Things We Get Wrong About Grief
This is a guest post from Sheldon Rogers. Sheldon is a volunteer and worship leader at our Manhattan location.
It’s late in the evening.
I’ve just finished an obnoxiously long game of Settlers of Catan with my new roommates. We’re the kind of bunch who likes to bake cookies and pour gin and tonics while we conquer each other’s lands and raid stockpiles of card-shaped natural resources. Here in 3C, I’m the resident night owl. I’m also the one whose phone is constantly in need of extra juice and I’ve been charging it — on airplane mode, no less — for the entirety of the game. Looking back now, I can’t decide if this was a good thing or a bad thing. I turn out the living room lights, shut my bedroom door, and bring my phone back to life.
Instagram like. Facebook comment. Text message. Voicemail from sister-in-law in the middle of the night?
In my family this is never a good sign.
The message was a calm, collected request to call back as soon as I could and it didn’t matter what time it was. At this point, it was almost 2 AM.
I don’t know what’s worse: the fact that I knew what she was calling about or the fact that I duped myself into believing it wasn’t what I was about to hear. The short version: my mother was in unbelievably bad shape after suffering a pulmonary embolism on the way home.
A string of curse words is all I can muster as I try to convince myself that just because a person was without oxygen for 15 minutes, had to be revived three times in an ambulance, and is now hooked to several machines providing her body’s basic functions doesn’t mean that person is dead. It means she is being taken care of by skilled professionals and she will be fine.
I hang up.
I call my bosses at 3 AM to tell them I will not be at work until further notice due to a family emergency, whip up a completely desperate Facebook status, arrange a flight home, and lie in bed, motionless and barely blinking, until the sun rises. After exactly zero minutes of sleep I pack a week’s worth of clothes, because I’m still convincing myself there will be a miracle before I get there, she will be fine, and I can hang out at home for a week. At the last minute, I pack a black shirt and black jeans; swearing to myself they will not be worn together and I will not be going to anyone’s funeral. I manage to stay convinced on the subway, through TSA security, through sipping my ginger ale and listening to happy songs while I stare out a tiny window, and even until I see the skyscrapers of home getting closer in the distance.
But when I step off the plane, I can’t feel her.
Usually, I can feel her energy when I come home; her excitement and joy for seeing her long lost, New Yorker son. And now, nothing.
We arrive at the hospital and all the family is there. I’m the last one to arrive. I’m taken to see her alone. I don’t know how long I spend pacing around and begging God to stop this cruel joke, but somehow I manage to come back to the waiting room with the rest of my family. Knowing what we know and seeing what we’ve seen, we make the most difficult decision we’ve ever made and agree to end life support.
We go to the room, the doctors disconnect the machines, and after an hour of waiting I know what it’s like to feel my heart split in two.
In the week following, I see people I haven’t seen in over a decade, I cry a lot, I sleep too much, and I plan my mom’s funeral almost single-handedly because it’s the only way I can feel like I have any control over my life. The week after that, having survived the funeral in full-on shock mode, I lay around doing nothing, call friends, make plans to distract myself, have multiple breakdowns — my personal favorite being how angry I got because my dad’s DVD player was too old to make it through Guardians of the Galaxy without over heating — and plan my return back to New York City because “life doesn’t stop just because your mom dies.” In hindsight, that was probably the most misguided thing I’d ever said.
Upon my return, I attempt to go back to my normal life. The only problem is my life isn’t normal anymore. Grief has moved in. As I navigate my way through the darkest valley I’ve ever seen I discover that everything I know about grief is wrong. But a few things stick out more than others.
Grief isn’t linear.
Imagine your life as a tree. Now, imagine grief as a branch on that tree. The branch forms, looking as if it will maintain a linear path and rise majestically into the sky. However, as it grows, smaller branches and stems shoot out from it and spread in different directions. In this way, grief grows throughout your life; permeating every aspect. Just when you think you know where it’s going and you’ve got control, it veers off on another path. It is always moving. Always changing. Always unpredictable. Except at the start. There’s no mistaking grief when it shoves its way into your life. After that, though, it comes sneaking in disguised as a song, a photo, a movie, a sound, a smell. And you don’t get to choose whether the tears you will cry are happy or sad. You just have to let it pass through you the way you jumped through that wave when she took you to swim in the ocean for the first time.
