Not long after our 13 year old daughter died, after an almost 2 year battle with cancer, a friend cautiously asked if she could ask me a question about my experience. Basically, she wanted to know what it felt like and if I thought I would be able to deal with it. Questions like this always stimulate me to form more clearly into thoughts the swirl that is inside my head, so I don’t mind them. At the time, my main concern was strange even to me. I was dealing with the current grief, as difficult as it was, a day at a time. What lay in the back of my mind, trying to push me to despair, was the idea that I would probably face grief again. I honestly didn’t know if I could emotionally and physically survive the pain again.
It took about 10 years for the grief from the loss of our daughter to not be regularly overwhelming, and sometimes incapacitating. After that, it didn’t go away, but it settled in my heart as more normal. An ache that I knew how to handle better. A memory that was more buffered by other things as I allowed myself to enjoy life. Also, I learned to channel it into my love for the people that I still had in my life. But inside, there was always the grieving heart, tender and vulnerable in unique ways, waiting for the day when this new equilibrium would be challenged again.
That doesn’t make me a pessimist. I may have a cautious nature and have to reign in my concern with the potential details of life, but I do not go around in a cloud of gloom. Many days I can be irritatingly cheerful. But a person cannot lose a loved one to death and be the same. However much a realist you were before, there is a place in the heart that is activated when death is faced. For me, part of the trick is to not let that now developed area get me to thinking I am depressed or perpetually sad. I have come to understand that I can be feeling the loss very deeply at any given moment, even crying, but it doesn’t have to define my outlook or the rest of my day. In essence, I can be happy and sad at the same time.
It’s not like walking a tight rope, though. It’s more like singing while you work. The one makes the other not only more bearable, but strangely sweet. The good times now, plus the memories of a life shared, joined and magnified by the intensity of the trials of life. It means recognizing that I am not usually one-dimensional in my emotions at any given time.
And then, one day, I was faced with the very real threat of loss again. For a few days, it physically knocked the breath out of me to wait and see the outcome of a granddaughter in the NICU. Her need for two major surgeries, one at four days of age and another at age two months, meant her life was hanging by a thread. I wondered if I “could do this again.” She ended up thriving after her surgeries, but during those two months, I discovered I could deal with grief and the threat of loss again. I didn’t have to live in fear that it would make me shrivel up into an ugly little mess.
Fast forward to a week ago, when my beloved mother quite unexpectedly had a seizure and went comatose. That very morning, she had been running errands and driving one of my daughters around, her usual energetic self. Or so we thought. We have spent an intense week waiting for the doctors to evaluate several tumors in her brain. She is now conscious, but a bit weak and often confused. Though not without her lively sense of humor. Still, once again, there is extreme concern and life and death concerns.
But once again, people have asked me some questions, and made comments, about what this is all like for me. Most of them know of our previous trouble and wonder if that makes this “worse.” And once again, the questions helped me form my thoughts about my experience.
What I am finding is that while I am deeply sad, it is like facing a “familiar enemy.” I know what to expect in many ways. The emotions are not so shocking, however deep they still are. The process of balancing the rest of life has already been rehearsed, and I have a better idea of what I need to do as it all unfolds. I am not so surprised when the lady at the coffee shop asks, “What are you guys up to today?” and I start to sob because I am on my way to the hospital. The attendant exhaustion, part physical and part emotional, is sooner recognized and dealt with. And I can sooner find comfort in the way such serious events draw family together, putting aside any guilt for finding the good that God works in all hardship.
We just found out that my mom has 3-4 months to live, but I know that death is part of life. Everyone dies sooner or later. Our lives are brief in the scheme of things, so I will let grief remind me of that, and also remind me to find joy in the life I have around me today. Best of all, the grief is only for this lifetime. I hope you all have the same solid hope that I do. If you don’t, I can tell you about it.