Grief Enters Our Lives in Many Ways
I feel qualified to deal with the subject of how to grieve because I have had a lot of personal experience. I lost my dad in 1987. I lost my son Jason suddenly in an accident in 1991 when he was 14. In 2003, I lost a very close friend to suicide. In 2005, I lost my mom to cancer after caring for her. In 2009, I lost my estranged daughter, whom I hadn’t seen since 1992, to suicide.
So I’ve dealt with sudden deaths that were unexpected, longer deaths that were expected, and deaths that people close to me chose for themselves. I will link to some of these stories because the details of each life and death are too long to repeat here. This article explains, instead, how I have faced each death and dealt with the grief it brought me.
Dealing with the Death of a Child
Although any death of a family member is difficult, I kind of expected that I would lose my parents sometime. It was not easy helping my mom bury my dad and helping her adjust to becoming a widow — something I had not experienced. I did not expect to bury my 14-year-old son four years later.
You would have to know Jason to understand how preposterous is was for me to think of him dying. He was healthy and physically active. He loved life. He was just beginning to blosom into the man we all expected him to grow up to be. And then, on August 27, 1991, we said goodbye as he left to go water skiing with a group from the church, and we never saw him alive again.
This was my first really difficult death of someone close to me. I hadn’t lived with Dad since I married in 1964, and our relationship was mostly by phone and during holidays at family gatherings. With Jason gone, there was an empty place at the table every day at mealtimes and a silence at the times he normally would come bounding in from his daily adventures to tell us about what he had seen or done.
We were a homeschooling family, and the three of us were close. Part of us was gone. Sarah had left a year earlier under very strained circumstances and Jason had since been the focus of our attention. Our family did things together. Jason’s death left a big hole which was noticed constantly.
We experienced the usual phases of grief. First we couldn’t believe he was really gone, and we kept expecting he would dash in the door and start telling us what he’d been up to. We expected to see him as we passed his room at night and instead confronted an empty bed. We were numb with grief as we went through the mortuary arrangements, and they almost had to drag me out of the viewing room when it was time to leave for his memorial service at the church.
Although I knew Jason was already with the Lord, I still wanted to cling to what was left of him physically in the room. It’s a terrible thing to know that you will never lay eyes on your child again on this earth. You don’t want to accept it. Everything in you rebels. Even as you trust in God to get you through it, your very human feelings must be faced and dealt with. You believe you will never, ever get over it, and that the pain will continue forever.
Then the next stage kicks in. You get angry. Jason was the last one to use the wrench that Kosta (my husband) needed. He was using it to fix his bike and it was nowhere to be seen. We couldn’t find it, and Jason wasn’t there to ask, as he normally would be. We were angry that Jason chose to leave that day, even though we knew it was unreasonable to feel that way. We know he didn’t want to die and leave us, but we were angry that he did. He chose to go to the lake that day.
At the same time, we are still sad and we miss him. Sometimes we still cry. We talk about our memories of him with each other and anyone else who will let us. We repeat what we know he would have said in some situations. We try to keep him alive by talking about him. We love it when other people share their memories of him. We are glad they miss him, too.
Finally, we realized we must face reality. He wouldn’t be needing his things anymore. We had to decide how to dispose of his possessions. We sold his new mountain bike to a close friend of his. We had a garage sale to dispose of things that weren’t quite as important to him. We gave his bed to a poor child who needed it. We asked ourselves whom Jason would want to have his things and tried to distribute them that way. This was another step in dealing with grief.
Jason died in August — only three months before Thanksgiving. The family insisted we shouldn’t be alone, but we really didn’t feel like celebrating. I think we really preferred to face it alone, but we gave in to the family pressure. I couldn’t get through it without crying at times, and it was hard because there were extended family there on my sister-in-law’s side I had never met who had not known Jason.
I felt afterward it had been a mistake to go. The first holiday after the death of a child is not the time to have people you don’t know around. Crying is still an important part of grief, and you want to be around people who understand your loss and miss your child as much as you do.
The first round of holidays, especially Christmas, which Jason loved, is almost impossible to get through. Jason was the one who liked to decorate and put up the tree. Since we were spending Christmas at my mom’s house, with the family, we didn’t decorate or get a tree that year and we haven’t since then. Our heart was not in it. Although our faith in God and his goodness had not diminished, we were not in any frame of mind to celebrate traditions. We couldn’t go on doing things as we always had. We did not confront grief by putting up a brave front. We allowed ourselves to fully miss him. That seemed the best way to remember him.
