Life and death are one thread, the same line viewed from different sides.
As a society, we seem to treat death as something outside the norm, something unexpected, something bad. Birth and Death are bookends to Life. While death may surprise us, when it comes early or unexpectedly, death itself is something of which we should all be cognizant.
We should not fear death, rather we should use the knowledge of death and its unpredictable appearance, to live a life of joy, meaning, and love. This doesn’t mean that we cannot grieve in the face of death, only that we should become more comfortable with the idea that death is part of the life cycle we are privileged to experience. Let’s not take life for granted.
No one saves us but ourselves. No one can and no one may. We ourselves must walk the path.
If you are looking for someone to save you during your grief freefall, look in the mirror. Others will try to mold you into the person they want you to be…and that isn’t going to give you the life you seek. You are your own savior. You can pick up the pieces, you can put things together and reconfigure a brilliant future to live. You know what you need.
Step away from the moments in which there are too many voices telling you what to do, how to feel, what to decide, and how to act. Take time to sit in silence every day so that you can meet these demands with a strong, clear mind. Take as much time as you need in silence to fortify yourself for the days and weeks to come. Quiet is good for the soul.
In my post The Right to Fall Apart, I wrote about the Griever’s right to express emotions when needed. The trouble with falling apart is that we have to attend to our lives at the same time. We have jobs, school, and/or families to deal with. Real Life intrudes on our need to crumble; therefore, we need to remember two things:
As strange as it sounds, falling apart should be a productiveexperience, one that helps move you forward in your healing each time.
You have to develop ways to fall apart gracefullywhile engaging in daily life.
Grief doesn’t wait for your workday to be over and Real Life doesn’t pause so you can deal with an emotional swell. The two, Grief and Real Life, coexist such that we are living Grief IN Real Life.
If you are falling apart, use this centering thought to focus your experience:
I release my emotions so that I may shed negative feelings and gather strength to move my healing forward.
Take a bathroom break, especially if you need to cry (not howl cry, but just cry). Don’t go to the closest bathroom to you; go to one farther away if you can. Let the extra walk be part of the journey: it will give you time to compose yourself afterward. Moreover, you may be less likely to run into someone you work directly with, as these people may want to stop and chat when you really just want to be alone for a few minutes. As gross as it sounds, shutting yourself in a stall where you can let the tears fall may be the closest thing you get to being alone during your workday.
Block 15 minutes out of your schedule: make sure you are completely unavailable for calls, appointments, and people stopping by. Shut your office door and cry or just let yourself feel sadness. If you have an office with interior windows and blinds, pull them shut. Don’t answer your door or your phone. Don’t use this time to check email or text message. This is purely time for you to sit and let things out.
If you don’t have an office (or blinds for your office) block at least 15 minutes out of your schedule and take a walk. Ideally, if you can walk outside where you are less likely to run into someone, walk in your parking lot or around your building. Try not to do this on a lunch break when there might be more people around.
Use your lunch break thoughtfully. Take a long walk away from your building and let yourself be sad or cry, or take lunch in a secluded place where you can sit by yourself and let the feelings come. Wear sunglasses so that if you do pass people, you can achieve a small sense of privacy. It sounds silly, but that barrier can be helpful.
AT SCHOOL: If you are in high school or college, you may have very little time to yourself, but here are some thoughts for you to find a way to fall apart.
Find an empty classroom or room that you know goes unused for part of the day. Sit for 15 minutes and either cry or just let yourself be sad. Maybe write in a journal. Don’t use the time to play on social media sites: this distracts from the purpose of the alone time. The library may provide helpful nooks and crannies where you can seclude yourself away for a brief time. If you are in high school, ask a trusted teacher if you use her/his classroom between classes. In both high school and college, auditoriums can be good spaces: they are relatively large and are not in use regularly.
Take a long walk during lunch and/or have your lunch in a room or space that not many people frequent at that time of day. Wear sunglasses to help shield your private moment from public view, especially if you are feeling teary.
If you are in college (or boarding school), I highly suggest you vacate your dorm room so that you get yourself moving and do not make your bedroom a sadness center. It may then become more difficult to leave the room (or your bed) if you limit your sad times to that one space.
Ask a close friend (at work or at school) or family member for a hug. When you are falling apart, it helps to have a feeling of love. Human contact is important when you are upset and hugs, while seemingly basic, pack a huge emotional punch. Don’t be afraid to ask for one. You aren’t the only one who will benefit from a hug. You don’t have to tell your friend/family why you want a hug; just ask. If you feel awkward about asking, just initiate the hug yourself, no reason given.
Be honest with your Grief Supporters, especially if you are surrounded by people all day. Tell them you are having a bad/quiet/whatever day and therefore need more space.
Distance yourself from Grief Supporters who create more stress for you on bad days. You can (mostly) avoid people for one day without explanation, and rejoin them the next. Just tell them you were busy with work/school/post-funeral stuff/kids/etc. if you feel they may judge you for having a bad day.
