The Grief Club
Every morning for the past six months I have kept in contact with a woman who lost her husband. The day after he died, I sent a red heart text message, which is something I do often. For me it is a whispered, “I am thinking of your heart right now”, without being too intrusive into their private time of grief. Sometimes these are ignored, which I do not take personally, some respond with a “thank you” or a quick note letting me know how they are doing, but for this particular woman, it became a daily expression of the many ways her grief evolves.
“Grief never ends… but it changes. It is a passage, not a place to stay. Grief is not a sign of weakness, nor a lack of faith. It is the price of love”
I have watched as she has tried to navigate a life that is minus someone she shared 70 years with; everything from getting up and having a cup of tea has changed for her and it took weeks before she stopped taking out the second cup and placing it on the table where he sat every single day. She told me she missed seeing his cup at the table. I told her I felt there was nothing wrong with setting out a cup for him, if it brought her comfort. She stopped for a while, but she has started again… she has tea with him now in the mornings and she feels him there with her. She is 93 years old. I think this is okay.
When I first became a hospice nurse I learned to focus on the patient and their dying experience, doing what I can to alleviate pain and suffering, hoping for a gentle and kinder death. And while I still do that of course, I realize that a significant part of the work I do is really geared more towards those who are left behind. I invite them in to participate in the care, I suggest things they can do to provide comfort and help guide them to say the things they need to say before last breaths are taken. I strive for there to be less regret or guilt that tends to happen in the moments between life and death, which isn’t always possible, but always worth my best effort.
When someone is dying, I am usually in the home for hours, managing symptoms for the patient and providing support to those at the bedside. This can last for weeks, or days and sometimes it is less than 24hours. A lot can happen in that time; trust is built and while you aren’t really “friends” or “family” a connection is made that is different than any other. So, when they have taken their last breaths and I say my goodbyes afterwards, I walk to my car worried about those being left behind. I wonder about the pieces they will have to pick up day after day and the way they will have to navigate this new way of life. I struggle with closing the door behind me, because it feels as if I am saying, “my job here is done”. It is moments like these when I am so thankful for the hospice social workers and bereavement teams, because I know they will reach out and help guide them through their grieving process. But I wonder… who will help guide me? While it was not a personal loss for me, I grieve too… I am also a member of the Grief Club.
As I text back and forth with this woman who lost her husband many months ago, I have been able to watch the different ways she is experiencing her grief. Each day is different, and some days are worse than others. She cries a lot, sometimes she wakes up thinking he is still here and has to relive the moment he died all over again. Grief does not go away, the ache from losing someone you love does not go away and the pain and the struggle is so real that it feels like a band-aid is constantly being ripped off the same sore day after day. Grief is the price of love… to have this ache, as I say often, is to have known great love. But how can we help someone work through this? How can we be there for someone in a way that can make their pain go away?? Can we make their pain go away? What I have learned these past months is that the pain does not go away. If you know someone who is grieving a loss, the best thing you can do for them is to let them know they are not alone. It is not our job to say things like, “it will get better with time”, or “they are in a better place”, or “you will get on with your life”, which are actual things people say in an attempt to be helpful. This is not our experience, and we are in no position to tell someone else how to feel, certainly not how to grieve. But if we reach out, just enough to let them know we are there, that in itself will bring comfort. Not everyone responds the same way, or needs the same things, this can’t possibly work for everyone, but it is a good start. And some days, you might not get anything back, but other days you will, and they will respond, and you will be there for them and maybe just that day alone… you will have helped make their ache a little less of a struggle.
I wrote a blog a few months back, titled “grief is a dance in uncomfortable shoes” and at the time what that meant to me, was that grief was like trying to dance to your favorite song, while your feet were pinching and hurting in the worst way. But I think it is more than that, I think grief is painful and beautiful at the same time, it is unpredictable, it can be so dark you can’t see a thing and then all of a sudden it can be the most beautiful shades of all your favorite colors. I think grief is like learning to talk again after having no voice or walking again after having no feet. I don’t believe it gets “better with time”, but I do believe it gets a little easier… it just takes a while to get there.
I have experienced a lot of loss in my life, and as I do this work, I realize that the feelings are starting to resurface after 20+ years, and I am only now learning how to work through and understand it. Some of my “grief” I am realizing, isn’t entirely from the loss of someone I loved, but also for what I never had, and time, mingled with the work I do, has made that very apparent to me.
Grief doesn’t have a rule book or a timeline, or a perfectly planned out itinerary and some people feel their feels totally different than you. My grief has so many colors and shows itself in the most random and unexpected ways. I am finding that it picks and chooses when it wants me to feel it, and most times, especially recently, it announces itself just after I walk out the door after being with someone who has taken their last breaths.
We will all one day become a member of the “Grief Club”, the club that no one asks to join but membership is automatically paid for simply by losing someone you love. (I read that somewhere) The reality is that you will grieve forever, that a piece of you will always remain missing, but you will find ways to tuck it away in order to continue to move forward. And our job as someone who loves you, is to let you know you are not alone and if/when you are ready to talk about it, that you let us know. And most importantly, is that we remember that grief does not have an expiration date and we cannot expect anyone to simply get over theirs.
“Grief does not change you… it reveals you” a quote by John Green.
Photo credit: I found this photo online. It felt so strong and so fragile at the same time. I searched for the person who took the photo, only to find that she had passed away last year. I felt that despite the fact she will never know, I wanted her to receive the credit anyway. She deserves it. Her name is Natalie Scarberry and she wrote the most beautiful blogs.