You would know the secret of death.
But how shall you find it unless you seek it in the heart of life?
The owl whose night-bound eyes are blind unto the day cannot unveil the mystery of light.
If you would indeed behold the spirit of death, open your heart wide unto the body of life.
For life and death are one, even as the river and the sea are one.
- Kahil Gibran, The Prophet
It's one of the great indisputable truths (perhaps the only one) that at some point, we're all of us going to die. And when human hearts stop beating, other humans mourn the loss, suffering terrible sadness in the process. There's nothing that can be learned, no clever tricks to be employed, that will avert the pain of genuine bereavement. No matter how different we all are or how different our belief systems, if we live long enough, we'll all experience the agony of bereavement.
This compassionate and generous Community-written entry looks at the different ways individuals have each tried to best cope with their grief. We've let these individuals, thus this entry, speak for themselves. Editorial, outside of actual quotations, has been kept to the barest minimum. A super-enlightened piece of Community work, this....
How are You?
Obviously I can only speak from my own experience. When I suffered a bereavement five years ago, the thing that struck me the most was how people wouldn't ask how you are. I don't mean in the 'how are you feeling' as a 'polite' question kind of way, I mean nobody asks how you are really feeling. Obviously this is a difficult thing to deal with, and you find yourself at a loss as to how to talk to the bereaved. I think people are worried that they will upset you further by something they say - unless they are being particularly insensitive, this is not very likely.
Just having an everyday conversation with someone I think is probably the one thing I needed the most. I think if I have learned anything from my experience, it is that maybe sometimes people want to be treated like normal human beings and not someone who is too 'fragile' to hear about Johnny's school grades, or whatever.
I don't think there is one thing that will work for everyone in this situation, but what worked for me was just having a quiet place to reflect and think about it. Sunsets are good for this. Also, it is nice to talk to someone who can't talk back. Like a dog or a horse. It sounds strange but it is soothing for me when I have a lot of pressure on me or when I am really sad.
Don't Postpone the Mourning!
Sometimes the loss feels too big/hard/heavy to take in, so you bury it in your mind, carrying on as if nothing happened... but that won't make it any easier; the grief will force its way up from the bottom of your mind sooner or later, and the mourning will be just as sorrowful and painful. You have to go through the mourning process sooner or later - there's no way getting around that.
If you've buried it very deep down, it can float up bit by bit, making the mourning process longer than necessary, and people around you might be less understanding by the time this happens, saying things like 'are you still mourning?' without understanding that in fact you haven't mourned at all - until now, that is.
Filling the Hole
My most recent experience of grief - losing my dad eight months ago - has taught me a lot about loss; and what's become more clear is the physical and emotional impact over the course of the experience - especially the urge to fill the hole.
In the beginning I just felt numb - as if the loss were more a matter of practicality than emotion, and the need to arrange the funeral and sort out his estate were most pressing. But as the dust settled, and practical necessities were finished, the sense of him being gone became more and more real. In his absence, I felt hollow and alone. Instinctively, and without my even realising it, I looked for a replacement for him, a source of affection that mimicked his, my methods nothing if not diverse.
What I've realised since is the thing I was trying to replace was not the person, but the relationship. The emotional connection had been severed, and if it were a physical one, my end was open and sore. For a long time, I thought it was okay - I'd accepted that he was gone, and lulled myself into a false sense of security that I'd got over it. But all the while I was lurching out to people, looking for that plug. Suddenly, BAM! it hit me like a train. He was really gone, and there was nothing that could possibly replace him - the tears poured out of me for days and I realised there was absolutely no getting him back.
I've come to look on grief in the same terms as any other frightening experience. In the first few weeks, mind, body and soul are just numb, like the moment you notice you've cut yourself. As the reality of the situation encroaches, the pain gets more severe, and you'll do anything to make it go away. If the loss is shared by others who felt that connection with the deceased (as to an extent we've all done since the loss of Douglas) it's no less personal an experience, but if not suffered alone, it's nowhere near as difficult.
Take your Time
It's a terrible truism that time's a great healer but in the context of bereavement it's well worth remembering. The initial shock that gives way to anger that gives way to guilt that gives way to acute pain that gives way to a dull aching sense of loss, eventually does fade into something bearable. Over time it's even possible to think about your lost friend/relative with a smile of remembrance for their life instead of shedding a tear for their death.
It took me probably the best part of two years to get to this point after three friends of mine were killed in an accident whereas others seemed to go through the whole process much more quickly. So, take the time you need; don't feel you should have 'got over it' because everyone else around you has or feel guilty because you need longer. We're all different and our responses to bereavement are particularly personal.
