to process that pain. So even after finishing my exams, I kept the shield in place, trying to keep a barrier between me and the grief. The problem is that holding grief at bay takes an enormous amount of energy, leaving little with which to live life. What’s worse is that while you fight against feeling grief, the grief doesn’t grow smaller or easier to handle. It’s all still there waiting to ambush you if you let your guard down for an instant. I sank into a deep depression and stayed there for close to five years. Fighting not to feel my grief, I felt little of anything. Eventually, my husband got me into counseling, and I was able to work through the debilitating depression and grief and learn to truly live again. But that process involved facing and feeling my grief at the loss of my father. It was incredibly painful, but I learned how to live again.
Twelve years later, when my mother died equally unexpectedly, I was in a much healthier position. Her death wasn’t easy, but I allowed myself to feel the pain, and within a year I was mostly okay again. Still, what I remember most about my mother’s funeral wasn’t my own grief, but my mother’s mother. I’ve never seen anyone look as lost as she did that day. She seemed lost, broken. Her words to me were, “No one should have to bury their child.”
While I could see my grandmother was in great pain, I didn’t fully appreciate her grief until my son was murdered. We use the same word “love” for how we feel toward our children, but it is a completely inadequate word to describe the emotion. I have loved many people, but what I felt for Jesse, I’ve never felt for anyone but him. The arrows of bloody, festering emptiness I faced when my parents died were like pin pricks compared to what awaiting me when I buried my son.
The pain nearly destroyed me, and I seriously contemplated joining him. I still sometimes do. I did not and I do not want to feel this pain. When the arrows of grief rip through me, the pain is nearly unbearable. Who would want to feel this grief? Who wouldn’t want to hide from it?
Over the last year and a half, I’ve gone between feeling the worst pain I’ve ever felt and fighting not to feel. When I’ve allowed one of those arrows of grief rip through me, the pain is staggering. But afterwards, I can be sort of okay for a few days until I have to feel the next one. When I fight not to feel, it just gets worse.
Even though I know that grief cannot be robbed, it is still difficult not to try to protect myself from it. The first few months after his death, I truly don’t know what I did. The days passed even though I couldn’t tell you how I spent them. It took nearly a year, but I thought I figured out how to handle the pain. On Sunday, I would visit his grave, let the pain in, and sob, mourning the loss of my son who had also become my best friend. Then the rest of the week I’d be functional at least.
Then came my brother’s announcement that his cancer had returned, and they had no good further options to treat it. His life expectancy was short. His coming death on top of the continuing pain of losing my son was too much, so again I tried to hide from it, and again, it didn’t work. I sank into depression and could accomplish almost nothing. And all that pain still lay in wait for me.
Yesterday, I visited my son’s grave for the first time in weeks. I again let the pain of losing him in and sobbed. It was hard. It hurt badly. But today I managed to write over 1000 words in the book I’m currently writing. Today I am functioning. The pain isn’t gone by any means. But for today I can go on.
The problem is finding that balance–the balance between allowing the pain to rip you apart and fighting against it in order to feel nothing. I can’t yet say that I’ve achieved this, but yesterday and today proved to me yet again that grief can’t be robbed. It will have its due.
I’d love to hear your experiences with grief in the comments below, if you’d like to share them.