Nothing could have prepared me to lose my mom at eight. I remember it was night, my grandfather came, there was a plane ride and then static. Everything went blank and black. My mother had been in a car accident while in Guadalajara, Mexico. Death had been instantaneous ― years later, I found the coroner’s report and read she went through the windshield.
As an infant, I wasn’t really allowed to feel how I wanted to feel. I suspect it’s because the living parent, in this case my father, wanted to channel that grief in order to make it less painful. He wanted me to ride down the happy lane; something I realize now only managed to bottle up my entire “little self.” It wasn’t his fault, it wasn’t my fault, and it wasn’t her fault.
In hindsight, my father did what he could ― but it wasn’t enough. And it was only years later, when he passed, that I was able to reflect on how he handled the situation and how that terrible moment had really affected my life. I was finally able to grieve.
For my dad, it was Carcinoid cancer. “The kind that doesn’t kill you. The kind that only kills 10 percent of the time.” And nevertheless, it managed to wither his spirit, his body and his mind. I was 30 years old, struggling in a loveless marriage and avoiding falling through the cracks of depression. It’s true what they say: when it rains, it pours. I couldn’t help but wonder why my dad had turned into a statistic. He was only 67.
The experimental trials that bring optimism and hope galore, the constant denial of imminent expiration, those are all things that vanish when you hear the moans of pain from the next-door room. You realize that life is happening, unveiled and real. Your father is going to die. He is going to leave you with all the uncertainty that death brings, not to mention debts, unfinished business, and his life’s memorabilia. But that’s something you can only feel when you receive that dreaded midnight call and you rush over to see his grayish, lifeless body on the bed.
If it’s your first time in front of death, this can leave a lasting impression. That’s when your world topples over. So what did I feel? Despair, with a sense of impending doom, together with anger and a feeling that nothing will ever be right again. Because it won’t.
Now that I see those around me beginning to grapple with their aging parents, I’ve been pondering how to help them when they’re faced with their own terrible moments. There is no single formula or recipe for coping and mourning during one of life’s most traumatic passages. Yet thinking about what happened to me and how I’ve dealt with it over the years, a few ideas have stayed true. Here they are.
Your grief is unique. No one will ever feel what you’re feeling in that moment, no matter how hard they try to empathize. So, be patient with those around you who don’t understand your pain; they’re doing they’re best, the only way they know how.
Let yourself feel every single emotion at the same time. Sadness, fear, anger, guilt, and relief, without repressing the pain and without judging yourself.
Reach out to others for support. I went to therapy and when I felt like I needed the company of others ― because some of the time you’ll want to be alone ― I surrounded myself with family and friends.
Embrace your spirituality, whatever you choose to believe in. I’m not religious, but I felt extremely angry with God. I banned him from my thoughts for a while and instead focused on talking to my people above and to the universe.
Remember the person constantly, through photos, stories, laughter, tears. Keep him close during every life experience. I think about my father every day; this keeps him alive inside me.
HEAL. Allow yourself to openly express your grief whenever you feel like it. Grief is a process, so don’t try to rush it: be patient and tolerant. Never forget your life has changed forever, but that good things still await you.
This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn’t make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grieve differently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let’s talk about living with loss. If you have a story you’d like to share, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.