Whatever it Takes
I have two brothers; one is my twin and the other is six years older. I was 30 when my mother died (you can do the maths, I'm sure). My twin cried at the bedside, cried later on, and cried at the funeral. My eldest brother took refuge in practicalities. He contacted relatives immediately after the death, helped organise the funeral. At the funeral he and I shared bad taste jokes (cremation and the hearse, ashtrays, etc).
Me? I humiliated the nurse at the bedside, then joked with her. I consoled my father and had a reconciliation with my grandfather. I shared the aforementioned sick jokes (yes, they were funny). I got morosely drunk. I cried in private, with my wife.
My point is this. Three brothers, with the same upbringing, education and opportunities, all dealt with their mother's death in different ways. My twin really did not like the sick jokes, but understood that this was how my elder brother and I dealt with the grief. (My father would have been mortified, but we were careful not to joke in front of him.)
How a person deals with the death of a loved one is intensely personal. It brings home one's own mortality, and so brings to bear many, if not all, of one's moral and spiritual beliefs. That is why reactions can be so different. If I've learned anything, it is not to judge a person's reaction to death, or to any kind of serious stress. Most often, I simply don't know enough about them to make an informed judgement.
My father passed away seven years ago. He had a massive heart attack in which he did not survive, obviously. I have two younger siblings - one sister, one brother. The sister, tormented, turned to alcohol and pain killers for comfort. The brother, who was already an addict to cocaine, dove into deep depression and eight months later killed himself. I went to school. I had just re-entered university after the birth of my son. When I divorced, I knew I needed to have a better job than that of a cashier to support us. The day of my father's death, I went to class. I am a graduate of art school, BA in Fine Art and minored in Computer Design (which is now my career). I put everything that I was feeling into my work. The work of those months is black and dark and depressing, but I didn't drink or do drugs or lose myself. I got it all out. Funny thing is that these feelings won't ever go away. They don't hurt as much as they did that first day, but they're still there nonetheless. It's a part of us that we can't change, nor should we. It make us grow and allows us to feel more for others.. I think.
No Easy Answers - a Conversation
I have recently been to the funeral of a close friend who unfortunately decided to kill himself and I've been feeling like it will never go away. I seem to spend more time thinking about him and what he did than anything else. I've had friends die before and it has never been easy but this one, because it was what he chose to do rather than an accident or illness, is by far the hardest to deal with.
I suppose I want answers but I need to realise that I am never going to get them. No one knows what he was thinking that day and no-one ever will. All I can do is hope that he is happy with the choice he made.
I do feel better for writing this and for reading other people's accounts. It makes you realise that it is possible to move on, it just takes time.
I understand exactly what you mean by answers. My brother's body was found by a neighbour. His wife was having an affair and my father had just suddenly passed away. There was a note, according to authorities, but we were never allowed to read it. It was addressed to his wife. My brother was only 22, just a young man, when he took his life. For 6 years now, I've struggled with my need for answers. I've given up. I try to hold onto (now) what I do know and that is that he was such a beautiful life - before the strain and sadness, he was beautiful. That's comforting to me. I know that's how he is now.
It was hard to talk about it at first. Painting and writing helped me. Taking this first step in sharing your experience will help. My heart goes out to you.
Thank you. My friend was 22 also. He didn't leave a note unfortunately. I can't believe they wouldn't let you read the note. I really appreciate your perspective on this. Its been hard to talk to anyone face to face about. Mostly because I end up crying which I don't like people seeing. It feels OK here.
When my father died 11 years ago I didn't want to let anyone see me grieve in public either. However, I have come to the conclusion that it's best if you do. Firstly, you have to understand that bereavement is supposed to hurt. If the person who died meant anything to you at all, it'll hurt worse than anything else.
Secondly, you also have to understand that people are scared of bereavement - as much as they are scared of dying - because it's something they don't know how to deal with. No one does the first time around. You can help by showing them that you're in pain; maybe they can help. Maybe they can't help but just knowing that they'd like to might help you.
Everyone grieves in their own way. But letting people know you hurt and that you need time/space/attention/whatever makes the whole process a little less painful and a little less lonely.
Sharing Grief, Sharing Food
One of the very most civilised things about living in the American South is the custom of coming to the home of the bereaved with food. It is almost unbelievable how many people will converge with food. The strange thing is that you do it for other people all your life, but you don't realise what it truly means until they do it for you.
After the funeral, when you are on auto-pilot emotionally, the act of graciously receiving all the people and the food causes you to get outside of the personal loss a little. And if the people feel close enough to have brought food, they also share a little with you about what the loss means to them, too.
I discovered how many more lives my father had touched, and that made me appreciate how much I had learned from him myself. And that was a great basis to celebrate his life, rather than mourn his loss, and that helped a great deal.
