At the risk of sounding like a Debbie Downer and having many of you avoid reading this full post (but I hope you will hang in here with me), I’m going to state the obvious: Death, rather unfortunately, is an inevitable part of life. No matter how you slice it, it is going to happen. None of us will live forever. But we all want to live as long as possible, and even more so, we want those we love to live for as long as possible right alongside us.
This past month, I’ve experienced a double-whammy of loss. My oldest brother, after a long history of health issues, passed away. Nine days later, we were forced to help our beloved fur-son, our dog, cross the Rainbow Bridge. We’ve all heard about, and likely experienced, the “official” stages of grief that envelope us after the death of a loved one. No matter the relationship, at least some of those stages are going to hit us – shock, pain, anger, depression… These losses in my life were not the first, and I’ve felt these pains before. What was different this time is that for both, I was the main point of contact, or the main caregiver. Post-life-first-responder, if you will. And I now realize there are other stages to grief that many of us R.W.’s will at some point in our lives have to work through if we haven’t already. And we may not expect them.
- Immediate Decision Making.Whether we are present at the time of the passing or not, after we’ve had our moments of saying good bye, we must somehow pull ourselves together enough to make some decisions. Calling immediate family, reaching out to a Funeral Home, determining what is to happen with the body, calling out of work – all things that need to happen within minutes or hours of the event, while our heart is split into pieces. This is the time to take that Wonder Woman cape out of the closet and put it on – except this time it is black, and we really don’t want to wear it.
- Zombie mode. After the initial burst of activity, we reach a brief stage where there’s nothing really to do. We are attempting to get our head around what just happened, get a grip on our emotions and deal with total exhaustion because we have just entered Weird and Dark World. We become a zombie – not the kind that comes back from the dead, but the ones left behind because of the dead. We put one foot in front of the other in a cloudy fog and keep plodding along.
- Second-guessing. Also known as the Guilt stage of grief. No matter how logical we are, no matter how many times we’ve been told we “did all we could do”, the guilt and second-guessing seeps in. We are women. It is natural to relive every moment of the last few weeks/days/minutes of a loved one’s life and worry about whether we could have done more, said more, comforted more, ya da ya da ya da. Only time and re-assurance will help that stuff fade.
- Kicking Into Action. When that very brief lull of “what now” is over, we take on yet another second/third/fourth job – that of preparing for whatever appropriate ceremony is needed. No matter what our culture or beliefs dictate, there will be an event to help everyone say goodbye and formally send the loved one on their way. What I realized is this is actually kind of similar to planning a wedding or birthday celebration; except it isn’t for a happy reason, balloons are replaced with lilies, and it all has to be done in days or weeks instead of months. There’s the venue, the program, the invitations/notifications, décor, photos to find, budgets to handle, travel arrangements, etc. Much to be done in a short amount of time. And guess what, this all happens while we are attempting to carry on with some semblance of our regular life. Yeah, that black cape is still tied on.
And here’s where I interrupt my list for an important PSA: Please, we all need to promise that we will take time now, while we are healthy and aware, to leave instructions for the future. Yes, having a Will or Estate plan is vital. But I’m talking about the other, more personal stuff. My brother kindly left instructions about what he wanted for his funeral, which made that part of my life much easier, and made me feel better that I was doing what he wanted. In the Netflix series The Kominsky Method, a celebrity wife leaves her very specific funeral wishes for her husband, including instructions to find a casket made out of driftwood and having Barbara Streisand sing at the Service. Our wishes will likely not be that extravagant. But got a favorite song to be played? Want your ashes sprinkled in the ocean? Got a piece of jewelry to go to a favorite niece? Whatever it is, no matter how small, those who are left behind will appreciate the guidance, and it will avoid arguments and even more grief. Even if you think you are a grumpy, unlovable old sot, someone is going to care and is going to feel lost and zombie-like. Help them out. Oh, and make sure someone in your life knows where all your passwords are listed.
Now, where was I…. oh, yes:
- Overwhelming gratitude. I know, this sounds weird. But the love and support and assistance from everyone in our lives, and the lives of the one who has passed, can be mind-blowing and incredibly comforting. Soak it in. And all of those people who are offering to help in some way really mean it. We’ve all been in that place before, wanting to help but not knowing quite how. Even if it is something small like running a quick errand, take advantage of those who want to do their part to help through the journey. Then thank them profusely.
- Phantom limbs. It is said that individuals who have had an amputation experience phantom sensations in the missing limb, most of which are painful. Thankfully I’ve never experienced a physical amputation, but the death of a loved one seems to me to be pretty close. We expect to be able to visit them, expect the dog to greet us at the door, expect to get the loved one’s phone calls, and we automatically think of things to tell them or to do for them…especially if we have been a primary caregiver. We may even “see” them as if our hearts and eyes are playing mind tricks on us. I believe this is the most painful part of the whole process, and the one that lingers the longest. We just plain miss them, and it hurts.
- Finding a new normal.There’s no good word for this. The “official” name is acceptance, but I’m not sure that is accurate. We never get “over” the loss. The mourning never ends. As a matter of fact, it has a nasty way of sneaking up behind us when we least expect it, and wacks us in the back of the head. We don’t go back to normal, because our lives are forever changed – instead we have to adapt to a new normal. Eventually, however, bit by bit, the zombie mode fades and the pain starts to ease. We start to laugh again, and we find joy in living, even without our loved one – because it is what they’d want us to do.
Best of all at some point all those memories start to bring smiles instead of tears. At that point, we know we’ve survived every stage.