Journal your sadness or use another medium to express your sadness creatively: paint, draw, write bad poetry, whatever. The purpose is not to create a masterpiece, but to channel your feelings into a positive direction.
Watch a sad movie or TV show. You know there are guaranteed tearjerkers out there. Maybe you even have a favorite in your collection that you can use. Throw one on Hulu, Netflix, Amazon, etc. and have a good cry. You can invite a friend if you’d like. If other people are around, you can cry without having to explain that you’re having a bad day. Blame it on the film.
Hopefully you find these tips helpful. If you have others that have worked in your experience, share them in the comments or send them to me so I can share them with others.
No matter how prepared you think you are for the death of a loved one, it still comes as a shock and it still hurts very deeply.
Death is conceptual until it becomes a reality for us. We can imagine what it must be like, but then we forget to include all of the things the death of a loved one takes with it. It is not just the absence of the person that comes with death, there is the sudden removal of emotional and psychological supports that come out from underneath us; things we never knew were there until they are not.
Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance, you must keep moving.
A difficult aspect of grief, I think, is feeling knocked off balance…and wondering how (and when) you will feeling balanced again. Balance comes only by going forward, it doesn’t matter whether you run, walk, or crawl.
Einstein’s example of a bicycle helps us think about how to stay balanced. If you stop and try to balance the bicycle while standing still, you will expend a lot of effort trying to stay upright, and you are quite prone to tipping over. To stay upright on a bike, you just have to get pedaling. The good thing is, once you have some momentum, you can decide the speed. You can pedal leisurely, quickly, or just coast for a while (well, unless you are going uphill).
Don’t worry about when the balance will feel normal again. Trust life to carry you for a while. For now, you just need to keep the momentum going. Pedal when you need to and coast when you don’t…let the bike work for you.
Good Friday (the Friday before Easter) was the day my mother and I decorated Easter Eggs. My mother learned how to make Polish pisanki from her mother and she continued the tradition after her mother’s death, eventually welcoming me to the activity.Continue reading “Traditions: Easter Edition”
You will not be punished for your anger, you will be punished by your anger.
Let go of anger you have at your situation or at people in your life. Anger affects the person who feels it, not the person against who anger is felt. Don’t waste your energy letting negative emotions rule you. Instead, spend your energy nurturing yourself and cultivating the life you wish to build with people you love.
Love those you judge you, and let karma take care of the rest.
Friends show their love in times of trouble, not in happiness.
True friends will stand beside you as you struggle through pain. True friends will be there to rest against when you are exhausted, to tell you they love you when you are distraught, and to listen to you (even if you have nothing to say) without judgment or criticism.
In the wake of a death we use the term “grief” to describe what we and/or others are going through. The word “grief” seems to be an umbrella term that covers a variety of things happening with those closest to the person who has died. (Grief also extends to a variety of other life situations as well, but in the context of this site, I will focus on grief relating to the death of a loved one.) Continue reading “GRIEF 101: What is Grief?”
My mother died March 5, 2015—three years ago. A loved one’s death is a strange anniversary to commemorate, and like everything else within the grief process, each griever acknowledges the death anniversary differently.
Today’s is Mother’s Day…and I just lost my mother.
There is little to say, no Top 10 lists of what mom taught me that adequately capture everything I learned from her during our time together. Instead, I’d like to share the words I wrote for her funeral service, words that celebrated our mother-daughter time together and reveal some lessons I learned during her life. There are many more lessons I am learning from her after her death, but those are for another mother’s day.
Encapsulating a person’s life and meaning in a few pages is a difficult task, and it is near impossible when that person had a passion for life as boundless as my mother’s. Mom was feisty, tenacious, rebellious, protective, fun-loving, and she carried a palpable energy with her wherever she went. She was stubborn, never at a loss for words, and was constantly trying to feed people. She was an outstanding teacher, mentor, and friend. While her accomplishments were many, I think mom would agree that her greatest accomplishment was our family.
Her life was far from easy, although you would never know it—because she rarely complained. She lost her father at 14, her mother at 21, and her health problems began at 29. Mom’s parents were never far from her mind, especially her mother, whom she spoke of often. She always told me that while you may get used to living without your mother, you never get over the loss, and that she missed her mother every day. While I sympathized with her sadness throughout the years, I now fully know the constant sorrow she lived with, and understand more clearly the relationship she and I had, and the bond she nurtured within our family.
My relationship with mom always seemed influenced by her desire to prepare me for life without her. Our mother-daughter activities were, I think, different from other mothers and daughters. At a young age, mom sat me down and showed me how to pay bills, how to balance a checkbook, how to create a budget, how to do laundry so that clothes lasted years. The three greatest lessons she taught me were how to “cook”—or rather, how to dial and place an order— how to accessorize properly, and how to calculate a price on a designer sale item in my head. When I was sick and stayed home from school, she rented movies for me, like The Exorcist and Psycho. I asked her once why she would ever show films like that to a child. Her answer: she didn’t want me to be afraid of scary situations.
