From the time I was 15 to the time I was 30, I lost 16 friends (to death). Most were close friends. There were car accidents, freak accidents, and illnesses. The first few friends I lost I thought ‘why me’. I was young, I didn’t realize that death occurs to the person who died, it’s just the living who have to deal with it. In losing those friends (and additionally grandparents and aunts and uncles), I have had a fairly good education in grief. I have learned to show-up when someone dies. I don’t always have the right thing to say, I don’t always say anything at all, I just show up. And in doing that, it has lead many to believe I have some magic way of dealing with grief. I don’t think that is the case at all. Grief is strange and confusing. In the past few weeks, folks have emailed and called and asked me how I gain perspective during loss. The answer is, I don’t know. I just do the best I can and when I say ‘I show up’ I mean that I not only show up for others, but I also show up for myself.
I was asked to write about grief and what it means for me right now. Here is my take.
I was told once that you shouldn’t carry grief, it’s too heavy and burdensome to hold. Instead, let grief walk next to you. For a while, it will (unfortunately) always be there. It will sometimes take the lead, even when you don’t want it to. But eventually you will look over and it will have fallen behind. Then it might catch up, but fall behind again. Then one day, one miraculous day, you will only see it if you squint, back near your horizon.
I have found three things to be be true about that idea: 1. it’s pretty good advice 2. it takes work 3. the timeline for that varies wildly from person to person to event. If grief is the price we pay for love (and I believe it is), you have to accept that there is no escaping it. When I lost Max, I tried to carry the grief. It was so heavy and so all-consuming, I felt I wouldn’t survive. I was sad, but I was even more overcome with a feeling that it would just never end. With Melvin, I’m sad, but I’m stronger. I don’t know why. Even from the day we found out about the cancer, there was a voice that said, you will get through this. I fought a lot with that voice, I told it to shut the F up. But then I realized that Melvin spent years showing me that no matter what life throws at us, keep moving forward. In a way, he helped to prepare me for this loss.
We have to go through grief, we can’t go around it. Most days, grief owns us, we don’t have a ton of control over raw emotion. For me, I’m processing the whole losing Melvin thing in flashes. There is his life prior to March. That part is lovely. There is his birthday on March 2nd, it was just a day (we rarely know it will be a last birthday), but it is the last date on the calendar that I can make sense of. Then there is the day after his birthday, that’s the day we found out. I can hear the words cancer and dying, but then my thought process changes. Or stops. Or moves so fast I can’t think clearly. Forty days connect the line from the day we found out to the day we said good-bye. Memories of those days vary – from my recall of how overwhelmed I felt to how much love we shared. From the visual of him losing weight and having some physical symptoms to him being joyful and exuberant. From me being terrified about him collapsing to me just loving him. From Melvin and Jake, to me and Melvin, all in the most random order. Most days I can’t even let myself get far enough to make sense of it. And that’s OK. When my mind is ready, it will smooth it all out. I’m probably not supposed to remember it all. There is no way I could forget Melvin but there is also no way I could recall every single moment. I believe the ones I need will stay with me and I accept the reality that, some will fade. Also, I back up my photos on like 40,00 devices, so there is that!
I will admit that I still cry myself to sleep some nights, but I will also tell you with absolute certaintiy that I am OK. I have not had a moment where I think I won’t get through it. I’ve tried not to focus too much on it’s been one week or two weeks, because personally, that doesn’t help me. For example, today is one month since I’ve hugged him. One month can seem like a nanosecond and forever, at the same exact time.
I think we tend to be way too hard on ourselves during the grieving process. The one emotion I refuse to let myself embrace is guilt. Grief is hard enough on its own. Some moments I’m sad, but the sadness transitions to other emotions: like hope (that I’ll be ready for a new dog one day), fear (that I will be overly cautious about symptoms that could be cancer and not just live in the moment), humor (about how hard it is for me to feed only one dog correctly!), joy (that Melvin’s love still wraps around me), excitement (that Jake is starting to blossom). Sometimes it loops back to sad. Sometimes it lands on joy. There is no room in this journey for me to feel bad about what I feel.
At the end of the day, I just try to be kind to myself. I am only human. I don’t ask, why am I crying, I just let myself cry. I don’t feel bad for having fun or looking for dogs on rescue sites (it’s what I do, I stalk all the dogs!), life is still occurring, it’s ok to ease back into it. I don’t ask when will the sadness ease, I just believe that it will. But most of all, I take every opportunity to laugh. I believe in joy!