Someone else we knew lost their son six days before Jason died. In fact, that water skiing trip where Jason died was planned after Brian’s memorial service the night before as a way to help the young people who went to get over it. During the months after our sons died, Pat and I often talked. I still went out to the stores to shop. She didn’t go until late at night so she would not be likely to meet anyone she knew. She couldn’t face the encounters of people who might want to talk about it.
I didn’t mind a bit if I ran into someone who wanted to give me a hug and didn’t mind a tear or two. We each dealt differently with our grief. No two people deal with it the same. There is no real “normal” when it comes to grief work. People bounce from stage to stage and then might revisit a stage again. You can go from denial to numbness to extreme sorrow to anger and back to denial, and so on.
To summarize a bit, this first period of loss causes a lot of changes in life. You have to gradually break old patterns of communication and expectations. (No, Jason won’t be here for dinner, so you have to stop setting three places from habit.) Often you are confused as you try to meet the daily demands of life because you really aren’t all there. This is normal. You are still in a bit of shock, and you are often tired for what appears to be no good reason. The strangest things, like hearing a certain song, can set off your tears again. You are still emotionally very fragile. But you need to allow yourself to feel these things — not stifle the emotions, or you won’t get your grief work done, and you may get stuck in an early stage of grief and have to face and work through it later.
It takes about eight weeks to begin to get used to the idea that your loved one is gone and to begin to get new habits and routines that don’t include the missing loved one. That doesn’t mean grief is gone — only that you are beginning to face reality and accept the fact that your loved one isn’t coming back. I still found myself “talking” to Jason, knowing full well he wasn’t hearing me, but still needing to act as if he could. I would continue to have flashbacks and relive the moment they told me he was dead. As I write this, after 25 years, the tears return when I think of that. But as the years passed, I thought of that moment less and less and began to take steps to rebuild my life in a way that was no longer centered on being a mom.
The way I dealt with grief was not to deny it, but to give those tears to God, who had also faced the death of his son, Jesus. I knew He understood and would help get me through the pain. And he did. Very gradually the pain began to diminish until I could face holidays again. We still have not had a Christmas tree, but mainly because we saw no need for one when we never spend the holidays here.
After a few years, I realized, almost guiltily, that I no longer thought about Jason every day. I didn’t hurt anymore on a regular basis. It was more as if Jason had moved to go on with his life in another place. We would look at the family pictures and remember our vacations, our special times, and we would remember them happily, without the tears. He still has a special place in our hearts and will never be forgotten, but we realize our next conversation will be in Heaven. We can move on with whatever else God has for us here until then.
One is never ready for the death of a child. Whether you are the one mourning the death of your child or you want to undertand what a friend is going through or offer a book that will help, one of these books would be appropriate. You will see other suggestions for other specific situations when you look through to look at these books.
Healing After Loss: Daily Meditations For Working Through GriefThe Death Of A Child: Reflections For Grieving ParentsBeyond Tears: Living After Losing a Child, Revised EditionLife After the Death of My Son: What I’m LearningGone but Not Lost: Grieving the Death of a Child
Facing Suicide: Leigh, Rich, and Sarah
The suicide of anyone you know fairly well is always a shock. The first one I faced was of a neighbor whose husband had left her for another woman. She had announced her intentions and the whole neighborhood was keeping watch on her as unobtrusively as possible in shifts and trying to talk her out of it. She had passed her will to all the neighbors who lived around her.
The first time, when she succeeded in evading us and overdosed on pain pills, we found out in time to get her to the hospital and she recovered. The second time she tricked us again and shot herself. Unfortunately, she hadn’t counted on her 10-year-old son being the one to find her. I can understand why he ran out of the house screaming until the closest neighbor heard him and held him and made the necessary calls. What a horrible experience for that young man to have to remember for the rest of his life.
When it’s your closest friend and you were the last one to speak to him, it’s even worse. I know, because our closest friend Rich stopped by unexpectedly one night on his way home from work and we had a very emotional time with him, watching him cry, but unable to tell us why. Before he left he had stopped crying and seemed as normal as he could be, since he had been hearing voices no one else could hear for a couple of months.
