Today is the anniversary of my father’s death — officially (he was on life support for a day or two and then “declared dead”). I think he was really gone very late on the 13th or early the 14th. His brain experienced two big hemorrhages and I’m sure it was really “over” fairly soon. I clearly remember the moment at 9 p.m. that day that I got the call he was unconscious. I know I went into shock myself: I sat down on the couch and was just stiff, cold and shaking.
I was not at all prepared for him to die. He was only 71, and he had worked ridiculously hard (we joked with him that he worked TOO hard) to keep himself healthy by eating well and exercising. I thought for sure he’d be around a good long while. The shock of that unexpected loss took a long while to shake off.
Six years later, I’m accustomed to his being gone. When I think of him, I don’t experience a painful stab in my chest as I did for a long while. Now it’s just a small pang of longing, much less painful. It hits in the same place, right in my heart, but the wound is no longer a gaping hole. It’s scabbed over, enough so that no one else even knows it’s there, I’m sure.
This year brought me another unexpected loss. I saw the loss coming, so I guess saying the loss itself was unexpected isn’t accurate: the grieving period I went through was what took me by surprise. Because who really thinks about the notion of mourning for a beloved child who has grown up and flown from the nest?
My firstborn got married, to an incredible young man who’s just about as incredible as she is. I was thrilled about the union (once I processed the notion of her being married pretty young, which I hadn’t seen coming either, but that’s another story. The very short version: she found a wonderful person, we love him, we love them, and it was right. Plans/expectations are one thing, but life always throws interesting curve balls.).
To say the period of engagement/wedding planning was stressful is almost a cliche. Very few people say their engagements were breezy and stress-free, and, yeah, it was busy and had its bumpy moments. Bringing two families together, planning, coordinating, … it can be tough. But all through it, you know you have this amazing day to look forward to. The reward’s huge. And the wedding day and reception were beautiful, sweet, poignant, fun, full of love and friends and family celebrating together. It was a wonderful memory.
I was thinking I’d need some “recovery” time afterward to wind down from the stress of preparation. It didn’t go quite as I’d hoped, because then my girls were all home from school for the summer and I had precious little time to myself. And my personality, my particular mix of needs, requires a certain amount of alone time, to just process the rest of life, to take a breath.
As it turns out, I realized a month or two ago, I was mourning all summer. But I didn’t really recognize it as such because it wasn’t as clear-cut a “grieving situation” as, say, my dad’s death, and my younger kids kept me so crazy all summer I didn’t get to really think much and just let everything go through my brain, my emotions, my self.
One day in the middle of the summer, I did have a moment where it struck me that I felt the loss of my daughter almost as a death. It was just one day, one morning. We hadn’t seen her in a week or more, hadn’t really had any quality time with her (she lives with her husband about a 45-minute drive away from us, and they live next door to his parents, so they get to be with his family all the time and we make a lot of trips up there to see her; as time has gone on, I’ve been able to decrease the number and frequency of trips a bit so it doesn’t seem like we’re there all the time). And I just said to my husband, “I feel like she’s dead. She’s gone. How strange. It feels like I feel with Dad.” It was so clearly a loss, and it hit me square in the chest, same thing. We saw her the next day, I think, and my husband and I ended up taking her and our 13-year-old to lunch at a salad place, and that one hour being our “old” selves in a familiar environment “like we used to be” before it all changed so much made that feeling go away, or at least recede into the background for a while.
Nearly five months after the wedding, I’m starting to feel a little more myself again. When you’re in mourning, you’re a reduced version of yourself, parts shuttered, shut down, the world seeming a little dimmer. I’ve felt the world brighten up again, I think, and I’m coming back into my own. I was sad for a few months. One consequence, in my arsenal of bad habits, was that I just ate. And ate. I went through quart after quart of ice cream. I must have gained 15 to 20 pounds over the summer. I was swallowing the pain. That last consequence I’m dealing with right now, and making progress: I put myself on a low-carb diet. I was just feeling physically cruddy, and I know all the sugar I was eating was making me feel even cloudier than the grief was. A week and a half in, I’m feeling clearer and physically much better. It’s a gift I’m giving myself: to take care of my body.
So life brings grief in various ways. Death is an “obvious” vehicle for it. But we must mourn all kinds of losses. I’m reminded occasionally, with my 17-year-old, that I mourned the loss of a “normal” child when she was born because of her Down syndrome. There are days that remind me she’s not like the “typical” teen at this stage: she’s not going to be driving (not anytime soon, for sure), she can’t babysit. We have to check on her personal hygiene sometimes, and we have to remind her about appropriate behavior around other people. It’s a loss, and I am reminded more of that now because our family dynamics have changed so much since our oldest got married and moved out.
The reality is we need to be gentle with ourselves when we mourn any loss, and realize that we have to take time to grieve. We must move through it. We also need to realize that others are mourning losses as well that may not be visible to us. Be sensitive to anyone’s mourning periods of any loss. They may breeze through the period of mourning, or they may slog through. I felt “weak” somehow this whole summer because I just wasn’t myself. I felt silly because so many of my friends had children leaving the nest, whether it was for college or for church mission opportunities or some through marriage. They all seemed to be just fine. Why wasn’t I? The truth of the matter is that it didn’t matter how other people fared, when it came to my own feelings. I had to be respectful of how I felt and how I had to work through it. I hope it makes me more sensitive to others through whatever losses they’re grieving.
Life is beautiful. It is bittersweet. It is a hodgepodge of opposites: highs and lows, gains and losses. Despite the pain of grieving, I’m grateful to be on this grand adventure.