I was a wife, daughter, sister, mother and grandparent. Now, a decade later, these identities have been reduced to Mom and grandparent, with subscriptions to my other roles cancelled by multiple losses.
The two most important men in my life, my Dad and husband, died in the same year, followed several years later by my Mom, and more recently, by my older sister and only sibling.
For months, I couldn’t face one of my favourite activities, choosing greeting cards for those I love, as visits to card stores were only a painful reminder of all the family cards I could no longer send. And for several years, I was so shaken that I recalled what C.S. Lewis wrote following the death of his wife, in A Grief Observed: “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.”
There were days when going on seemed impossible. But I did go on, inspired largely by the presence of our adult daughters and granddaughter. They, too, had suffered unspeakable loss, and I wanted to show up for them and be strong.
Although much of my life had changed radically in a short time, I still wanted my legacy to be that of an available and present parent. On the days I felt most bereft and abandoned, I looked at their pictures, summoned my inner warrior and repeated my intention to be there for them as a mother and grandmother.
In the spring prior to my dad’s mental decline and my husband’s cancer diagnosis, days and time ran together in a blurry haze of organic activity, as I tried to squeeze everything and everyone that mattered into the space of a day, a week, a month. Now, I have days that stretch before me into a vast abyss that seems endless, unless I make intentional plans or am committed to a particular project.
How I’d visualized
I’d anticipated that the decade of my sixties would be consumed with greater care for my older parents, balanced by part-time work and travel with my husband to places we couldn’t afford to visit while raising several daughters. Oh, how I’d visualized.
The trip to the turquoise waters of Bermuda, with intoxicating rum swizzles by the pool and sea glass treasures from hidden coves, was supposed to be the beginning of our new adventures. Our youngest daughter had just graduated from college, and the others were married and/or gainfully employed, giving us a giddy sense of freedom.
It was short-lived. A week later, my beloved was diagnosed with Stage IV esophageal cancer, and I was told he had six to 12 months to live. He died six months later, true to the physician’s prediction. Only three months before, I’d lost my father, his brilliant brain riddled with plaque.
My travel in the last decade has usually been solo, or I’ve been accompanied by one of my daughters. The excursions I’d envisioned to perfumed fields of lavender and ancient ruins have been curtailed. I continue to work enough to maintain financial security into old age, leaving my daughters’ lives unfettered.
Some of my coupled friends find it peculiar that I continue to write books, take on consulting contracts and engage in as much volunteer and remunerated work as possible, strengthening my belief that it’s challenging to understand what someone else is up against without a foray into the same territory.
Curiosity and reflectiveness
An unanticipated upside to this decade has been the development of my curiosity and reflectiveness, which is largely the result of living alone and having multiple conversations with myself.
The results of such reflections include discoveries about what it means to lose someone, to grieve and be bereaved, and to heal and even thrive when life becomes riddled with disappointments and confusing circumstances.
My first discovery was that when a life ceases, our relationship with that beloved person continues, albeit in a different form. The death of someone we love deeply is a transition, not a disappearance.
In Beauty: The Invisible Embrace, John O’Donohue wrote: “The dead are not distant or absent. …When we lose someone to death, we lose their physical image and presence … but because we cannot see them does not mean they are not there.”
In An End to Upside Down Thinking, Mark Gober cites scientific evidence to support this assertion, showing that consciousness still exists after the death of the physical body. Consistent with reports from those individuals who’ve had a near-death experience, it seems that death is a transition from our physical world into some other form of being or energy state.
Like many grief survivors, I’ve felt the presence and guidance of my deceased family and husband in a steady and constant fashion, often conveyed in dreams and messages. Two years after he transitioned, my late husband Jay woke me up in a dream.
“What’s it like to die?” I asked him.
“Just wait,” he replied. “It’s genius.”
My healing process also challenged my belief and the conventionally held wisdom that grief recovery is linear. This myth was created by the idea that there are stages of grief someone goes through, in a particular order, to heal from loss.
When Elisabeth Kubler-Ross initially delineated these stages, she intended them to be descriptive of persons dying, not of persons left behind. Over time, the stages became popularized so widely that many grief survivors might be heard saying to a friend after a funeral, “I’m still in the denial stage.”
My experience suggests that healing from loss is cyclical. Grief comes and goes, sometimes like a huge tsunami threatening to overwhelm us with its raging intensity, and other times like an imperceptible ripple on a smooth, glassy lake.
You are not alone
Another lesson I’ve learned in the last decade is that I’m not alone in my losses, nor are you. For me, there’s not a day that goes by without an encounter with another dear soul who’s lost a parent, a child, a partner, a dear friend or something very precious.
Loss is universal, and no one leaves this planet without some experience of it.
Loss is universal, and no one leaves this planet without some experience of it. In the Buddhist story of the mustard seed, a bereft mother was simply unable to put down her dead son’s body, carrying it around until she encountered the Buddha and begged him to bring her dead son back to life.
“I will,” the Buddha countered, “If you can find any house that has not been visited by loss.” The mother went from house to house, and upon learning that no household was immune from loss, laid her dead son’s body to rest.
In my opinion, this story also illustrates a final discovery—only when we put down the burden of loss, as this mother did, can we accept the disappointments and sorrow that life and loss have laid at our feet, often at the most unexpected of times.
My natural inclination—and perhaps yours, too—was to protest and fight the circumstances in which I found myself. I railed against my husband’s terminal diagnosis, my father’s growing dementia, my mother’s loneliness after losing her role as caregiver and my sister’s long-standing habits that led to early diabetes and its mortal complications.
“Why can’t it be otherwise?” I implored the universe. I had not manifested any of this!
My protesting robbed me of creative energy and allowed me to protect my illusions that life is supposed to be full of sweetness, lightness, happiness or the yin.
As time’s ensued, I’ve been able to let go of the protest and surrender to the reality of the paradox of life—there is no sweetness without sorrow, no lightness without darkness, no happiness without sadness and no yin without the yang.
In letting go of my illusions and accepting the reality of my situation, I’ve unearthed peace.