As I grew up, she pushed me hard so that I knew I could achieve things on my own and perhaps to let me know that whatever limit I thought I had, I was capable of more than I was aware. We fought like mothers and daughters do, and she told me that during these fights she felt pride, because she knew that if I could tell her off, I could stand up to anyone. Mom spent her life teaching me how to be self-sufficient and to survive on my own, how to be independent and assertive, and how to reach deeper inside myself to find abilities and strengths I didn’t know I had.
Mom also shared her love of literature, art, music, film, good food, travel, and fashion with me. We swapped books, visited museums, discussed films and spirituality, and went to plays. We danced like crazy, and laughed—or rather cackled—like fools. Mom tried to teach me to knit—it never really worked, I took up crochet instead, but that love of craft came from her and her mother as well. She also encouraged my free-spiritedness, and made sure I stayed quirky as I grew up.
We talked every day, even when I didn’t live at home, and we talked about everything—those things you would never tell your mother, I shared with her. She was critical, as mothers are, but her critiques were aimed at relatively superficial things. When I shared things that a mother might want to judge her child about, she never criticized me and that meant everything. One of my college friends captured my mother and my relationship perfectly I think when she wrote “it was like you [two]…always had a funny secret that the rest of the world was not quite in on.”
I have read that one of the most important decisions you make in life is the choice of a spouse. As with everything else in my mother’s life she selected a high quality man to be her husband of 46 years. My parents met when they were teenagers, and, I can report that even after more than 50 years of knowing one another, they were as deeply in love as ever—holding hands wherever they went, frolicking in the pool, and generally engaging in behavior that prompted me more than once to say “I am in the room.”
My mother and I often talked about what a good man my father is and about their relationship. She told me how much she appreciated him, especially in light of the difficulties that came with her heart condition. They might have overwhelmed someone else, “but not your father,” she would say. Dad describes mom as the whole package—smart, funny, beautiful, supportive, and full of joy—“Whatever stupid joke I told,” he said to me recently, “she always laughed.”
One of the best gifts my parents gave me was the model of a great partnership. My parents were a solid team, no one was more important of the two, they accepted the other person for exactly who they were (faults and all), and they never turned away from one another during stressful times. They also doted on each other constantly: mom would get dad’s breakfast ready, and fix his hair so, as she said, he wouldn’t look like Albert Einstein when going for coffee in the morning; dad would DVR the shows mom liked to watch, and sometimes drive mom around while she ran errands—even when the one errand she wanted to do turned into five before they’d even left the driveway.
Our family time together was special to mom as well—there was never “my parents” and “me”, there was always “us”. We were a rowdy group, who could devolve into tear-inducing laughter at the drop of a hat, and the amount of noise we made at any given time was really astounding, especially considering there were only three of us. We traveled a lot as a family, spent time at the beach in Maine every summer, took day trips here and there, and enjoyed lazy afternoons by the pool. Weekend habits cultivated in my youth become traditions as I grew up: dinner or breakfast out, and a movie on Friday or Saturday night. As an adult, not having plans over a weekend never bothered me—I genuinely loved spending time with my parents.
We spent the day before mom’s surgery together hanging around at home, and that night the three of us watched Downton Abbey together in my parent’s king-size bed. I can’t think of more perfect way to spend our last evening at home together as a family.
After we brought mom to the hospital and got her settled in, there was a brief moment between the end of the doctors’ visits and the time they wheeled her to the O.R. I remember mom and dad looking at each other and sort of smiling, then she turned to me and said: “When you come to visit me, make sure you look cute—there are lots of eligible doctors here.”
As a religious studies scholar who researches suffering, the most comforting meditation on death I have encountered describes death as a metamorphosis—it is not an end, but a change in state from one thing to another. Mom told me over the years that she wanted to be cremated because she wants me to carry her everywhere I go so that we can stay together. Then she found a company that makes diamonds from cremated remains and was excited at the thought of becoming a piece of my jewelry. While the physical change is the most painful part of this experience, mom will be around, just in a new form. She will still be there to greet in the morning and to wish good night in the evening.
The metamorphosis also applies to mom’s energy force, which was so large that her body may not have been able to sustain it any longer. Her spirit is fused with the universe, and the energy that she used to care for my father and me is working behind the scenes on a much larger scale to make sure things move in the right direction for us both. And now, as a spiritual entity, my mom can finally return to her mother, whom she missed so much while they were apart. I’m sure they have a great deal to catch up on.
Mom’s spirit will still be here as well. Whenever I go into hyper-organize mode and everything has to be “just so”—that’s mom. Whenever I display assertiveness and independence—that’s mom. Whenever I offer advice that may be a bit too direct but is something you need to hear—that’s mom. Whenever I make sure you’re well fed—that’s mom. Whenever I dance with abandon—that’s mom. Whenever I laugh so loud that the sound carries everywhere—that is, absolutely, my mom.