I still occasionally get a little maudlin about it, but only from the point of view that he really never got to enjoy his retirement, and take it easy for a while. Maybe he wouldn't have been happy with that, though. At any rate, the social belonging of shared food, and shared experiences helped initially, and in the long run, with the grieving process.
What a simple and thoughtful way to help someone through a very difficult process.
Having had more experience with death and bereavement than I would like, along with everyone else on the planet, I have came to realise that there is no way to predict or control how you are going to react. What I have learnt is that the worst thing you can do is to bottle things up. My mother died when I was 16, which left my father and my brother, each one of us reacted in different ways. But the same mistake that all of us made was not to talk about how we felt, we kept ourselves to ourselves pretending that nothing happened and tried to be strong in front of each other. From that time we kind of split apart, and it wasn't until my father died nine years later that me and me brother started to talk and now we are really close. I can't help but regret that we never really shared our grief as a family, when we had the chance.
The Peace of Gardening
The most helpful way for me to cope with my father's death was to start an allotment garden. He was always a keen gardener and I remember him teaching me about growing vegetables, so I am now doing all the things he used to do. I give away a lot of the veg - he used to do that too. The peacefulness of gardening has helped, but also the understanding of other allotment gardeners, who have sometimes suffered their own bereavements too.
Things Get Better, Bit by Bit
When my father died suddenly when I was 19, I learned the best way to deal with his death was by taking care of my mother. I saw that it was my responsibility to help her through. But when my mother died six years later, I found it harder to deal with, she had been also my support through the death of dad, and my best friend. My support through her death were the photo albums she had left behind in my care. At first I would cry and cry as I looked through them, but I found that I felt better, remembering what was. And even though it's been two years, I still look through them, but now along with the crying, I laugh at all the fun times we had.
You Don't Deal with Grief, you Cope With it
There really is no way to deal with grief. It's a mistake to assume that you can cure grief and go on with your life. Grief becomes a part of you, and in time, you learn to live with it.
My sister Elanor died four years ago. She was young - only 19 - and lived her life as she wanted. I've always respected her for that. I don't respect the manner of her death - she had a car accident in Arizona, and because she wasn't wearing her seat belt, died almost instantly. It makes me angry to think about it, and if I was ever to crusade any cause, it would be the mandatory wearing of seat belts.
When she died, it felt like somebody had given me a lobotomy, or amputated a limb - I felt that my life was changed forever. That's really the meaning of grief - we mourn for the loss of the person from our existence, rather than their death. I will always feel the loss. I think about her every day. Sometimes I dream about her; usually happy dreams, when we were kids and on vacation with our parents. Sometimes the dreams are sad, and I wake up crying. I take every dream as a gift. Even if they're sad, I'd rather be dreaming about her.
I know this is probably inapplicable in most cases, I'm just speaking from my own experience here and I hope it helps someone.
My grandmother died in June. She'd been ill with 'progressive cognitive impairment' for years. She didn't die of that - she had a fall and broke her hip and didn't recover from the operation to mend it. But she was 86-years-old, she had a weak heart and whatever, she didn't have a vast amount of time left, and I knew that.
Because of her illness she wasn't 'herself'. She was all unreasonable, she could be an absolute nightmare to look after - like a two-year-old who believes she should be the boss. She'd deny at 2am that anyone ever slept at night; she wouldn't understand that because it was 11am and light outside people shouldn't be going back to bed.
The other thing she did was to point out that 'things will be much better when I'm dead'. I always replied, 'I'll cry when you die, I'll be so sad', and she'd believe me for all of three minutes, forget that she believed me, and we'd start the discussion/argument again... This was maddening and frustrating, and I couldn't help but think that things would be easier when she'd died, and in a way wish her dead. And now she has died, things are easier.
The being ready part was that I tried to face up to the fact that one day gran would die, and when that day came I'd feel really guilty for thinking how much easier it would be her dead. I knew that was a natural consequence of my feelings, and confronted it then and there before she died, so that when she did die, while I did still feel guilty, I knew that it was better for her sake to have died too; she didn't have to suffer the indignity of not being 'with it' any more, and the frustration of being unable to communicate her thoughts and so on.
My advice is that when faced with the situation that someone you know will die in not a lot of years, you think about how you think you'll feel when it finally happens, and see if there's anything like the guilt I knew I would have to face waiting for you. And then try to face up to it straight away, to take time to deal with that so that when you are finally bereaved your grief needn't be quite so painful as it could have been.
Something that I'm always going to try to remember if I possibly can is that if I'm ill from something I'm not going to get better from, or if I'm just very, very old, I'm going to try to not point out to my carers that it'll be better for them when I'm gone. It's not fair to people who'll have a hard enough job already.
And finally, I did cry when gran died - I never lied to her, and I miss her terribly.
Be Selfish - it's Allowed
My father was murdered six days before my sixth birthday. Since then I have lost count of the funerals I've been to.
