Saturday, June 23, 2012


When I was little, I thought my dad was the strongest man in the world because he could lift anything.

I came up with this opening sentence last Sunday, Father's Day, and I planned to write a post about my dad and about how the grief I felt at his loss had seemed to have lifted somewhat this year.  It was the first year since he died that I hadn't actually dreaded the approach of Father's Day, and it was the first year since he died that I actually enjoyed the day.

Truly.  It was a beautiful, perfect, sunny day.

But because I was so busy enjoying it, I didn't get around to writing the post.  So I figured I'd just write it first thing Monday morning. 

As I was sitting down to write it, my kitty, who was 16 years old and had been in a decline for months now, became violently ill.  He recovered from that episode, but it marked a turning point for him and he died, naturally and peacefully, at home with me on Thursday afternoon.  I did not need to have him euthanized.

As I was taking care of him on Thursday morning, I spent a lot of time thinking about the blog post I had meant to write and just never gotten around to doing.  How it was supposed to be about my dad, about what I had learned about strength and about recovering from grief in the six years since his death. 

I thought about the irony of the fact that, once again, life had unexpectedly intervened, and I was once again facing a loss that I knew would hit me hard.

I thought about all the things people say when they don't know what to say, and all the things that people who have never experienced a serious loss think will "help."  I don't question the goodness of anyone's intentions, but I do wish people would think a bit before they speak.  Or maybe just not say anything at all, except, "I'm so sorry."

After all, they could always just listen.  No one says they need to be the ones to do the talking.

One guy I know repeatedly says that people who lost loved ones slowly, due to long-term illness, are "lucky," because "at least they had a chance to say goodbye."  His father died suddenly, when he was quite young, so he assumes that this is "the worst" death that anyone can experience.

I beg to differ.  Quite frankly, if we really need to go about evaluating terrible things and putting them on a continuum of pain (and I'm not sure we do), I think my best friend's experience of losing her 10-year-old son to cancer was probably "the worst" thing anyone can experience.  I have no idea how she has managed to be as strong as she has through it all.

I never respond to the guy's comment (and he's made it more than once) for two reasons.  First, he has clearly never seen anyone seriously, terminally ill.  If he had, he would never use the word "lucky." 


His "goodbye"-scenario is a rosy Hollywood production.  That isn't how people die.

If you care about them, you're constantly trying to balance the (ever-shrinking) hope that what is happening to them will somehow, miraculously, reverse direction (because really, they don't deserve what is happening to them), with the grim reality that bears down on you every single day.

When exactly in all of this would you decide to give up hope and "say goodbye"?  Reality isn't scripted like that. 

You never do it.  Or maybe, you do it constantly, in every moment of every difficult day.

Secondly, I don't respond to him because, if you think it's about who has it "the worst," I think you've missed the point. 

This is the first thing I've learned about grief: if you aren't careful, it can lead to an odd form of extreme selfishness.  It's all too easy to go through life thinking everyone has had it better than you ever did, that you were gypped somehow, in a great, cosmic screw-over.

I've come to realize that, when people talk this way, what they're really telling you about are their own regrets.  My guess is, he didn't fully appreciate his father's presence in his life when he had him, and he never expected him to be taken away.  He assumed there would always be more time--or he simply didn't think about it at all.

That experience isn't uncommon, especially when we're young.  We take it all for granted, because we assume young people don't ever die.  After all, they aren't supposed to. 

But they do, and sometimes for absolutely no reason at all.

This is the second thing I've learned about grief: it doesn't have a reason, and it doesn't need a reason.  The death of someone you loved will never make sense to you, even if you eventually accept it, and there will always be days when you simply can't accept it.

When my dad first died, I used to "apologize" for my grief.  People would often ask me how old he was, and I'd say, "Well, he was 73.  I know that wasn't young."  (Interestingly, nearly everyone under 55 would respond, "Oh, yes, he was pretty old," and every 55 and older would say, "That's not old at all.")

I made this comment to my eye-doctor, at one point, and she gave me a valuable insight (I didn't mean to write that pun, but there it is).  She said, "When it's someone we love, we're never ready."

She said, "My father was 92 years old when he died.  You'd think I'd have seen it coming.  I didn't care.  I was a wreck at his funeral.  When it's someone we love, we're never ready."

That's the third thing I've learned about grief: it doesn't play fair.  People who haven't experienced the loss of someone very ill or elderly think that, logically, you should be ... maybe not "happy," but at least "relieved" by their death.

They were "old" (and in our youth-based American culture, this means they're perceived as unattractive and useless, particularly if they hadn't had a facelift or two and weren't regularly volunteering for Greenpeace and Habitat for Humanity).  They were probably "suffering," in some broad, ill-defined sense of the term-- because, again, in youth-based American culture, the assumption is that to be "old" is to "suffer."

And sometimes, you are a bit relieved, in a way.  There is a sense of sad peace at their passing.  They weren't what they had once been, and in your mind, you know that.

But what the mind knows is very different from what the heart feels.

What people who haven't experienced it don't understand is, grief doesn't play fair.  You don't remember a lost loved one as ill or debilitated.  You remember them at their best, when they were healthy and happy and life was good.  That is what you constantly remember and constantly miss.

Perhaps the cruelest thing about grief is that, after a loved one dies, you realize you'd give anything to have one of their "bad" days back.  Just one. 

The final thing I've learned about grief is, it isn't one thing, ever.  It is a constantly shifting weight.  Sometimes, it is unbearable. 

It's not that it "feels" unbearable.  It is unbearable. 

In those moments, you can't imagine ever being strong enough to lift what has descended upon you.  In my moments of grief, I've often felt an overwhelming need to just lie down.  If I didn't, it's because I wasn't sure I'd be able to get up again.

I get annoyed now when people advise someone who is newly experiencing the raw pain of such sadness to "get up" and "get out," that they shouldn't "mope," and that "time heals all things."

Maybe they just can't do it yet.  This doesn't mean they need a prescription for anti-depressants.  They're supposed to be sad.  They're supposed to be downright devastated, in fact. 

Instead of seeing their incapacity as a mark of weakness, maybe we should see it as a mark of their great capacity for love.

In the end, I believe coping with grief is a question of weightlifting.  You have to figure out how you're going to carry it:  will you spread it across your shoulders like a yoke and try to walk steadily, spilling as little as possible as you go forward?  Will you bend from the knees and lift it in your arms? 

Will you drag it around behind you or push it in front of you, making a terrible racket?  Will you try to unload some of its burden on everyone you meet?

In most cases, other people won't be able to help you all that much. 

It's something you have to learn to balance for yourself, to adjust to the shape of your own life.  As one elderly woman I met once told me, "Well, you're young to have all of this happen to you, my dear, but you need to figure out a way to deal with it.  Because, in life, no one is spared."

On Thursday morning, I thought about the fact that, once again, I was experiencing this strange moment of waiting for an inevitable, terrible sadness.  I think anyone who has kept a death-bed vigil will know what I'm talking about.  You learn a strange kind of patience in that moment.  You learn that nothing--nothing--that seemed important (cars, houses, boyfriends, work, success, money) is as important as this moment of waiting.

The pause when you wait for the weight to descend. 

In that moment, I thought about the blog post I had never written and how foolish it would be to try to write it now. 

But then I thought that maybe I could keep my opening sentence after all.


Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote, "Life is short, but there is always time for courtesy."