Lately there’s been a lot of loss happening in my social network.
Since I’m no stranger to death, it still strikes a deep, sad chord in me whenever I hear of young people dying, or of friends losing parents, all the more when they are still young, and the death is unexpected. Having lost my father, in the prime of his life at age 49, and my son, at the tender age of 4, I know from experience that death and its resulting healing journey is not easy, but navigable.
My very first experience of loss came at age 9, when my best friend from kindergarten passed away. We had just finished singing the national anthem when one of the Maryknoll sisters announced it over the PA system: Lala had passed away.
It was embarrassing to cry in front of all my classmates, but the tears just flowed, and I let them. No one came to comfort me. The teacher did not even ask me what was wrong. After saying our morning prayers, we went back to the business of studying.
Later on, I requested permission from my parents to attend Lala’s wake, but they felt that it would be better for me to remember her alive. So there was no closure for me. It took me 35 years to find Lala’s sister Melanie in San Francisco. The correspondence and reunion was very healing for both of us.
At 16 I lost my dad, all too suddenly, one hot summer’s day in April 1981. The images and feelings of that day remain vivid, such that I can still remember the color of the housedress that I wore and the feeling of the asphalt beneath my feet as my brother and I ran to our neighbor’s house to seek help for dad, who suffered a heart attack right before our eyes.
I had to suck in my grief in the ensuing weeks and months so that I could help my mother function. Unknown to her, when the grief became unbearable, I would lock myself in my room and sob into my dad’s jacket, the last one that he wore before he passed away. For many months after that, my nerves would be shot every time I would hear the car blare its horn in the driveway. It would always remind me of my father’s last journey home.
We carry our childhood losses so deeply in our hearts, such that when we experience a life-changing one in adulthood, everything rises to the surface. My own experiences have led me to the path of grief education, and my losses have taught me many valuable lessons.
There is no other way but through. There are no shortcuts to grief work. You need to learn to sit with the sadness and embrace it when it visits. It is only when you learn to welcome it into your life and listen to the pain that you will be able to move on. Sometimes it takes years, and often, it will visit again and again throughout one’s life.
Empower yourself by reading about the experiences of others who have walked this same path. When my son died, I tried to read all the literature I could find on “loss of a child.” Thank God for the Internet, and for the support groups online. Today there are many books on various types of losses. To know that there are others who have experienced what you have been through and survived is such a great comfort.
Cry, as much as you can, as often as you can manage. Tears won’t heal but they are cleansing. The amount of tears varies from person to person, so don’t make comparisons. Think of yourself as a wooden bucket filled to the brim. If you do not let the water out, the bucket will break.
Find something to be grateful for despite everything. This will be difficult to do in the initial days and months, when everything is still in a haze. When the fog slowly begins to lift, try to find something in each day to be thankful for. There is always something to show gratitude for. When you do so, the sadness somehow dissipates.
Take good care of yourself. Don’t starve or binge your way through your sadness. Try to eat as healthy as you can, and sleep as much you can. Grief takes work, so your body will need the proper nourishment. Junk food doesn’t count. Get moving. When you feel the sadness beginning to engulf you, go and step outside and take a brief, brisk walk to clear your heart and your head.
Write it all out. Even if you aren’t a writer, jot down your thoughts in a journal, or on your laptop. Make sure to put the dates. Write about your feelings, the unanswered questions in your head. Don’t edit, just let it all flow. On a good day (and there will be good days), look back and see how far you have come on your journey.
Lean into God in prayer. Of all the things that were most helpful to me in all the times I had to grieve, it was prayer. In the abyss I have wrestled with God countless times over the losses of my father, and later on my son. God weeps and is always close to the broken-hearted, and all we need to really do is to lean in as close as we can to Him. He never makes mistakes, and though He does not cause the death to happen, He allows it to take place for a higher purpose that our finite minds will never understand.
I’ve always found comfort in the words of C.S. Lewis, the great writer and theologian, who himself grappled with the deepest pain when his wife died. “‘It was too perfect to last,’ so I am tempted to say of our marriage. But it can be meant in two ways. It may be grimly pessimistic—as if God no sooner saw two of His creatures happy than He stopped it (‘None of that here!’). As if He were like the Hostess at the sherry-party who separates two guests the moment they show signs of having got into a real conversation. But it could also mean, ‘This had reached its proper perfection. This had become what it had in it to be. Therefore of course it would not be prolonged.’ As if God said, ‘Good; you have mastered that exercise. I am very pleased with it. And now you are ready to go on to the next.”
Who are we to argue with the one who gives life and makes all things possible? So, humbly, with time, we accept our losses, and move forward to the next chapter of our lives—hopefully kinder, more compassionate because we have known sadness, and more importantly, known His grace.