Let's Talk About Grief
Let’s talk about grief. All of us will experience grief in our lifetimes. No one will escape.
The truth is, the lives of those we love are precarious. On any given day we can receive word that our child, spouse, parent or best friend has cancer or has suddenly died. Most of us will outlive our parents and many of us will outlive our siblings. We will lose those we love.
There are a lot of people out there who are grieving and there is no timeline or prescription to end their suffering. I’m here to say that for many of us, grief never ends. We will feel it for the rest of our lives. Maybe if we discuss grief more openly rather than running away from it and focus on alternative ways to heal, we can all grieve in a healthier way.
So let’s ditch this concept that time heals all wounds. It may be true for some, that in time they aren’t constantly thinking about the loss. But circumstances will arise such as hearing a song that reminds us of them or a special occasion will occur in a family such as a wedding at which our loved one should be in attendance, or a familiar scent will hit us or it will be their birthday or the anniversary of the day they died, or they will appear in a dream and we will be right back in our grief and floored by the experience.
And at some point we realize this loss and grief will be with us until the day we die. And that’s ok. It’s ok to grieve for someone we loved with all of our heart and soul forever. We will still need to find a way to move forward and to celebrate and embrace life again, but the grief will always be a part of us, at times expected and many times unexpected.
I believe from my experience that the person we love remains with us. They continue to be a part of our lives until we meet them again on the other side. I believe we will always be together, just in a different way. Indeed, love never dies.
Grief: In the beginning
When a loved one dies, we may be in shock right afterwards and our brain has not yet caught up with what has happened. Or we may fall apart right away or we may be in complete denial. We are all familiar with Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’ five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. These “stages” though don’t always come in order or as stages at all. We’re all unique individuals and we process grief differently from each other.
I know, for me, I was in denial when Riley passed away. Looking back, I was in denial the whole time from the time of his diagnosis. He had recurring fevers and the doctors couldn’t identify the source of them, so they kept him hospitalized the entire five months of his illness except for one week when he got to come home.
My mind was processing that he had cancer, but I believed all along that he was going to beat it and live a long life. If some treatment like chemotherapy didn’t work, I thought, “Ok. That’s done. What are we going to try next?”
I guess I was holding out hope all along. It was all that I had and boy did I hold on tightly. You remember that scene from the movie Terms of Endearment when Shirley MacLaine goes nuts on the hospital staff when her daughter with cancer needs her pain medication? (If you’re younger than 50 you’ll need to Google it).
That was me in the hospital with Riley on most days. I had never faced a problem I couldn’t overcome before and I wasn’t going to start now. I was a mess and needed help, but there was no psychological support for me or Jeff (Riley's dad, my ex-husband) or Shelby or Riley for that matter. And I couldn’t think about my state of mind at the time. I was trying to save my son’s life. (Reflecting back, I regret how I handled the situation then and apologize to all of the hospital staff. I just didn’t have the skills to handle it at the time).
I was also reeling from the loss of my father. Three weeks after Riley’s diagnosis, my close friend Steve came to the hospital one morning to tell me that my father had passed away the night before. Shelby and I were then on our way to Virginia for my dad’s funeral. I thought, “What is going on? How can all this be happening at the same time?”
I never got the chance to mourn the loss of my father as I was right back in the hospital two days later, trying to save Riley’s life.
Riley’s dad and I were trading off shifts living in the hospital with him. He was 12 years old and I wasn’t going to leave him there alone (although many parents do make that choice, I couldn’t). I had taken a leave of absence from my job (my parents supported me financially so I could do so). And this was my new job. Cure Riley of cancer. I was fully committed, all in.
But the chemo didn’t work. None of it. We started out at Westchester Medical Center for several rounds of chemo and ended up at Memorial Sloan Kettering in New York City for several more. And despite the expert medical professionals making a valiant effort to do a bone marrow transplant at the end, Riley’s body had been through too much. And less than a week later he went into septic shock and they moved him to the ICU at New York Langone Hospital. He was gone in two days.
I’m still not ready to write about those two days.
After Riley passed away, Steve (who had dropped everything and came to the hospital to support me those last few days) and his husband Matt drove me home. I slept the whole way home in the car that night. I had been awake for 48 hours. I slept in Riley’s bed when I got home so I could stay close to him. Steve and Matt stayed over in case I needed them.
I woke up the next morning and hoped that it had all been a bad dream. Of course, it wasn’t. The next few days of denial were spent planning a wake and a funeral, finding a venue for a service, picking out a burial site and writing a eulogy. I remember thinking, “This isn’t happening.” I was functioning, but it was like I was in a dream state and having an out of body experience at the same time. I could not comprehend how this had happened. I thought he was going to make it all along.
It took a few weeks for the reality of the situation to catch up with me – despite all of the evidence staring me directly in the face. I just kept going. Because I had to. I had no time to sit and reflect on what had just happened.
I had to greet what seemed like the entire town at the wake and console 300 7th graders who were devastated and confused by Riley’s loss. I had to rise to the occasion for these young kids and for Shelby. Keep going Laura. Just keep going. That’s what I’ve always done. Keep going.
But once all my visiting friends and family had left town and I was able to slow down, I started to process all that we had just been through. It was like a tsunami that drowned me.
But over the next months and years, amazing things started happening to me. Many people call them “signs” of life after death. For me, Riley was communicating directly with me.
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