On Valentine’s Day in 2009, I lost my grandpa. My mom and I each held one of his hands as he passed, with almost all of his surviving family members surrounding him too. I lived through the death of my father figure, slipped into a deep depression, withdrew from my passion (I gave up ballroom), and somehow continued going through the motions to survive college. I started seeing birds everywhere, especially when I really needed him. A hawk circling above me when I was walking around a desolate part of campus and I was all by myself. A hawk outside a hospital window. A chickadee that hopped up to my car window when I was lost somewhere in Connecticut and pulled over to find my way. It felt like he was around. And I still had my mom. I still had her so it wasn’t as hard as losing her too.
Losing him was like a dress rehearsal. He had Alzheimer’s and was in his mid-eighties, so it was bound to happen soon-ish. My mom was diagnosed with her highly aggressive brain tumor at the age of 60. I didn’t see it coming. None of us did. Not even by a long shot. If she lived her life expectancy, it meant I had 12 months to prepare for her passing. She lasted 21 months, so I should have been prepared.
But no matter what anyone tells you, no matter how well you think you’re ready, you’re not. Even if you’ve made it through all five stages of grief and come to acceptance beforehand, you’re not going to be ready. You never will be ready to lose them.
There are some things I wish I had known, though. Things that I had to find out by myself through the experience. That I wish I hadn’t had to learn by myself. Like I could have prepared better had I been told.
You will look for things.
Like with my grandpa, I looked for meaning with my mom’s passing. After my grandpa passed, I saw birds. After my mom passed, I saw feathers. Tons of them. After never noticing them before. And a dead lilac bush that my mom picked out that all of a sudden had blooms right after she passed. Some people find pennies, dimes, butterflies, rainbows, orbs of light in photographs, phantom smells of cigars, or visitations from their loved one in dreams. Hope. That’s what they all are. Hope. You will look for hope.
You will also look for and try to hold onto things that meant something to your loved one. A favorite necklace. The newsboy cap he always wore. A very specific photograph. The missing pedal to the damn sewing machine that’s somewhere in the things left behind. Somewhere in their stuff. You’re going to try to hold onto whatever meant something to them, because by extension, it means a great deal to you.
You will not be able to say the words “die” or “death.”
My big sister at work who lost her brother a year before I lost my mom pointed this out after realizing I cannot utter these words. Apparently, she was unable to say those words about her brother too. I use euphemisms alone. “When my mom passed,” “since she’s left us,” “now that she’s gone,” I cannot say “she died” even though she did.
It sounds too final. It means the same, but it’s not. The euphemisms make it sound like she went somewhere. Somewhere better or safer perhaps. I cannot and will not make it sound like her life just stopped. Because it’s got to go on somehow. You have to too.
Driving by yourself will be the worst.
I thought I was alone in this one, but after speaking to several others who have recently lost loved ones, this is a truth across the board. Driving to and from work will be excruciating. Your mind will wander and you’ll have no one there to distract you. For me, I called my mom every single day on my way to work. Every single day. Even when she started losing her hearing and speech, I still called her. At some point I had to stop because her hearing and speech were so bad, so I used that period to try to get used to the fact that soon, I wouldn’t be able to call her. And it didn’t matter. It didn’t prepare me.
Driving is excruciating. It makes me hate going to work and even hate coming home, because it means that I have to spend 30 minutes behind the wheel to think. About her. And it sucks.
You’ll find other weird, unexpected triggers that really aren’t weird at all. Like a certain song, his cell phone, or the smell of her favorite flower. Something inconspicuous will open the floodgates. At unfortunate times too. Like at your desk. Or in the middle of a meeting. Or at Hallmark. Or behind the damn wheel of your car.
People will surprise you.
Some people will disappear on you. Some may even become downright nasty for some reason you will never know. They’ll cast stones for their own amusement with no regard to how you’re already breaking inside. Whatever you do, do not let them hurt you. Just walk away and protect yourself from their negativity. No matter who they are. Because nobody deserves to be treated like dirt when they’re already going through hell.
On the plus side, you’ll find out a hell of a lot of people care about you and your wellbeing. People you barely know. People you’ve never met. People will come out of the woodwork. You may even make new friends like people who share similar experiences and are grieving too. Let them in. Know you are not alone. Even when it feels like you are.
Your coping skills will be put to the test.
Have you had trouble with insomnia before? You probably won’t sleep after she passes. I can’t tell you the last good night’s sleep I’ve had. Dabbled with unhealthy solutions to mask stress before? You will find yourself relying on your drug of choice or at least thinking about it. Like caffeine. You know, to counteract the exhaustion from your insomnia. Have depression? Be prepared for possibly hitting rock bottom. I’ve never felt this sad. Or alone. Even though I’m not. But it still feels like it.
You might have healthy coping mechanisms. Meditating, talking to friends, admitting you need help. Just know it’s okay to take an antidepressant or see a counselor if you need one. It’s okay to ask for help. However well or not well you’re coping, it’s okay. You’re not weak or undeserving. You’re just going through a rough time. And it will get easier one day. I promise.
You will need bereavement days. Ones dedicated to the services and ones dedicated to you.
I took five days off immediately following my mom’s passing. A full workweek, and I thought it would be enough. I had also hoarded PTO prior to her passing in case I needed more than whatever time my company would give me but was too stubborn to use it.
My mom’s wake was on a Thursday evening and her funeral was a Friday morning. Every day before the wake, I prepared for it. I put together her slideshow and photos. We met with the funeral director and the priest. I didn’t really get off the couch. But still. I was preparing for the services.
However, they were really traumatic in themselves. The wake made me paralyzed. Everyone was in beautiful, vibrant colors as my mom wanted. She looked beautiful and somehow a little alive. But it took me almost four hours to be able to look at her. The funeral and the weird reception thing after were exhausting. I was so tired. Mentally and physically. After the services were over, I needed more time to heal and not think about anything far, far away from work. I wish I took more time just for me. It’s okay to need time. Please take a little (or a lot of) time just for you.
You must take care of yourself. Okay, everyone told me this, but I didn’t really listen.
Let that one sink in for a minute. I’ll say it again. You must take care of yourself. Try to eat well, get out in nature, go for a walk, take a fun class, explore your artistic side, get to bed at a decent time, and do whatever it is that makes you happy. Please try to be good to yourself. You will be under an enormous amount of stress and hardship. You must take care of yourself.
Remember that your loved one would never want you to suffer. My mom wanted two things for me: to be happy and to travel. I try to remember that when I’m sobbing hysterically.
Everyone told me this. Everyone told me to take care of myself. And they were right, so I’m telling you. Be patient with yourself. Try your best to get by. Ask for help if you need it. Find things that matter to you. Try to keep living. Breathe in, breathe out. Talk. Listen to the birds first thing in the morning when you can’t sleep. Call a friend. Call me. I’d like to be there for anyone grieving. Just know you’re not alone.