There are things so painful the thought of them shatter my heart. Such as Sundays at 4:00 pm or an Ivar Avenue sidewalk in Hollywood where I once saw the most beautiful smile on earth. Each time my plane approaches Los Angeles, and I look across the city, I’m filled with sadness. If the flight lands at dusk on Sunday… I’m emotionally spent for the rest of the day. Maybe these things wreck my soul because I was unable to control the moments in my life each represents. One was joyous… one was not. Both control me in ways I can’t express in words. In my life trouble moves on too slowly and pleasure leaves too fast.
These things pale in comparison to the greatest mystery of all… death. I remember everything I’ve been taught about a higher power and the glorious life to come for those who believe in ancient teaching. I’ve bounced from every religion on the planet and still cannot grasp how a person, vibrant and alive one moment disappears the next. What is the meaning behind any of it? I’ve never found comfort in words of encouragement at funerals or by well-meaning friends who tell me the deceased is in a better place. There are times when silence is all that is needed.
I’m at a stage of life where I am experiencing the death of people I know and love. I’ve buried two ex-wives who divorced me long before they died and quite frankly hated me. One funeral I attended along with her other ex-husbands and felt nothing but amazement at the number of affluent mourners and expensive cars outside the cathedral where her service was held. I remember sitting with the three other men who she married and thinking it could be a comedy skit on Saturday Night Live. There was no sadness or sense of loss only an obligation to attend. Her fifth husband was actually grief-stricken to the point of collapse. I wanted to go to him and say something profound or hug him, but nothing I would have said or done would have changed the reality of his loss, so I signed the guest book along with everyone else at left.
The death of my next wife absolutely stunned me. She was young, educated, and a survivor of a horrible four-year marriage to me. At 41, she fell dead of an aneurysm in her living room leaving a 9-year-old daughter and the plans she had for a promising life. I had acted so badly during the divorce, her family contacted me and made it clear I was not welcomed at the funeral, nor would any gesture of condolence be accepted. I respected their wished and did not attend.
When my grandfather died many years ago from suicide following an attempt to kick a 20-year valium habit, I felt such deep sorrow. Not for his death or decision to end his life but for the enormous emotional pain that caused him to shoot himself at the dining room table. As a recovering addict, I know the physical, mental and emotional stages of withdrawal from benzodiazepines and the agony associated with it. Even at his funeral all I could think of was how alone he must have felt in the final minutes of his life.
When my half brother died from liver failure following a lifetime of chronic alcoholism, I felt nothing. His death mirrored his life, and neither were pretty. To be honest, I hated everything about him and the life he chose to live. I looked at him as an embarrassment to the family and a name never to be mentioned. At his funeral, some storefront evangelical preacher was rambling on about “Brother David” and glory and angels opening the gates of heaven. At one point during the service, his long-time drunken ex-girlfriend leaned over to me and whispered, ” damn, I don’t know who he’s talking about, but I sure would have loved to have met him!” I will never forget the look on my mother’s face standing on the beach as a wooden box containing his ashes were pulled from a black velvet bag. Written in gold lettering was all that remained on her son, “David Mark Cantrell.” She was destroyed emotionally as a hippie swam out into the Atlantic and disposed of him. A group of family and friends stood on the shore throwing daisies in the tide as someone sang an instantly forgettable song while strumming a guitar. There was no peace in his death or comfort for his mother… it was merely the end.
My grandmother’s death destroyed me. She was the safe haven I needed as a child and I loved every moment we shared. I remember holding her as she took her last breath at the age of 93. It wasn’t remarkable or profound… it was simply over. A life that had survived a depression, world wars, youth and old age had ended, and I was there to share it. I never once cried for her. I cried for me and the immeasurable loss I was experiencing because she was gone… Gone was my childhood and unconditional love. Her life ended with a shallow exhale, and it was over. Witnessing it felt like I was being crushed by the weight of the world. “Impossible,” I thought. It’s impossible people actually suffer this kind of pain and survive to tell the tale. So this is what grief felt like.
Now I understood why denial is the first stage of grief. How could you endure this kind of agony if you had to face the force of its full frontal attack? When you think of grief, you think about a great loss. Death of a loved one, news of your terminal illness, and the loss of your home from the violent winds of a tornado are all acceptable events to grieve about. I can understand how any of the above can bring a person to their knees. I expect people to grieve over these losses.
