Before my first experience with loss, I was insensitive to the topic. I remember the first wake I attended. I was five years old sporting the chic coconut hairstyle that was ever so popular at the time. I viewed this wake as a grand event where I had the opportunity to wear my sparkly, new black dress. To me, it was just like church. Did my antsy five year old self love sitting still for a 2 hour church service every Sunday? That is a definite no; however, I loved my church attire. Church was an excuse to dress up and be surrounded by other nicely dressed individuals. An excuse for my mother to style my hair and for my dad to smell of sweet cologne. To me, the morning I attended my first wake was just like the mornings before church; a day of family dress up.
Once we arrived at the wake, my mom pulled me aside: “Remember Elisabeth your great grandmother went to heaven.” With all the excitement about my outfit, I had forgotten that my great grandmother became an angel, but I remembered as soon as we walked through the doors of the funeral home. My uncle is the jokester in the family so naturally, as he walked towards me I expected to have my "nose stolen" or a coin pulled out of my ear; however, I was met with the sound of his cries. In his embrace, the wetness of his tears stained my dress an even darker shade of black; at that moment, I could feel the pain of loss.
Time passed and amidst my childhood and preteen bliss I was lucky enough to forget about loss and death. My focus was on the present moment; aka I was busy listening to One Direction music and praying that we would play 7 up in one of classes. At age 14, this all changed when my friends’s mothers passed away. Her death scared me because at her wake I remembered the feeling of loss. I had all these questions: How could a mother pass away so young? Could my mom pass away? Will I have to see the body? Will my friend return to school? Selfishly, all these questions were related to myself. My friend's mother died and while I felt horrible for him, my concern was making sense of how such a thing could even happen. I felt an uneasy sense of shock at the thought that at any moment my mother could die. A couple of weeks went by and my friend finally returned back to school. He was different; he wasn’t the reserved, confident friend I knew. He was loud and rude. I attributed his disrespect to grief. I think secretly everyone did; teachers did not yell at his rude remarks and jokes, they just shined a soft smile that seemed to signal their condolences. A few more months passed and I wasn’t as understanding of his obnoxious behavior, for that matter, neither were my teachers. Looking back at this time, I am disappointed in myself.
This leads me to my most recent encounter with loss; last October, my grandmother passed away. She was only 68 years old and died very unexpectedly. I found it unbearably difficult to cope with her passing. The day my grandmother left me no one warned me about the pain. No one told me why that car ride home from school was filled with an uncomfortable amount of love. No one told me that my mother’s smile was contrived and that her heavy heart was disguised under the pretense that everything was just as it was when something was missing…someone was missing. When I walked into my house everything looked the same as if nothing had changed. No one prepared me for the words that left my mother's mouth. The words that strangled my own breath in disbelief and pain. The words that froze my mind and time. The words that ruthlessly stabbed my heart from all angles, especially those angles less than 90 degrees because this was an acute situation that just made me wish I was obtuse. The words that reacquainted me with the feeling of loss.
My decision to trace my evolving understanding of the feeling of loss came on the heels of my grandmother's passing. After her death I was acquainted with emotions I had never felt. Yes, I have felt sadness and anger before, but never as deeply. The sadness I felt was all encompassing and life changing. Her passing came at a time when my focus was on the future. As a dedicated high school student, senior year was my last chapter before college and all my energy was applied towards completing applications for prospective colleges. For almost four years, I prepped for this very moment. All my hours of studying and learning were to prepare me for college. I mean I went to a private college preparatory high school….its in the name. As a planner, I took all the necessary steps to secure a smooth transition to college. At a time when my college applications should have been my primary focus, they no longer mattered to me. All that mattered was that my grandmother would not physically be present in the future I was desperately planning.
Nearly a year later, I have had time to reflect and here are some of my conclusions that helped me deal with the complexity of loss:
1. Realize that it takes a loss to truly understand the difference between sympathy and empathy.
Until you suffer a loss, all those times you gave someone your condolences you did not truly understand the extent of suffering that person endured.
2. Do not judge how one grieves.
Everyone handles grief differently. The person with a smile on their face may be the one suffering the most; don't judge their bravery.
3. Do not try to understand why your loved one was taken from you.
Death is unreasonable and unfair. It is nothing you did nor your loved one.
4. It takes a loss to realize that our lives are held together by popsicle sticks and spit.
This can be a daunting realization. Don’t let this scare you, but rather use it as inspiration to make the most of every day.
5. Recognize that death brings out both the worst and the best in people.
It is like the new State Farm commercial, for every scenario where a family beautifully comes together after a loss there is a family that is torn apart.
6. Know that there will be days when the loss will feel unbearable.
Remember that for every day of sadness there will be a day of joy.
7. Don’t let anyone tell you how you should grieve.
8. Keep your loved one’s spirit alive.
Do not try and erase them from your memory. Focus on your most cherished memories. At first it will be painful, but gradually recollection will become your friend.
9. Those first few months you will wake up and go to bed sad.
10. At some point you will be mad.
Mad at your faith for not protecting your loved one. Mad at yourself for not doing more for your loved one. Don’t dwell in this space of anger.
11. Time does not heal.
Time simply allows more beautiful things to enter your life. This does not bring your loved one back to life nor heal your pain from the loss, but it alleviates your sadness.
12. Loss is a loosing situation for everyone.
13. Incorporate your loved ones in the new and exciting chapters of your life.
A picture of your loved one should be on the desk at your new office or the walls of your college dorm.
14. Don’t second guess that your loved one knows you love them.
I struggled over not expressing my love one last time before my grandmother passed. Now I realize that love does not always need to be spoken. Love is the long term result of words and actions.
15. Live your life.
I still find it hard to cope with the loss of my grandmother. I miss her larger than life personality and unconditional love for her family. It is hard to move on and live your life without your deceased loved one. I even went through periods of guilt for doing so. During these times of guilt and sadness remind yourselves just how unpredictable life is.
Live your life the way your loved one would have wanted.