Good grief!

8 Dec

My kid is getting a much more honest perspective about death, dying, and grief than I did as a child. This summer, she sat in the observation deck of the slow motion train of watching someone you love decline, getting a close up view of the ways the family came together–and also how we fell apart. Six weeks after her Papa died, we’re still navigating the intense physical, emotional, and social effects of grief–hers, mine, and the extended family’s. Although it’s hard to expose her to painful emotions, I hope that being allowed to participate in the process of grieving as a child will prepare her for dealing with grief as an adult.

I grew up in the 70’s & 80’s in a small rural college town. My  mom’s family was “working class”; we were just poor. We’re a white family (European potluck, no one’s certain which countries) with no particular religious framework. We celebrated most mainstream holidays in the American commercial sense and enjoyed some traditional foods & activities, but mostly muddled along without a lot of structure. I’ve often envied friends with strong faith because it seems like they were taught how to do things that I’ve had to figure out on my own–including grieve.

Both of my favorite grandmothers died in quick succession when I was about 15. From the perspective of the kids, the end of their lives was a quick downhill progression of whatever had been wrong with them. They were only in their late 60’s, but in our world it was “their time”–it was normal for them to die. Funerals were organized and attended, people brought us food, graves were visited occasionally…but no one ever talked to us about grief. There were vague mutterings about “a better place”, but no follow up about what those of us left in *this* place are expected to do after losing someone. How was I supposed to bake cookies/play Scrabble/spend my summers? Were my sad feelings normal or was I “being dramatic” (again)?

Over the years, few other people close to me have died. Not very many, but enough that I thought I understood grief. I also had the hubris to think that the grief of losing relationships with people still living was similar to the grief when someone dies. In short, I was completely unprepared for the impact of Full Strength Grief when my dad died. I expected to be sad, but I wasn’t ready for anger, anxiety, disappointment, or fear. I certainly wasn’t ready to feel grief so strongly in my body.

The physical symptoms of grief are real–and they can be intense. Various family members have experienced symptoms ranging from hives to cold sores to general malaise. I spent two weeks almost incapacitated by nausea, and have battled colds and headaches. My body hurts and food tastes wrong.  It took me almost three weeks to finally google this, and I’m so grateful for the resources on What’s your grief. It’s reassuring to know that my experience is within the range of normal responses, and to read about others having similar experiences.

I’m not ready to intentionally explore my emotional responses yet, but I dip my toes in occasionally. “The Mom Show” on KEXP hit home harder than usual this year, in a very good way. Every year, John and Amy Richards create a space for thousands of listeners to navigate grief. The 2018 playlist is here.

As an adult, I understand that my parents (and most of the other adults in my life) were barely able to cope with daily life most of the time. They struggled under the weight of multi-generational trauma and poverty. They battled mental illness and addiction without support. I cannot and do not blame them for being unable to model and teach healthy ways to grieve.

I’m just starting to dip my toes into “Grief Theory“–barely scratching the surface of the resources available to help me navigate this stage of my life. I have the incredible privilege of a stable life as an adult. It’s my responsibility to use this privilege to navigate grief and the rest of life’s challenges in a way that will support and inspire my daughter as she navigates her life. I hope and expect she will be prepared to grieve well.

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