Loss & Grief: A Necessary Conversation

Death is the hardest part of life. I’ve told that to many patients and loved ones throughout my life. And I believe it to be true. Not only because of the discomfort in pondering our own mortality, but because of the crushing pain and black hole that seems to form in our hearts when someone we care about dies. This is a conversation I sincerely wish we did not have to sit down together and have; but, sadly, too many people are losing the battle with COVID-19 and, thus, a widening circle of families, friends, colleagues and seeming strangers are beginning their journey through grief.

I’m struggling at they keyboard, despite having cradled dying newborns, comforting dying patients and their dear ones and going through the natural gut-wrenching process myself with my brother, partner and both parents. This is because at one level I realize there is nothing that truly takes the pain away, no words that can magically make it all better. But, I also know that I survived. And I believe in the human spirit and in the resilience that pulses in all of us. I know that it does, indeed, get better (after a turbulent, searing roller coaster of emotions).

So what do we do when Death has paid us an unwelcome house call? I think the first thing is just to be aware – it happened, this terrible, terrible thing happened, and it really hurts. There is no right or wrong way to grieve, and simply noting this in our minds can let the painful process begin.

The most difficult loss for me, personally, was that of my father who was always caring for others; he was the strong silent type, the big tough guy with a heart of gold – every stereotype you can imagine. Our family was blessed to have him at home and be in the care of two wonderful Hospice Nurses. After he died, I busied myself caring for everyone else. Holding my heartbroken nephews and niece, supporting my brother and sister, thanking and offering meals to the nurses. I made the phone calls, met with the funeral home staff, selected a ridiculous feast to offer mourners at our home after the wake and funeral. And the night of his funeral I got drunk off my ass. (Granted, my family is half Irish and half French, both sides with their propensity for alcohol and jubilation.) We ate, told funny stories about “Pop,” as the neighbors, their children and everyone else it seemed called him; we even danced and laughed late into the night celebrating his life and our love for him.

But the next morning I could not get out of bed. I would not get out of bed, even as the smell of coffee, bacon and eggs wafted into the guest bedroom where I was cocooned and beckoned me to the table. I kept forcing myself to go back to sleep – an amazing feat for an insomniac. Over and over again I would swim up from the deep comfort of unconsciousness, momentarily numb and fuzzy-headed; then reality would whisper with poison words and remind me so I’d repeat the whole thing over again. My siblings became worried, but I assured them repeatedly – from behind the locked door – that I was fine, rolled over, pulled the unneeded comforter (it was ninety degrees in South Florida) up over my head and descended again – and again – in to the soporific peace of slumber.

This futile (but strangely necessary) process continued until dinner time, when I felt I could no longer will myself in to oblivion. Finally, reluctantly, I rose, pulled on a pair of jeans and a wrinkled shirt, and padded out to the living room (a word that felt somehow wrong to say, at the time). I’m grateful that none of my family members asked how I was, nobody said a word. They simply allowed me to rejoin them in the land of the living and start the difficult journey of living a life without the man who had given life to us – and made our individual and collective lives much better for it.

However you handle any loss and grief during this time of global crisis, I can only offer to you the knowledge that you are not alone, that the process is natural and normal (and, yes, brutal) and the truth that – despite the sensation that a huge injustice has just been delivered by the hands of the Universe and the suspicion that you will never, ever recover any semblance of normalcy or joy again, I can assure you – just as forests grow stronger and more beautiful after a tragic, raging wildfire, so will you.

To be burnt while alive is painful. And yet it is transformative. You will never be the same again. There will always be a hole somewhere in your heart because that person will always be dead. But you, however, are not dead. And you have the bittersweet gift of their memories. Life does go on, it moves forward and even relishes in itself. So, acknowledge the loss, feel the pain but stay in the game and do the work of recovery knowing (or lying to yourself if you don’t yet believe it) that there is more life for you to live and to enjoy; there are more laughs, celebrations, accomplishments.

You won’t do grief right. (I know, I began to eat too much and drink too much at night, even as I conducted group therapy sessions, taught classes and produced two live radio and internet television shows a week; I functioned very well on the outside, but inside, I felt completely crushed for quite a long time.) You can’t do grief right. (Or wrong, for that matter). So, just do it anyway to the best of your fallible abilities. Seek help, comfort, guidance and assistance. Seek solace and solitude when you need it, too. Nature is often healing and there’s actually quite a lot of good science to back that up that claim; dive into it, spend as much time as you can among trees, grass, flowers, water, sunlight and animals. They’re all wonderful teachers and providers of comfort.

The staff of This American Quarantine and myself are working on more practical articles to guide people through loss and grief and I hope that they will help. We’ll also be discussing how to help others cope with loss, with some important dos and don’ts, both in the blog and on the podcast. Here are just some brief, helpful tips to lay the groundwork of grief and recovery:

Getting Through Grief

  • The advice to accept your grief, while true, is difficult to swallow. I suggest noticing and declaring the loss and how you feel about it.
  • Seek help and comfort from others.
  • Balance time with loved ones with time alone.
  • Express your grief (which may include the often talked about shock, denial, anger, sadness and even being “numb”) in ways you feel able.
  • Seek solace in ways that bring you some comfort (and don’t harm yourself) such as religion/spirituality; reading, television and film, hobbies, healthy distractions that can ease some of the suffering and help you to cope.
  • Pace yourself; grief is exhausting. Don’t force yourself to move faster through the process than you’re ready. Don’t beat yourself up for not being “okay.” It is truly okay to not be okay.
  • Learn about grief. This may seem counter-intuitive, like your wallowing in pain or obsessing on loss. Knowledge is power and alone can remove the unnecessary burden of the fear of the unknown. Plus, it can guide you through the ups and downs and provide very real strategies to help you get through it.

Helping Others

  • Reach Out – don’t let your fears of saying or doing the wrong thing stop you. And certainly don’t wait for someone who has experienced the trauma of a death to ring up and ask you for something.
  • Offer to talk. Offer to just listen. Feel out when it’s right to speak and when you might just remain quiet and do what we call in psychiatry “holding the space.”
  • Offer practical support such as shopping, preparing meals, cleaning, etc. Don’t ask: “What do you need?” Just appraise the situation, note how you might fill in any missing gaps and offer. Better yet, just do it, depending on your relationship.
  • Give them space and give them time. Don’t rush them.
  • Don’t make these common mistakes; don’t say:
    • “It’s God’s plan”
    • “He’s in a better place”
    • “She’s in heaven now”
    • “You should…”
~ with love, strength & hope: Langdon Bosarge,RN,BSN

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