Expecting to be unchanged by grief is stupid.I’m going to be honest. I am a jerk now. Sometimes I am a jerk on purpose, but most times I’m not. I think most people who know me would say I’m an amicable human but my “jerk quotient” has definitely risen since last year. I think it’s because I’m realizing life is too short for other people’s games. Or maybe it’s because I have nowhere to displace the anger of loss. Regardless, if you’re my friend and you’re reading this thinking, “Sheldon has really changed a lot over the last year” I can assure you this is the reason why. My mother’s death is the cause of every positive and negative change in my life, because when the moon falls out of the sky you can’t walk around in the dark without changing the way you do things.
I changed for the better in that I’m much more compassionate to people in need now. I changed for the worse in that I seem to have lost most of my direction without my mom’s advice and I’m still struggling to find it. These are just two examples. But no matter what, grief changes you.
There is no way that everyone can be there for you all of the time.
As selfish as it is, when experiencing a great loss we want the world to stop and take notice of what we’ve been through. This will definitely happen at first. When you lose a loved one, people will pour out of the woodwork with sympathies, condolences, platitudes, and carbohydrates covered in cheese. The latter of these will be the only one you swallow without comparing it to a bitter, horse-sized pill. You will feel good for having people around to support you but you will feel bad for not wanting to hear another person tell you how sorry they are for your loss. Grief is selfish that way, but you’re allowed to be selfish for a moment when you lose someone so important.
I have never seen my family and friends rally as quickly as they did when my mother died. There were so many casseroles and baked hams at my brother’s house. There were too many people for me to count at the visitation and funeral service. The amount of phone calls, voicemails, text messages and social media comments I sifted through after the funeral was insane. I still haven’t responded to all of them and, frankly, I won’t. But that is not the way it will stay. As much as you think this kind of support will last forever, it won’t. People will go on with their lives and you will think they are leaving you out to dry. But all you have to do is ask for help. When you do, take this piece of advice with you: If you are planning to ask someone for help but you’ll feel judged, burdensome, or embarrassed in the process?…Ask someone else. That doesn’t mean this person isn’t a good friend. It just means that different friends serve different purposes and it helps to know who your crying shoulders are.
You are not the only person in the world who is going through this.
This seems simple enough after the fact, but when you’re in the early throws of grief you are isolated, alone, blind, and scared. The sheer amount of shock you feel makes conversations, faces, names, and even entire days disappear into a blur. You wake up not remembering where you went or who you talked to the day before. In this sense, you feel literally alone. But the figurative form of loneliness hurts even worse. You’ll think there’s not anyone in your life who could possibly identify with what you’re feeling. Then one day, a friend will reach out to you and talk about the loss of their own parent. Or maybe one of your family members will call to see how you’re holding up. Or you’ll be awake in the middle of the night googling “grief counseling” and find an unconventional therapy group that meets over wine and food instead of in a cold church basement.
Moments like this are what make the uphill battle of grief a little easier every day. So don’t take them for granted.
It does not get better.
I say this as nicely as possible: If you are consoling someone who is grieving please think of something better to say than “it will get better.” This statement is entirely false. It will not get better.
But you will get stronger.
One day, after months or even years of thinking about your lost loved one and crying, they will cross your mind and you’ll feel the corners of your mouth curl upward. The memory will be fond instead of dreadful. This is not to say there won’t be bad days. There will definitely be bad days; terrible days, even. This is why it doesn’t get better. It just gets different. You learn to deal with it in a positive way and look at every memory as an opportunity to bring them back rather than dwelling on the fact that they’re gone. You will still cry. Sometimes your tears will be happy. Other times your tears will be sad. But in the end you will learn that grieving just means that you had someone to love.
What a tragic blessing to love someone so deeply that losing them makes you hurt so much.
But what a wonderful blessing to remember their love in the first place and to know the quality and value of the time you have with the people you love.
I got a lot of things wrong about grief so that I could understand one thing that is always right about it:
to grieve is to love in its purest form.