Monday, March 26, 2012

Coping with Grief and Death

The unexpected death of someone we have known on any level and in any capacity can be a profound experience; death has a way of making us feel small, insignificant, fearful even for our own impending sense of mortality.

It may sound cliche, but we each of us are wired up differently, based on who we are, our past experiences, and the morals and values we hold dear; no two people grieve alike. I believe it is so vital that we allow ourselves to grieve in whatever way comes naturally to us, while also creating space for others to experience loss in their own way.

I was fortunate to have not experienced a lot of death in my life as a child and young woman. It wasn't until my father passed away on May 10th, 2006 that I truly got a taste of what grief was. To then I had lost grandparents, but while I was still relatively too young to really understand the spiritual ramifications of what death represented to me. I had lost a dearly beloved cat in 1996 which introduced me to grief and mourning, and in truth that loss was so profound that to this day when I think of that sweet black and white ball of fur I still get a little misty. But my fathers passing was my first real taste of significant unadulterated and painful loss.

My father and I were not close. In fact, we had an extremely volatile relationship for most of my life. I won't go into the details of our extraordinarily dysfunctional relationship as that isn't what this post is about; but suffice it to say I spent quite a bit of my teen years wishing he were dead. I truly hated him at times, and wished he were not a part of my life.

And yet, in the last four years of his life before he passed away, we developed a new level of respect for one another, and as he shifted gears to go from heavy handed authoritarian dictator - father, to relaxed and pleasant grandfather to my daughter, we began to explore different ways of relating with one another. I am glad to say that the last four years of his life were easy, peaceful; we truly appreciated each other. Finally.

When I got the phone call from my brother that May evening telling me our father had died of a heart attack in the kitchen early that morning I went into shock immediately. I didn't know it at the time of course, but with the clarity of hindsight I can share my experience with you to help illustrate my point. I was packing overnight bags while still on the phone with my brother, issuing orders to my husband and daughter, getting our affairs in order so that we could leave immediately to drive the 50 miles to my home city to be with my mother and brother. The next few days were a blur of funeral plans, casket purchasing, and eulogy writing as my mother asked me if I would speak for the family at the service. In a whirlwind of neighbors dropping by coffee cakes, and friends popping in to share a cry and a laugh as we talked about my father and the experiences that stood out in all our memories.

The funeral was beautiful, he was a well respected man with a great number of friends and acquaintances and colleagues. I don't remember much aside from smiling politely, shaking hands, hugging numerous people, and feeling numb and empty.

At the time I thought I was handling his death beautifully. I had just begun reading the Conversations with God trilogy, and found so much solace in the books. As the Spring turned to Summer, and I moved on to the final book, I remember feeling in a state of nearly constant euphoria. I was sure that every minute was a miracle, and every encounter was a gift from God, and my father. I saw him everywhere, I felt him and smelled him and had such a feeling of contentment. I remember thinking to myself how happy I was to be handling his death so well.

The truth of the matter is I wasn't handling his death well at all, I was in denial of it to a great extent, and I used the beautiful imagery in the books I was reading to create my fathers "happily ever after" scenario. It gave me a sense of safety to imagine my father as a guardian angel now, looking down upon me. And in truth, I still rather like this imagery, it makes me feel safe and secure. But I had to come to a point within myself where I realized that I wasn't dealing with my grief; I was simply wrapping it up in a shiny package, labeling it as Divine, and then not looking at it.

It took me a few years to figure this out of course. It wasn't until I was able to really contemplate death, my ideas about it, my relationship to the Universe and Spirit, that I really understood that I hadn't really moved past my dads dying.

Now I share all of this for a very exact reason; though I didn't deal with my grief directly at the time, I dealt with it in the only way I knew how to - by making it more beautiful than I could imagine, and by ultimately putting all of my sorrow into a box and tucking it neatly away in my psyche. It wasn't a healthy way to cope with my sorrow, but it was the only way I knew how to cope at the time.

And as time moved on, I eventually began to recognize the sorrow within me that I had not yet looked at and expressed. And as nature took it's course I began to slowly express it, feel it, look at it and then grieve in a much more honest, personal and rounded way.

Everyone has their own way of coping with death, and while it may seem "wrong" to another, none of us are in a position to judge anyone else. I can say with all honesty that a few family members were upset with me and the way I reacted to my fathers death. I irritated more than one person with my airy-fairy platitudes about Heaven, Angels, messages from butterflies and birds... and in fact it created a rift between my brother and I which we still have not healed to this day. My way of avoiding my grief by clinging to euphoria angered him. And the angrier he was the less inclined I was to want to be around him. Eventually we fell out, and I have only seen him once in the last 3 years.

All because I grieved differently than he did. Seems a shame.

Death is a natural part of life - nothing is eternal on this planet. Everything must ebb and flow. And yet death is a sacred and personal issue for each individual person. Some people deal with grief rapidly, others can take longer. Still others may  never truly get over the loss of a loved one.

So while we make room for ourselves to experience death and loss in our own way and time, so must we be compassionate enough to allow those around us to deal with death in their own way and time as well. It is important to know that not only are we grieving the loss of someone we valued or loved, but we are also grieving the loss of our impending mortality as well, because let's face it, death reminds us all that we too will die one day as well, and that can bring a lot of fear up from within.

I have personal theories and beliefs about what lies beyond this life, but none of us can be 100% certain about what is next. We can only have faith in what our hearts guide us towards. And we must have faith in the guidance other peoples hearts guide them towards.

So be gentle with yourself when you are dealing with death. And be gentle with those around you as well. Our emotions can be multi-faceted, and it is amazing the lengths a psyche will go to in order to protect it's own innocence.

Death is inevitable. Love is limitless when guided by patience and tolerant compassion. When you make room to allow others to feel what they feel in their own natural way and rhythm, you ultimately give yourself the space you also require. And that is all any of us can ask for from one another when faced with the heart crushing loss of a loved one.

Be gentle with one another.

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