When someone we love dies, our world shatters. Although these events fall into the common category of grief, each loss is unique, depending on the relationship to the deceased, the nature of the death, and many other circumstances. And every loss offers lessons, if we choose to accept them.
I am mourning the loss of my 19-year old son James to suicide 15 months ago and it has been an agonizingly painful and life-changing experience. My grief journey is far from over so maybe this post will be continued in the future. In my quiet moments over the months, I’ve noticed a number of lessons I’ve learned along this journey of loss, that I would like to share.
- Death intensifies love. When James died, the love and support from our family, friends and community poured in to us like a fire-hose. It was overwhelming yet sincere, but that incoming love is only the tip of the love-berg. Love expands and intensifies inside of us as we remember and honour the departed soul. As my heart cracked wide open, I became aware of deeper levels of love than I had never known before, and I loved my lost one in ways I had not experienced when he was alive. The death of a loved one creates a heartache of love that tries to embrace a lifetime; so deep and rich and pure it’s almost scary in its intensity. Grief and love are two sides of the same coin.
- Our culture doesn’t know how to do grief. There’s no one right way to do it, nor is there a right timeframe to do in. Most well-meaning people want to make it better or fix it, because they can’t be with the intensity of the pain you’re in. What grieving people need most but rarely receive is acknowledgement of their painful experiences, witnessing of their suffering, and the presencing of what is so in the moment. “Yes, this sucks. It isn’t fair! And it makes no f*#%ing sense. I can’t fix this for you, but I can make a sandwich. Would you like some lunch?”
- No one else knows what’s best for me except me. I spent many months trying to figure out what I was supposed to ‘do’ in grief, naively thinking there was a map to follow, or a standard protocol. The offers for help and company poured in but I knew I needed to be alone. Don’t isolate yourself, all the experts say. But I needed that, and I protected my solitude vehemently. I eventually realized that I’m the only one who knows what I need. And I began to listen.
- Being really good at coping does not mean you’re doing the grief and mourning work. I’m an expert at coping. If there’s an emergency situation, I’m the one you want on hand to get it handled. I have years of practice with repressing emotions and I can flip that switch faster than you can say ‘help’. I realized after about a year had passed that I’d coped really well and managed to move house and get settled in a new community. And although there were LOTS of tears all year, I had yet to do the deeper work of mourning and expressing my thoughts and feelings to others. With the support of a grief group and a grief counselor I’m now doing the work I wasn’t ready to do last year.
- Grief is not something you ‘get over’. For the first few months I thought grief was something I would ‘get over’. Again, expecting a road map, I thought maybe 4 or 6 months would do it and then I’d be done. Ha! The reality is that grief will be with me for the rest of my life, although it will morph over time. I am forever changed by my son’s suicide and I will not be going back to ‘the person I was before’. Instead, healing through grief is a process of facing my thoughts and feelings about the death in order to have the loss integrated into myself and then finding renewed meaning and purpose in life. It’s a work in progress for me right now.
- Most people don’t understand what mental health issues are and there is still a huge stigma in our society about them. Myself included. I had no idea that James was struggling. I didn’t know he was having debilitating depressed states that would last for hours or days. I knew him to be happy, smiling, and funny to be around. His friends knew of the struggle but didn’t think it was serious. It was stress, anxiety, the usual student challenges. They urged him to get some help and he wouldn’t. He missed classes and then caught up, because he was smart. I’ve met other parents whose child completed suicide and I’ve heard the same thing. ‘We didn’t know there was anything wrong.’ Mental illness doesn’t always have a label and it isn’t always visible. And I believe that shame is the #1 reason that people hide their troubles. Our society hasn’t normalized mental health issues yet. It’s getting better but we’ve got a long way to go. And, because of the work that I do, I know that everyone has mental and emotional issues, to varying degrees, and with various levels of coping abilities. Why can’t we all admit it?
- Life is a paradox. Life offers a myriad of perspectives. Choose yours carefully, so that you feel empowered. We hear ‘life is short’ all the time, and in our multi-dimensional universe one lifetime can be a flicker. Yet, life can feel like a full lifetime! The average person lives 79 years and when we consciously choose what we want to do with our lives that fills us with passion and meaning, we can make those 79 years really matter. It’s time to stop letting life speed by. What would it take to for you to be making the most of this lifetime now, so that you wouldn’t have regrets if it was unexpectedly over tomorrow?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on these lessons in the comments. Have you lost someone dear? What did you learn in the time that followed?
Until next time,
Be free and wild.