What I refuse to understand is the grief I feel over the smaller losses. The falling out you had with a good friend, the passing of your family hamster, and losing an heirloom, you’ve had for two decades… all examples of small losses that are too silly to deserve our grief.
There is no healing without grief and no grief without pain.
To stop yourself from grieving because it’s against the rules or because you think it shouldn’t hurt so much leaves you emotionally stunted and numb.
Not only will you never know free, spontaneous joy, but you’ll also be floored when you suffer a major loss that won’t be contained in your makeshift prison.
Stop it! Don’t tell yourself you’re fine when you feel grief inside your body. You’re not fine. Don’t think that you don’t deserve to grieve. Your loss is real, and it must be honored. Forget about what you were told about sucking it up. You can do that after you’ve mourned. So feel it. Feel it through and through. Grieve until you feel the pain wash away from your body, revealing a stronger, wiser, and more capable you. There’s nothing too trivial.
If you’re like me, no one bothered to tell you how to grieve. I hope this will help.
The first thing you need to do is name your loss and give yourself permission to grieve it. Mourning just to mourn isn’t helpful. Remember that the purpose of grief is to heal you from the pain of loss, and it can’t do that if it doesn’t know what to repair. Even when you feel grief inside you, don’t begin the grieving process until you’ve identified your loss. You’ve trained yourself well to deny your pain, so you’ll feel very confused about the origin of the pain. Meditations are great for this… the process allows you open your mind, heart, and spirit and find the source of your pain.
For example, I wasn’t grieving over the loss of my grandmother. Months before her death, she’d suffered a major stroke which erased her memory of anyone she knew or ever loved. Within 6 months, she was in a vegetative state unable to do anything. I was grieving the loss of the experiences of I shared with her and my childhood and every detail that goes with it.
We can’t honestly understand death. Sometimes there is no right answer to “Why?” That “why question” is not helpful. It’s a trap. Get out of it. Drop the thought. It may float by once in a while. Just acknowledge it then let it pass. Move your awareness to your heart, get grounded and rest.
I think most importantly is to not but a time limit on your pain. This is your process. All time estimates are arbitrary. You will heal when you heal and not a second beforehand. Grief is not just a series of events, or stages or timelines. Our Society places enormous pressure on us to get over a loss, to get through the grief. But how long do you grieve for a husband of fifty years? A teenager killed in a car accident? A four-year-old child? A year? Five years? Forever? The loss happens in time, in fact in a moment, but its aftermath lasts a lifetime.
I understand how hard it is for you to watch someone you love slipping away. The pain is excruciating, the feeling of devastation unmatched by anything you have ever known. Losing a loved one is one of the hardest experiences any of us will have to face, but there are some things that you can do to make it easier on yourself and those around you. Allow yourself to grieve. You can’t ignore it or run away from it. Eventually, it will catch up with you. Grief is a necessary part of the healing process. It will subside, but you must go through the various stages.
Don’t feel guilty because you are continuing to live. You are not responsible for what has happened. Accept that some things are out of your hands.
Let the dying know that it’s okay to leave-that you will be all right without them. You’ll miss them for the rest of your life, but you would not want them to stay if it continues their suffering.
Don’t feel guilty if you find yourself preparing for your loved one’s death. But it does help prepare you for the inevitable and is nature’s defense against deep pain. If your loved one is still living, say what you want to say now, while there’s still time. You may even have something to say or something to do for your loved one. “Do it fearlessly,” one patient told me. Let your loved one die with an open heart-yours.
To the best of your ability, try to accept what is happening and the way it is happening. As difficult as it may be to understand and accept, dying is a part of life.Take care of yourself and let others support you. Seek help from a therapist, a support group, your religion, or whatever else comforts and strengthens you. Try to stick to some kind of regular routine, especially during this very stressful and upsetting period. Believe it or not, it will help normalize your life and make you feel better.
Above all, be gentle with yourself. It really will get better with time, although you may not believe it right now. Time heals all wounds, and although your loved one will no longer be physically present, you will always retain the love you have shared with that person. Those whom we’ve loved and who have loved you in return will still live on in our hearts and our minds.
This is my journey… this is my life.