Losing a loved one
Several weeks ago, my wife and I were having dinner overlooking the harbor in Wellfleet, Massachusetts on beautiful Cape Cod. It was a warm summer evening, cooled by a gentle breeze. The setting sun shimmered, reflected by the water. We were discussing our children’s recent visit when my eyes welled up with tears. As we talked, I realized that my mother, who died a year and half ago, wouldn’t be part of my future. I would never see her again. I was thrown upside down, knocked over by an intense wave of grief.
I thought about other losses—my brother who died at 32, my father who lived into his late 80’s, and several close friends who had passed on. I shared my sad thoughts with Diane, and she listened quietly. As the sun disappeared below the horizon, so did my sadness and grief. But I have to admit; I was startled by the intensity of my emotions.
Loss is a natural part of life. We all lose our parents, sometimes far earlier than I lost mine. It’s a loss that we expect, but are never entirely prepared for--we are surprised by the depth and the complexity of our feelings. I lost a brother when I was 28 years old.
My mother lost a son. Death is a natural part of life, but we are never ready to lose a young person. Shouldn’t we all manage to live four score and 10? Shouldn’t we outlive our children? It seems unnatural to lose a child. Yet it happens for all sorts of ordinary reasons—accident being the most common cause.
Losing a spouse is particularly hard, because they are part of our everyday lives. We experience their absence all throughout our day.
If we are lucky enough to become very old (I am celebrating a friends 96th birthday this weekend), it is likely that we will experience the loss of siblings, friends, spouse, and sometimes children. It is a burden that it is hard for many elders to bear.
Here are some helpful points to remember:
The first year is the most painful. It’s a year of firsts—first Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthday, anniversary, or vacation without our loved one. Our emotions are very raw during this initial year of mourning.
Grief comes in waves. Making coffee in the morning, watching a television show or movie, reading a book, a familiar smell, turning over in bed, or simply a memory can trigger a tsunami of sadness and pain. It sweeps over us, like a powerful wave, knocking us around and turning us upside down, until we are cast upon the sand, stunned by the intensity of our experience. And then it’s over--we get up and go about our business. The demands of everyday life—shopping, cooking, paying bills, doing laundry, reading a book to our kids, watching a football game, or going to work bring us back into the present moment. For a while, we don’t think about our loss, until another wave of sadness overtakes us.
Everyone grieves differently. Some adults simply don’t want to talk about their sadness, or about their loss. Others can’t stop talking about their grief. And there is everything in between. Grieving is a private matter. It’s important to respect how each individual handles this universal experience.
Don’t grieve alone. We need each other. Sharing our experience with others helps us recover from these large waves of loss. Don’t keep your feelings to yourself.
We never really “get over” a loss. I still experience waves of grief from my brother’s death, even though he passed away 35 years ago. We never really “get over” the death of loved ones. But we do get used to, and more familiar with their absence in our lives.
When grief is complex, seek help. Sometimes our emotional reaction to a loss can be complicated and send us into a tailspin of depression. Talk to your primary care provider and obtain a referral to see a mental health professional. Support groups can also be helpful. Visit http://snohomishcountywa.gov/795/Bereavement-Support-Services for resources in our community.