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There’s a lot of material out there on the grieving process and dealing with the aftermath of intense loss.
But over the past 20-something months, I’ve found that most of the books and articles talk about similar issues.
For example, most grief articles and books caution you about the platitudes that will abound when people try to pacify you. Well-meaning folks will toss cliched phrases about those who are gone like, “They won’t suffer anymore,” or “You can start living your life now,” or “Life goes on, and so must you,” or “Time is the ultimate healer,” or “You will get through this.”
And don’t get me wrong: these books and articles do help. They’ve helped me as well. But as the days have gone by and I’ve been through the more common stages of the grieving process, like pain, depression, anger, and coming to terms with the tragedy, I’ve found there are new feelings and new discoveries I’m making every single day. And when I waded through the grief and loss literature, I couldn’t find anything that helped me make sense of these new feelings.
That’s why I felt it was imperative that I write about them. Identifying these issues in the aftermath of grief have really helped me come to terms with the loss I experienced in December 2020. I hope they help you as well.
6 Heartbreaking Outcomes of Grief that Nobody Prepares you For:
1. Remember this, if nothing else—the end will always be messy.
Barring a miniscule lucky few on this earth, most of us will never get that perfect, movie-like moment when your loved one is lying in your arms or on your lap and passes away peacefully. Or that moment when you’re able to say your goodbyes and both of you feel all the love from one another before they take their last breath.
Yeah. That will almost never happen.
Chances are you were home taking a nap for just one hour after haunting the ICU for three consecutive days, or maybe you stepped out for a quick shower, or to get some food and a cup of coffee, or you decided to go home for a quick change of clothes, and that’s when they left you.
Or maybe you said something hurtful to them—you snapped at them or said something mean in the spur of moment, and even if you were 100 percent correct in what you said, given that your loved one is dying, does your being right really matter? Maybe you were bone-tired and that’s what made you say something mean. When the tragedy is happening, these petty things will slip your mind. But in the days and weeks and months afterward, these small things will haunt you and you will feel racked with guilt at how awful you were to the one who died. You didn’t mean to be…you just were.
The bad news? It will probably haunt you forever. The good news? Maybe, just maybe, if they were really sick, they didn’t remember any of what happened at the end. Or you can take comfort from knowing that no matter what you said, your loved ones will always forgive you. At least that’s what my closest friends and therapists have told me, and I’m choosing to believe them.
So, no—there are no clean endings. The end will always be messy.
2. Bank your apologies.
This brings me to the next key aspect of the grieving process and something you should do well before your loved one leaves you: bank your apologies.
This is beyond important and beyond the “getting closure” sh*t that people often toss around. Sure, get closure if you can, but what you should do is say what you need to say to this person while they’re still alive. Don’t wait until it’s too late.
You have simmering, raging anger about something they did? Don’t be a dick and yell and scream. But say what you need to say to your loved one. Say it quietly, slowly, firmly.
If you’ve already been a dick and need to apologize? Say “I’m sorry” right now. Do not wait.
In fact, the human mind and heart are such that they will find ways to mess you up at the end. They will fill in the non-existent blanks inside you and blame you for the things you did and did not do. So, when they’re still somewhat aware during the final stages, apologize for what you’ve done, for what you haven’t, and for what you might do. Trust me, not apologizing will haunt you more than anything.
3. The end will be sudden.
Not in the I didn’t expect they would go so soon or they were in great health way, but whenever someone goes—whether it’s really sudden (a heart attack, a cardiac arrest, an aneurism, an accident) or it’s a long, drawn-out process—it will always be sudden to you.
It doesn’t matter how mentally prepared we are: when someone who meant everything to you, when someone who was the reason you were a wife, a husband, a son, a daughter, a mother, a father, a brother, a sister goes from living to not living anymore, you will never be prepared for the grief that hits you.
I wish I had a nickel for every time someone said to me, “I was not really prepared for them to go, even though I thought I was.” And that’s because there’s no amount of preparation that can stop this moment from feeling sudden. Death is such a monumental event that when it does happen, the shock and awe will hit you straight in the pit of your stomach. And that “suddenness” will come, no matter how much we thought we were ready.
4. Prepare to become the “elder” in your family.
This is almost too funny when it happens. If you’re old…ish, or someone with older parents and older children of your own and you’ve just lost a parent, be prepared to go from being seen as one of the “kids” in your family to one of the “elders.” No matter how old you are, for your mom and dad, for your grandma and grandpa, for your uncles and aunts, you will always be a child. Sure, you get older, but becoming a parent yourself doesn’t make you an elder because you still have parents of your own to look up to and get advice from. It’s when you lose your parents that this dynamic will change.
You haven’t changed. Your age hasn’t changed. But those around you and how they look at you will change. You will go from the person who takes advice from others to the person others go to to get advice.
There will be a palpable shift in energy as you go from being the person you were to the “elder” in the room, even though you look exactly the same and are standing exactly where you’ve always been.
5. Be prepared to find answers in things you never thought you would.
You were an atheist your entire life and suddenly when someone talks “God” to you or mentions heaven and the afterlife you find yourself paying attention, listening, hoping—even praying. Don’t let that shock you. It will happen, and it’s okay.
Maybe you’re a Christian and believe in heaven and you meet a Hindu in a grief group, and they talk about reincarnation. You nod your head because suddenly that makes sense to you. Then you wonder, what the f*ck just happened? You’ve been Christian your whole life and now Hinduism makes sense? It’s okay. Don’t freak out too much.
This is what grief will do you. It will make you look for answers. For meaning. For hope. Especially the kind of hope that means you may meet your loved ones again someday.
So, allow yourself to go with the flow.
During the aftermath of grief, get your support from where you can. Allow yourself to find succor in the oddest of places. You will slowly return to who you were before. But don’t question yourself too much when you find yourself doing things you never imagined doing.
6. Finally, you need to be prepared to live years and decades without the person you just lost—the person you love.
I saved the worst for last.
When someone dies, we become so caught up in our grief that all we think about is the loss of the person who meant everything to us. Then will come the minutiae of dealing with the aftermath of their loss: the mundane details of settling their lives, getting death certificates, finding their will, closing their bank accounts, and transferring property. The immediate months following someone’s death are filled with unbearable grief but also lots of mundane to-dos. And in a way, that trite, everyday life will actually shield you from heartbreak.
But one day, it will all be over.
And suddenly, we’re left with the knowledge that the person we lost is gone forever. And, all things being equal (and depending on how old you are now), you realize that you still have decades of life left to live. And the realization hits that even if you’re 50 now, chances are you might easily live till you’re 80. That means three decades—30 years—left on this planet without this person in your life.
For me, this has been the toughest part of my life since my devastating loss in December 2020. The knowledge that I have to go on with my life without the ones I lost. And this one question haunts me the most:
How on Earth am I supposed to live for so long without them?
Trust me, that is the most bitter of truths that no one prepares you for.
I hope my experiences on this journey of grief and loss have brought you some solace and peace. And, as always, I’m so sorry for your loss. Godspeed.