We had been discussing that. He had told my husband he’d finally diagnosed himself over the Internet, but my husband didn’t recognize the name of the disease. I will tell the rest of his story elsewhere. Hubby waited for him to explain instead of asking for information, and Rich didn’t. We suspect now that he thought he had brain cancer. I can still remember everything that happened that night. He hadn’t been sleeping well because of the voices he couldn’t turn off, and Hubby offered to drive him home. He said he’d be OK. He even called when he got home to let me know he got there safely — something he’d never done before. I thanked him, we said a few more words, and then ended the call.
Getting the News
The next afternoon, I learned he was dead and we went over to the house where he rented a room and was treated almost like a nephew by his landlady. The police were outside when we arrived, and questioned us as to whether we knew of any reason he might want to take his life. They told us that as far as they knew it wasn’t suicide.
Then we went into the house and the landlady told the story of how she had gone to check on him when she saw his car outside long after he should have been at work, and found him on the floor. When she couldn’t wake him, she called 911. She did not suspect suicide. We all sat around and shared our last encounters with him, including ours, just the night before. We had not realized he had really come to say goodbye to us.
Finally, the coroner came and disappeared into Rich’s room. We all sat on pins and needles until he came out. We all were waiting to hear what killed him and were shocked when told Rich had died by his own hand. The gun had been propelled under the bed after it was fired, which is why his landlady had not seen it. She screamed, and the rest of us were just in shock. As Hubby and I looked back on that last visit, we could see the hints — in hindsight. We also knew he considered suicide a way to deal with a terminal illness, and we now believe he thought he had brain cancer. But we still kept going over and over that last night wondering if we could have done something different that might have saved his life.
Dealing with the Grief of Suicide
That is one way we dealt with our grief. In any other death, you don’t spend so much time trying to figure out why it happened. But with a suicide, you do. You can’t seem to help it. And you think that somehow you should have prevented it. Trying to find answers to the “why” question is rather like having your tongue automatically keep probing anything missing or irregular in your mouth, returning to it again and again.
Finally, you realize this line of thought will not change anything. He is gone. You can’t go back and change that night. You did all you knew to do with the information you had. You have to forgive in your heart that he chose to leave you and didn’t trust you with that last secret. You have to commit him to a loving God who did understand his heart and motivations and the state of his mind when this happened. You have to forgive yourself for not being able to stop it and realize that God is not blaming you for not stopping it. One book I found especially helpful while dealing with Rich’s suicide was Grieving a Suicide by Albert Hsu.
You will still grieve for that one who was as close as a brother and a big part of your life. But gradually you will be able to get on with your life. You will feel the pain again on his birthday and on the holidays he spent with you and your extended family. He will continue to be missed. But after a year or two you will be able to look at him as a friend who has moved on and get used to him not being there. You will continue to tell the stories of what he would do if he were here and to remember things he said. And you will still occasionally remember the pain of the night you found out he had left you. But life will go on. You can read the story about our friendship with Rich and details about his last visit and what followed at Our Friend Committed Suicide.
Our daughter Sarah was a bit different. We had not heard from her directly for fourteen years. We got a bit of general information from her half brother’s family, and we knew she lived with a significant other and that she was living several states distant from us. But we hadn’t heard anything for a couple of years and we weren’t even sure she was still alive. She was our prodigal, but as far as we knew, she was living the life she had chosen for herself and she had gone back to her birth relatives who were trying to help her in her chosen life. We were trying to respect what we believed to be her wishes. (Sarah and Jason were both adopted, and natural brother and sister. ) We did know Sarah had been devastated by her brother’s death, but she had not been around after the memorial service to grieve with us.
We got the word of Sarah’s death from her half-brother, and we learned she had shot herself. We were able to call her common law husband in Texas to learn more about her life with him and her death, and that helped us and him to grieve losing her. We had always hoped for a renewed relationship on this earth, but it didn’t happen. From various members of her natural family, we learned of the many factors that contributed to her wanting to die, including a deep depression in her last months. We grieved for the pain she must have felt. The only one she would have felt comfortable going to was Jason and he was gone. He was the only person she completely trusted and felt loved by. And he was not there to comfort her.
