The Transitions of Life, Death and Grief

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<p>Wild Geese, Mary Oliver</p>

Wild Geese, Mary Oliver

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“I can’t believe how fast the time goes!” A common statement heard when another birthday comes and goes, or deadlines inch in closer. The notion that “objects in mirror are closer than they appear” can often blindside us. “Stop and smell the flowers, life is too short and you might miss it.”

Losing a loved one is never easy, despite the longevity of one that lived a long time, life reminds us, “This journey is short.” Some can’t seem to go on in life because they are so heartbroken, some continue on despite revealing their heartbreak, and some go on and do not seem outwardly affected. I’ve been the latter. I recently lost my paternal grandfather and it has deeply affected me though my attitude was always, “I’m fine. I’ve got to focus and meet the demands.” I’m a strong willed individual and I can take on a lot, but at the end of the day I’m human, and I can only take so many beatings. As an executor of my grandfather’s will I had to be in the drivers seat. Whether a person is tending to a loved one’s physical and emotional needs, or handling the business and practical affairs, or both, the individual takes on the position as being the steady rock in the family systems, and with that perception people tend take advantage of that strength.

I did not cry the week I was back in my hometown because I had too much to take care of and despite all the concerned voices checking in on me, I replied, “I’m okay, thanks.” The day I flew back to Florida from Texas I went straight back to work, where the stress and demands had been piling up prior to my leaving. Like all steady rock figures, I knew I had to attend to business and get things done. There was no time for tears, whining and nonsense. I kept telling those around me, “I’m fine. Really. It’s a part of life and we are designed to age and die.” For the past fifteen years I’ve been working in geriatric mental health and Alzheimer’s research so I am accustomed to death. The nasty, petty things that I am used to flicking off my shoulder in my daily routine began to accumulate, and the mountains made out of the molehills I allowed to take the best of me.

As a pressure cooker hits its point, I too hit mine. It was one of those weeks where drivers seemed to be filled with more road rage than usual, you hit all the red lights when you’re in a rush, cashiers at all retail stores are angry and rude, and people in general are all on edge and you’ve got the magic red target drawn in the middle of your forehead. As much as you try to see the sun, the rain keeps pouring and you left your umbrella inside. The day my grandfather would have turned 90 years old, an age he badly wanted to get to, my colleagues immature attitudes became too much. What I normally would have let go, I instead blew up at everyone in the office. I had not taken any breaks, went right back into work, and still adjusting to different time zones. After my blowup I then did what I have never done in a workplace; I threw myself into my office, slammed the door, and sobbed. I was angry for becoming the emotional female in the workplace, angry that I didn’t get to see my grandfather when he died, angry at life and exhausted. As the tears flushed out while I sat at my desk I heard my intercom, “Your next patient is here.” Breathe. Wipe the tears. Pray. You will get through this. And I did. I did something else I have never done- I called in the next day and recognized, “I’m not feeling well and I’m not doing well.” Family, work, friends, life: all the “can you do’s” and the “I need to talk to you and complain about my hard life” being fired at me nonstop was enough. What is it I tell caregivers, my graduate psychology students and healthcare professionals in all of my lectures? “You have to take care of you first. Put the oxygen mask on first before you can help another and set boundaries. You are not a super hero.” Despite my forced workouts at the gym, my sacred yoga classes, or talking to trusted loved ones; it wasn’t enough on my psyche.

After calling in I slept and cried the entire day. It was a needed purge. I remember a mentor of mine from the Bay Area once telling me, “tears are healing- we need to cry because it is an emotional way of releasing, a physiological release and a spiritual cleanse.” She was right. All the workouts and talking in the world didn’t help me as much as just allowing myself to cry was.

There are millions of people out there who are in a similar boat. They are the rocks of their foundation as they tend to others’ needs, and all the literature and reminders out there telling these people, “Please take care of you” is a good reminder, but perhaps there is something deeper transforming inside when a loved one dies.

What happens to us, our core being, when we lose someone so deeply loved? Some people feel a sense of relief, some are in total despair and don’t know what to do because their sense of purpose and routine has changed, and some take it in stride. Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s cycle of grief applies while understanding and living through the healing process. Regardless of where one is in the way she displays her grief, I would like to think all of us have evolved in some way. I think of death as a transformative phase, not only for the deceased, but for the griever, and how one chooses to live out their remaining years, I hope it is filled with a drive and a desire to become more than merely existing.

Where does the time go?

When a loved one that was responsible for raising you and molding you into the person you’ve become today, has your core been rocked so much that you feel like you may not be the exact person anymore when they die?

I know some who have changed, they’ve seemed to have lost a bit of themselves by taking on the identity of their loved one and proclaimed to live out the rest of their life paying debts to the person they’ve lost. I know some who have gone on in life, becoming more compassionate, more in-tune to others and want to live their life to its fullest, and then there are those I know who hardened, enclosed themselves up only to become bitter, resentful and deeply insecure.

Death of a loved one surely affects us. What interests me is how death can alter the way we used to live and how it creates a new life within us as we carry on.

My grandfather was more than a grandfather, he was in a sense my “grand-Father” as my biological father was not in the picture, incapable of representing any kind of father figure. It was both my grandparents who believed in me; supported and encouraged that I could do anything I wanted. To be authentic, kind, loving, caring and turn the other cheek when others hurt you. I like to think I’ve become just that, perhaps more.

Learning to let go of the small stuff. What does it mean to really set boundaries, yet remain kind and compassionate in order to take care of you? “You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on. Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting- over and over announcing your place in the family of things,” poet, Mary Oliver’s beautiful description of life in Wild Geese.

Since losing my grandfather I wondered if a piece of me died with him. Feeling a little numb and lost in my process as having now lost both my grandparents, I questioned where my foundation went. Others often remind me that I have my memories to cherish. But is that enough? Are our memories a foundation to rely upon? What I’ve come to realize in a month since his passing, and their house, the only house that I’ve known all of my life is now being sold, is that they are physically gone, and I do have the memories, but it’s not about that. It’s knowing who and what I’ve become because of their love and support. What I do want is to be the authentically kind, compassionate, loving and free spirit I’ve always been, and live by their influence. The words my grandfather always would say to me at the end of our conversations, “Are you having any fun? If anything, just have fun.” In fact, those were his last dying words to my cousin, “I’m not afraid anymore. Tell everyone to have fun.”

Life is short, and despite living to be 89 or 100 years old, time goes by fast. Enjoy the ride, be authentically kind, and have fun.