I have one piece of advice. Grieving is selfish, but that's allowed. We cry because we will never see that person again. We have lost them. Our feelings become the most important and that is why it hurts. Be selfish and give yourself the chance to cry and scream and wail.
It hurts, we realise what we have lost and we want it back.
I want my dad back. The word 'dad' means nothing to me or my sister but a vase on a grave stone. Feels like I have been robbed and I want it back. It's mine and that's selfish, but it's allowed.
Other people make things worse by stepping around you like they're walking on egg shells and asking you if you're OK every five minutes. I know they mean well but sometimes you just need to get on. It took me almost a year to get over my mum's death (she was only 49 when she died). And I only started to get better when one of my mates decided they'd had enough of me being depressed all the time. How did I get better? Well, my friend started to make fun of my moods (not in a nasty way) and the fact that it always seemed I had a little rain cloud hovering over my head about to let loose with the storm of the century should anyone dare say the wrong thing.
Did it work? Well it did for me. I needed to be able to laugh at myself. I needed it to be OK to laugh even.
I have never believed in walking on eggshells. Death is an awkward subject, and when I see friends who have suffered from bereavement, the first thing I do is mention it. Tactless? Yes, but it gets the whole awkward thing out of the way. That way, if my friend needs to talk he/she/it can, without worrying about what I or anybody else is thinking.
The worse thing about some one close to you dying, is you don't know whether you can talk to other people about it without them feeling awkward or upset. If you get that out of the way it's easier all round.
How do You Learn to Live with a Loss?
First of all, realise that it's okay to cry. Crying helps you compartmentalise the pain. While you're crying, remember all the good times that you had, and try to cement the memories in your mind.
Spend time in quiet reflection. This can be any activity from mowing the lawn to yoga to taking a jog around the neighbourhood. Two years ago, I began to exercise faithfully three times a week, and I think this more than anything else has helped me to live with my grief. There's nothing like spending 30 minutes a day with nothing to do except distract yourself from how out of breath you feel; I spent it thinking about Elanor's death. Gradually, that shifted into thinking about what I was doing with my life, and whether I wanted to make any changes. It turned out I did - both mentally and physically, I think I'm a better person now. But as I told my dad last year, I'd rather be a raving bitch and have my sister back. It's not an even trade.
Grieve with others who share your loss. For me, it was my parents. Neither my parents or I were capable of talking about Elanor for a long time after her death. I think it would have been better for us if we had started talking about it as soon as we could. It wasn't until two years ago that we could start talking about it openly, without breaking down in tears.
Don't expect anything from yourself. Grieve as much as you feel like grieving. Don't force yourself to cry, or force yourself to stop crying. (In those awkward moments when you're in a public place, find a restroom quickly.)
Important! Be very aware of your physical condition. In the first year after Elanor's death, I was sick with something at least once a month. Keep yourself hydrated, take your vitamins, and make sure your diet is well-rounded and has lots of green vegetables. This is good advice in any situation, but when you're grieving, your immune system is weakened, and you're susceptible to all sorts of things.
Make sure that your friends know how you feel. Some might not be as understanding as you want them to be, and get upset when you don't communicate with them. Don't feel guilty or apologetic - just explain calmly that you're going through a period of grief, and you aren't yourself.
Finally, realise that everything dies. This isn't a statement of gloom and despair; just a fact. With that knowledge, live the life that you want to be living now! Don't put it off until tomorrow - you might not have a tomorrow.
I've lost (and then regained) two strong friends by being the bad guy about pulling their heads out of their asses about death losses. Both friends lost lovers to AIDS at age 26 and 27, and both of them thought that it was the end of their lives. Neither of them had the disease themselves. I got them both involved with caring for elder people at assisted living facilities so that they could find out what it really is like being around non-relatives who are 80-years-old or more, where daily activities are difficult. They both came out of the experience with a much more educated and realistic grip on life and celebrating it. These elder people were sharp, experienced with life (and death) and not a bit maudlin about how life can change you on a daily basis. These were hard cases. Try it yourself if you need to. There are elders who are lonely everywhere on the planet. If you can read, or sing, or play the piano, go do it. Find out what life will be like if you stick around a while.
Have faith that your loved one awaits you in Heaven (or whatever your version of Heaven).
I have no fear of death as I have been close twice and I am still here. I know there is nothing to fear but fear itself. What you should do, when faced with your own demise, is embrace it, think of it as a wondrous journey, look forward to receiving all the answers to every question you have ever asked. Take all the love with you, that you have ever felt for anything or anybody. Feel the love surrounding you as you go. For those left behind, rejoice that you had your loved one, that you shared their life. Your loved one will live on in your memory of them. Love is not measured by the depth that we grieve, but in how we remember them.