When someone close to us is close to death, a person we have been caretaker to, or with whom we share a deep relationship, we understand to anticipate a shock of grief. We brace ourselves, not confident we know what to expect. I was in the car when I got word my father had passed, on my way home from saying goodbye to him on his deathbed. I knew the call was coming, I had been singing him off, across the miles and hours as I traveled home to my husband and children. After the call, I drove a few dozen more miles and then had to pull over and stop the car so that I could throw up. I remember thinking, so this is what happens when my father dies. Not tears, instead an ungentle gut wrenching emptiness.
Modern American culture has not coped well with death and mourning. When embalming came into vogue at the time of the Civil War, death was swept away from family hands in the front parlor, out into the marketplace where professional undertakers preach preserving and hygiene. Death, and care for the dead, became less a natural part of life and more of a behind-the-expert's-curtain affair. Along the way somehow even mourning became unclean, and we are expected to find the gumption to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps within a few weeks and get on with day to day existence as if we are not completely rearranged by loss.
I don't know what 'normal' grief looks like. I have experienced a few different kinds of grief in my life, losing elder relatives, close friends, a mentor. I have experienced being bent double by grief, and yet nothing prepared me for the months of interior unusualness I experienced after my dad died. All sorts of memory boxes fell off the dusty back shelves of my consciousness, spilling their contents randomly before my minds eye. It would take me hours to re-order the archives of meaning these memories evoked. I would call my brother late at night and we'd laugh over our sudden access to the nicknames of elementary school teachers. And there were more cautious “remember that time” conversations too, because we share what lurks in the shadows of our childhood story. Both of us sorting and rearranging, every time a new box fell we got shook to our roots; in wonder of the memory palace and also made uncomfortable by the flotsam and jetsam that came loose along with us.
I had already been building a practice as a funeral Celebrant for six years when my father passed away. I presided at the funerals of two other fathers the week before he died, and it took some months after his death before I was able to master the composure to work again. I used that time to come to a flexible peace with the past, to love my family better and forgive them (and myself) more generously, and to read, talk to people, and dig deep in myself so that my understanding of dying, after-death care, and grieving, might also be of use in my work as a funeral Celebrant. Here are three important things I learned just after my dad died about taking good care of myself:
Rest and nutrition, yes please: There is an old yarn that grief is heavy lifting and hungry work. And it is true. In the first hours and days after a close death, most people experience a state of emotional and neurological disarray. We are learning to live in a newly configured reality. If we have been a caretaker we may be contending with unusual cognitive shifts as our role of being a necessary lifeline releases. Meanwhile we contend with the grief of others close to us, contact extended family and friends, make arrangements, meet social obligations, plan a memorial. Where does the energy for all of this possibly come from? Friends bring us soup and tell us to rest, to eat. Whether or not you can, they are right, and it is the best advice. Eat some soup, take a nap, have a bath, cry awhile, get some peace and quiet. It will help you feel like yourself, and feeling like yourself will bring you lasting good.
Decide to let go of shoulda, woulda, coulda: I should have spent more time with my dad in the months before he died. I would have if… I could have... and there are so many reasons why not. We both did our best to be clear, open, and loving. No amount of review changes the facts. And even if the situation had been otherwise, no amount of rethinking changes the outcome. More tests, more time, more what-if's. Let it go.
A little goes a long way: A little gratitude, a little outrage, a little humor. A small answer even if the question is big. A little nap. A little change of scenery. A slight shift of perspective. A little crack that lets the light in. A little help from a friend - but not too much. An appreciation for the blessing of enough.
We do not have to pull ourselves up by the bootstraps in one swift tug, as if making that effort magically bestows the fortitude to carry on with day-to-day life. In grief we find our footing for a while and then the sorrow-tide rises and we are carried off with it. Little by little we learn to keep our lamp steady and to find our new ground. I began to notice how it felt when I had my footing, and this act of noticing seemed to give the little moments of equilibrium enough purchase to sustain me. And because I cultivate a habit of noticing, the healing from the light that comes in through the little cracks seems to have a better chance of finding my heart.
If you are reading here because you are anticipating or experiencing loss, I hope this supports you to find what works best for your own self care as you navigate the appetites and tides of grief. I encourage you to do what you need for yourself, and to ask for what you need from others, in order to keep your lamp steady and bright.