I’m just becoming able to read the stuff people have sent me about grief and the grieving process. Truly, most of it, I’ve heard or read before—mostly in psychology or music therapy classes.
But some of it is unique. I can tell that somebody else was actually going through something similar to what I’m feeling. And that’s been the most helpful thing to read.
I know several faces of grief from my own experience.
I started learning at a young age on the farm when animals died. They were all dearly loved pets to me and I mourned them, every one. I cried. I hid in my room. Or I silently walked off without saying anything to anyone and sat by the pond for hours until the sun set and the bullfrogs sang.
Yes, that was different than losing my friends and family, but it was preparation. And in many ways, it was similar too.
My first experiences with family death were softened by distance and time. Family members I knew, but didn’t see more than two or three times a year slipped away and most of the impact was from watching other family members who’d had the privilege of closer relationships.
Then there was my step-grandmother. I didn’t know her very well either, until she had dementia and she was moved to a nursing home close to where I lived. Our best times were spent talking about things I didn’t know about. She’d giggle and pat my hand confidingly as she talked about things “we” did. I always suspected she thought I was a childhood friend or sister.
When the time came for Grandmother’s crossing, my mother called me. She and my step-dad and I sat by Grandmother’s side, playing beautiful recorded music, giving her love and permission to move on. When at last she did, it was beautiful. She took a last breath and with a look of joy and excitement on her face and her hand outstretched, she laid back on the pillow. I don’t remember mourning Grandmother too much, but I’m so thankful for that parting gift of light and love.
When my Granny had dementia, it was a whole different story. Of course, I’d been closer to her my whole life. Seeing her slowly fade away was unbearable. At first, in the nursing home, she would sing with me. I took music I thought she’d like from her younger years or Pa would bring some and we’d play it while she ate in an attempt to get her to eat better. But as the clock’s gears ground away time, she became less and less responsive. She appeared to be drugged most of the time, as the staff said she was “combative.” A few times, she slept for days, I guess, without sustenance. I would think, this is it, she’ll be released from her suffering now. But no. I grieved losing my granny every time I saw her for the last several years, until one morning I finally got the phone call that she had passed. I still miss Granny. But in the last couple of years, slowly, the nursing home scenes have faded, allowing the happier memories to prevail. One night, in my dreams, I was sitting on a piano bench singing with Pa. All of a sudden, we heard Granny laughing—a big belly laugh—in the adjoining room. Pa and I looked at each other and smiled really big. “Been a long time since I heard that,” Pa said.
My Grandma Bennett came to me in a dream once, too. I walked around a corner and through a doorway into a different room and there she was, real as life (conscious life) and it startled me so that I jumped. She sat there and cackled like it was a hilarious joke. Once I got over the shock, I laughed with her and I still think about it from time to time.
As family members have made their transitions, I’ve watched everybody else at the funerals and services, at the homes while the family waited for the services and said good-bye to each other again as we all left to return to our own homes. I saw my great aunt and uncle sitting side-by-side gripping each other’s hands, holding on for dear life when their young son passed away. I saw other couples sit side-by-side and not touch each other or look at each other when they lost parents. Once, I was asked to attend a funeral as a family member for a friend of our family who didn’t have anybody else in our area. The woman’s friends and co-workers (she’d been a much-loved teacher) gave testimony after testimony about this beautiful person I never had the privilege of knowing.
And then there was my friend Sherri. We met at Tae Kwon Do class where both of our sons worked out. She coughed a lot, but told me she was getting better. Her husband worked on my house and she came to garden with me. We went to church together. One day, her husband, Jim, called and said she’d died in the night. I can’t say I was unprepared. I’d heard from a voice deep within me that she was going to die, but I just refused to believe it. Jim didn’t seem to mourn much. He said people wasted a lot of time mourning because death is just a door into the next part of life. I stuck a feather I’d found in a stump at the garden where Sherri and I worked together and sang her planting song as I worked the soil. By the time the feather worked it’s way out of that stump, sadness subsided and I found I could remember Sherri with happiness and thanksgiving.
Then, at the end of a beautiful January weekend, my husband slipped away into the night. He had appeared healthy. We were happy. And then he was gone.
I think that at first, I could only see things within a couple of feet of my face. Everything else was a blur. People came and went from my home. I was vaguely aware of time and days passing by.
Many people were very helpful, generous and kind. Our kids (mostly grown) pitched in and helped out around the house. My parents were in and out. Friends brought food, sent cards and called to check on me.
The night after Jim died when our youngest son, Blake, and I were alone for the first time, we got out gel pens and colored mandalas and started talking, just a little. Over the course of the week, I found my skin, lying limp in the living room floor where I’d left it the night Jim died. Gingerly, I nudged it. I knew I still needed my skin, so I started crawling back inside it.
It took several days to really get my skin back on. People were still checking on me regularly, trying to share with me the best they knew, reassuring words about it’s okay to cry. It’s okay to be sad. Sympathy cards piled up, along with poems and wise tidbits about grieving. I looked at everything, but could hardly read them.
Two weeks later, it was Valentine’s Day. I got the markers out and made a card for Blake. Another week-and-a-half went by and it was my birthday. I cried when my friends sang to me. A week later, it was our anniversary date. My sister-in-law spent the night before and helped out with sorting some of his things.
We had been in the midst of life. We weren’t preparing for death. We had a multitude of things we’d planned to do together and there was that formidable “honey-do” list a mile long that he never could seem to finish before something else got added. They say not to make big decisions when you’re grieving, but there were some things that needed to be dealt with regardless.
And so, with the help of friends and family, I started picking up the pieces and moving forward.
After two months, I’m beginning to realize that besides being okay to be sad and to cry, it is okay to be happy again too. It’s okay to breathe deeply of the fresh air after a rain. It’s okay to find joy in morning light dancing through the trees. It’s okay to laugh and to play. It’s okay to enjoy a fragrant bouquet on my table.
No matter what face of grief you’re wearing, it’s okay to be happy again. More than that. It’s good to be happy again.