It is a universal human experience to endure losses: moving, divorce, changes in friendships and other relationships, and of course, deaths in our circle, all of which usher in a host of other “secondary losses.”
This is my story of loss…
Just before my fifth birthday, I was officially adopted by my maternal grandfather and step-grandmother. I went from an only child to the youngest sister of five females, all of whom were adults by that time. So I was raised “old school,” very differently from my peers growing up. My Dad was quite strict and we often butted heads when I was a teenager, which of course is not at all uncommon.
Dad became ill when I was in college out of state, and he was on hospice services. The cancer had spread to his brain and totally changed his personality. He was no longer the strong, stoic, certain, and authoritative man I had known. Instead, he was confused, highly emotional and might cry at anything—even the Jerry Springer reruns he had started regularly watching. He died shortly after the start of my junior year of college, when I was 20 years old. I remember getting that phone call. I was fortunate that I attended Agnes Scott College, a small women’s college in Georgia, and they responded with overwhelming support. They even allowed me to turn in papers late and to take tests “whenever [I] felt ready.” My Dad had been so proud of me, the first female in my family to attend college. So I managed to finish somehow. He never got to see me graduate from college, or graduate school either.
Grief changes things at a deep level. After about a year after my Dad died, my boyfriend at the time told me that I “should be over it by now.” People expect you to just go back to being “normal” (whatever that means) or to your “usual self” after some prescribed time. Bereavement leave from most workplaces is about three days or a week, if you’re fortunate to have it at all. But here’s the truth: the death of someone close to you will permanently change you in ways you cannot anticipate. And every death is different because every relationship is different. The death of my Dad profoundly altered the trajectory of my life, and the lives of my family members as well. None of us can or will be the same.
Know that, at times, people will say things that seem incredibly ignorant, disrespectful, ridiculous, or just plain stupid to you, after you’ve suffered a loss. Know also that, believe it or not, most of them are actually trying to be helpful, but don’t know how. Know that you may lose friends—people sometimes seem to think loss is somehow contagious or simply don’t know how to respond. However, you may also gain friends from unlikely sources as well.
Time on its own will not heal. It’s what you do with the time. Finding—and perhaps learning to accept—comfort and support in your community, finding meaning, going through your own journey of grief. Find the pearls of wisdom and gratitude—the gifts!—within profound loss and grief. You won’t recognize this at first. That does take time. Each person’s grief experience is as unique as a fingerprint, with a highly individual timeline and journey.
Know that grief does not end at a particular date and time, though it may change form with time, and subsequent losses can bring it back up far into the future. What you can learn, over time, is resilience, as well as wisdom and experience to help others in their own journeys. You can find and create your own meaning.