One of the greatest gifts of being human is the ability to feel. To feel means we are fully alive and that is a gift itself. Grief is complex and cannot be put into a box or packaged neatly into a one-size-fits-all formula. Sorrow, love, heartache, hope, disappointment, joy, regret, fear, anger, gratitude, peace. All of it. Any of it. Some of it. None of it. Sometimes it’s many emotions at once; other times it’s an intense wave of a single soul-piercing emotion that carries a weight so strong, it feels as if it could lay you out flat. Grief is intense, complicated, misunderstood, and uncomfortable. But for all its bad press, grief has an upside.
A few months ago, I lost my sweet mother to a devastating neurodegenerative illness called Progressive Supranuclear Palsy (PSP). It is an uncommon Parkinsonism disorder affecting brain cells that control balance and gait, coordination, vision, speech, and swallowing. When she received the diagnosis in the spring of 2016, my husband and I read up on PSP and saw that the prognosis was very poor, with no cure and a rapid decline in health. So, we made the decision to move from Seattle to Orange County to be near her and my dad to give them support.
The thing that struck me day after day for the 2 ½ years I watched my mom fight the illness – as it stole her balance, her speech, her eyesight, and her ability to move about freely and care for herself – it never stole her joy. Never. She had a lot of tough days. But even on the worst days, she kept smiling, kept laughing, and kept loving everyone around her. My mom was a living example that joy is different than happiness. Happiness is based on your attitude about external circumstances – joy is based on internal attitudes & core beliefs that can’t be shaped by circumstances. Joyful people think differently. They focus on what’s right, not on what’s wrong. That’s what she did. My mom’s joy was an inspiration to me.
Grief is one of the most misunderstood processes in mental health
It can be complicated and difficult to identify, and that frustrates most people because we humans want to make sense of everything! It takes many shapes and forms. Some experience anger or resentment; denial or deep sadness; numbness or emptiness.
Most people think that grief begins when a loved one physically passes away. That’s not always the case. I grieved for nearly three years, as I watched my mom suffer from a neurodegenerative disease that literally ravaged her once functionally healthy body. The most difficult part for me was not when her suffering ended for good – it was when she was in the midst of her suffering. She used to tell me she felt like a prisoner in her own body. I can’t even imagine what that feels like, but her eyes told me it was horrendous. My grief process has been lengthy because my mom was sick for several years. Grief can also linger when a death is sudden and unexpected, or particularly tragic, such as the loss of a child.
So how do you do your best grieving? By leaning into it. Over the years, I’ve heard many people share that they even feel ashamed or afraid to grieve, which only multiplies misunderstanding because rather than leaning in, we often turn away from something when we are ashamed or afraid. When grief shows up the healthiest thing to do is honor and accept whatever shape it’s taking. Be curious about it. Learn from it. The freeing thing is that there’s no right or wrong way to grieve. It’s about what helps you move through it. Not around it, over it, or under it – through it. There is no shortcut. If you want to move forward, you can’t u-turn and run the opposite direction.
Grief has an upside
As long as you’re expressing feeling, you’re moving through the pain. Most people focus on the intensely uncomfortable emotions they experience when they are grieving and try to avoid them, but there is an upside to the discomfort. If you are feeling pain and sorrow, that means you can also feel joy and hope. Feeling is good for your mental health. It’s when you stop feeling all together, that you will become stuck in your grief. So, let it out. Cry. Scream. Stomp. Laugh. Sob. Whimper. Whine. Wail. Giggle. Lament. Throw your hands in the air. Howl at the moon. Whatever it takes.
Hope whispers, lean in to your grief.
Sometimes, the expression grief can take may surprise you. Mine did. Because I spent nearly three years grieving the loss of my mom as I had always known her – as a vibrant, passionate, strong, fully functioning woman – when she physically passed away, it didn’t take long for me to notice an emotion surface that I hadn’t expected to show up. Hope.
Why hope? Because I know where my mom really is. She isn’t in the urn on my dad’s fireplace in the home they shared. She is in her eternal home, in heaven. My faith tells me that our bodies are just a shell that houses the true person – we are spiritual beings. Our spirits are meant to live forever, but our bodies are not. I recognize that my spiritual beliefs are what ushered hope in to my grief process because I believe I will see my mom again one day. My grief is not permanent. Faith brings purpose to the pain. It produces joy in the midst of sorrow. It gives birth to hope. And hope can be born out of grief too. Just as sure as the sun rises after the blackest of nights, hope can rise up in the soul after the darkness of grief.
Hope is not just a whimsical ideal. Hope is the ability to see the light, even in the darkness. Like faith, hope is a belief. A belief that things can be better than the present or the past, and that you actually have a role in making it better. Studies show that faith and hope contribute to resiliency. Resilient people withstand the pressures of life – and death – and bounce back to recover more quickly from difficulties. Bouncing back can take some time though, even for the most resilient.
There is no one-size-fits-all model for grief
There isn’t a manual for how, when or where to grieve. Or what a “normal” timetable is. Every loss is unique and grief varies with the circumstances of the loss, the relationship with the deceased, and the individual personality of the one who is grieving. Generally, the first year after a loss is usually the most difficult, as you struggle to adjust to life without your loved one. Holidays, anniversaries, and special occasions are painful reminders that your loved one is gone, and life is different. Some people like to light a candle, visit the grave site, set an extra place at the table, or set aside a few moments during a significant day to share a memory or story about their loved one. On holidays especially, this can help to commemorate them without hijacking the holiday. Talk to your support network about your thoughts to honor your absent loved one; making plans with family and friends so that everyone is included if they want to be, can contribute to the healing process. It’s also important to respect that not everyone may feel comfortable with your idea(s) and may choose to opt out. And that’s okay.
We just celebrated our first holiday without my mom last week – Easter. We did some things to keep her memory alive that were important to her, like attending an Easter service, and distributing her favorite brand of chocolate eggs to everyone at Easter brunch. She loved hats, so I wore one of her hats all day – wearing it helped me feel close to her. In a few weeks, I will experience my first Mother’s Day without my mom. I do not suspect it will be painless, in spite of the hope I hold onto. I will need to lean in, and make room for whatever emotions show up.
Grief is a journey and the pain can feel unbearable at times, as you navigate your way through the empty spaces in your heart. You hurt because you lost someone you love. Let the love of those still with you help bring healing to the hurt. Grief is heavy, but the weight seems lighter when we have others to shoulder it with us. A recent experience going through my mom’s clothes and endless shoe boxes (my mom liked to shop) with my sister-in-law convinced me that grief is definitely less painful when you share the burden with someone you love. We laughed and cried, and I think healed a bit, as we tried on three closets full of clothes, coats, hats, and even red cowboy boots, reminiscing about my mom’s love of fashion. We were awash with sorrow and love simultaneously.
Reach out to your support network when you are struggling with your loss. Their love and support can be a light that shines into the shadows of your sadness. Love, along with faith and hope, is part of a powerful healing trio: “Three things will last forever – faith, hope, and love – and the greatest of these is love.” I Corinthians 13:13 (NLT)
April is National Parkinson’s Awareness Month. To learn more about Parkinsonism Disorders, specifically Progressive Supranuclear Palsy, go to https://www.psp.org/iwanttolearn/progressive-supranuclear-palsy/