I think she was, in her own way, trying to get to him. She had told all her relatives that if she ever died she wanted to be buried with him, and we saw to it that her wish was granted. Being able to do that, and knowing that in spite of the strain in our relationship she trusted us, who were the only ones who could make it happen, to do it, was somewhat healing. We received much comfort from things her husband told us about her life with him, and that also helped. Since our habits that once included having her around every day had long since changed, we did not have to make that adjustment. We did not know her as an adult, and so we hold dear the memories of the little girl and young lady you see in the pictures. You can see more pictures and read the story of Sarah’s life and death here. You can see pictures of her actual burial at Forest Lawn Sunnyside in Long Beach, California in my article When There’s a Death You Need a Mortuary.
Suicide has two components that a normal death by illness or accident does not have — rejection and guilt. When someone takes his own life, he is choosing to leave you. And you always wonder if there was something you could have done that you didn’t know to do that could have prevented that senseless death. These books have helped a lot of grieving family and friends of those who took their lives to work through their grief as they try to answer the question all suicide survivors have: Why?
No Time to Say Goodbye: Surviving The Suicide Of A Loved OneMy Son . . . My Son . . .: A Guide to Healing After Death, Loss, or SuicideAftershock: Help, Hope and Healing in the Wake of SuicideMaking Peace with Suicide: A Book of Hope, Understanding, and ComfortFinding Hope While Grieving Suicide
Losing Mom to Cancer
Mom and I have always been close. When Dad died, we bonded even more in some ways, since she depended upon me a lot to help her through her darkest hours. When Jason died, she was there for me, even though up until 1995 we lived many miles apart.
In 2005, Mom was diagnosed with cancer right after an illness that began shortly after Christmas. My brother’s family had come up to her home near us that last Christmas because she had been sick and I had 24-hour care for her by then since she was on oxygen. In late January, I had to take Mom to the emergency room, and it was there in the hospital that her cancer was discovered.
Since she was already 89 and there was little chance treatment would help much, she made the decision to go with Hospice care and come home. I was participating in and managing her other caregivers during those last two months. We were able to talk freely with her about her approaching death, and in the process of helping her come to grips with it, I also was beginning the grieving process we both felt at the impending separation. For this reason, it was very different from the other deaths, which more or less took me by surprise.
We planned her memorial service together and when the time came for her to go, I was with her. That was also different from the other deaths. I had not been present at any of them. Being there helps it sink in, and when it’s a parent who has lived to almost 90, it’s something you have time to get used to. You know a goodbye is coming. You grieve, and you miss her, but it’s not as hard to go on –especially since the relationship was a good one and there are no regrets, nothing left unsaid, no unfinished business. I inherited her house, and sometimes when I’m there, I feel as though I know what she’d be saying to me, and I can almost imagine her next to me in her chair, with her cat in her lap. Though I had known her longer than any of the other ones I lost, her death was the easiest to deal with.
Grieving Each Kind of Death is Different.
How one grieves depends upon whether the death follows the natural order, such as children burying parents instead of parents burying children. It depends on how close and how daily the relationship was at the time of death. It depends upon whether the death followed a long illness or was more sudden and unexpected, as in an accident or a fatal heart attack. It is harder when one you loved has chosen death instead of waiting it out. And it is harder when there is unfinished business in the relationship.
I was able to get through the grieving situations I have faced so far with the help of God and supportive family, church, and friends. Others, such as my friend who suddenly lost her husband in a terrible train wreck and had three children, needed more help than that. Maybe you will, too. My friend highly recommends GriefShare. It helped her through dealing with her great loss. Another friend who lost a child was helped by the Compassionate Friends, who specializes in the grief of losing a child. If you’ve lost someone to a terminal illness, Hospice offers grief counseling, even if your loved one wasn’t under Hospice care.
If you have lost someone through death, the most important thing is to face your grief and work it through. If you don’t have a supportive group of family and friends or need more help than that, I hope you might find it in one of the organizations above. Your way of grieving will be unique to you. All I can tell you is that if you go ahead and do your grief work, you will eventually feel less pain and be able to take up your life again and go on. You will even be able to laugh again someday and find joy in life again. There really is light at the end of the tunnel. I’ve been there, and I know.