“People who need people,
are the luckiest people in the world”~ Bob Merrill.
Apparently I need to learn lessons about grief and death. Having to deal with the death of a former husband so close on the heels of the death of my mother is quite challenging. And as everyone tells you, no matter how much you think you may be prepared for things, there are a ton of emotions and feelings that wash over you from one moment to the next. And the only assessment that seems to explain these conflicting and contradictory feelings are captured by that Facebook relationship status: “It’s complicated”.
Despite the fact that death is the one thing we can all be certain of experiencing, we mostly seem to go through life ignoring that reality, assuming it only applies to others. Some people have to deal with it sooner and more frequently than others. I have always felt particularly blessed. I had no memories of two of my grandparents so was unaware of their death; one grandfather died before I was born, and his wife died at the age of 89, an age at which you can only feel grateful for the abundance of time spent on earth. An aunt and an uncle died in their fifties, but for the most part, people in my family appeared to live long and richly blessed lives.
My husband, on the other hand, had to face the stark reality of the fragility and unfairness of life at an early age. His mother died in childbirth, leaving four living children (having lost one in infancy) to the care of their father. The eldest of the children was around 12 or 13, Kojo (Winston) was around 8, the two younger sisters were under six years of age. So Kojo grew up under no illusions. For many years he expected that he himself would die young, not expecting to see 30. But it also meant that he could be a good friend to those who suffered loss, especially sudden and unexpected loss, and could comfort the children. For he could say with authenticity: ‘I know how you feel.’
This week my family and I have been comforted by the outpouring of sympathy, support and memories. We often fool ourselves into thinking we don’t need the help of others. Many of us are raised to be proudly independent, able to cope with anything, not needing to reach out for the help of others. We may even secretly despise those who seem to always be needing a hand or a handout. Or, we may thrive on being needed. It feeds our ego to know that people are always turning to us for help. Because we can fix others, we can see what is wrong with them and show them the right path to follow. There is a term for that, it is called ‘codependency’ and it is not a healthy response (been there done that). Often it means that you take care of others instead of looking within and fixing that which needs to be fixed in you.
Social Worker/Professor/Author Brene Brown writes that the people who experience the most joy in the world are those who allow themselves to feel vulnerable, who do not pretend they don’t need others. When we try to act strong and block those emotions that seem to cause pain, we also block the capacity to feel joy. It is the lows of life that make the highs seem even sweeter. I have been encouraged this week (and been given permission) to feel my feelings, whether they are uncomfortable or not, whether they represent anger and pain, or sadness and regret, whether they bring tears or laughter. I have been given so many offers of help that I have been reminded how much I need people.
Death is absolute and final. We may believe in an after-life, however we imagine it, or we may not. The reality is that we cannot pick up the phone and have a two way conversation to right wrongs, or say words we left unsaid. There is no do-over. No future opportunities to say or do those things we always meant to, or thought we had plenty of time for. There is a Buddhist practice which encourages you to write those things you needed to say to the departed on a piece of paper, and then set fire to it, allowing the smoke to carry the message to the dead. I have often suggested this practice to others, as a way to resolve the unresolved, to give some feeling of completion. I may find myself writing one heck of a long letter one of these days.
I have demanded (only partly joking) that I reach the acceptance phase of grieving right now! I have done the denial, anger (no use bargaining, too late for that) and depression. I need to find acceptance NOW! Those wiser than me laugh and say that’s not how it goes. It is not some linear step by step process. I have been warned that I will dip back and forth before I move forward. But I am reminded once more of what Ira Byock, an expert in the care of the dying, wrote. He suggested that these four phrases should be said to those that are dying: “Please forgive me. I forgive you. Thank you. I love you.” If you haven’t had the chance to say those words to those that mean the most to you right now, find a way to do so. When all is said and done, we have all done things for which we need forgiveness. We have all been at the receiving end of things we consider unforgivable. We all have received blessings for which we should give thanks. And love, well love is the ultimate.
With a heart full of complicated emotions, I celebrate the life of the complicated, complex father of my children. Too many stories to fit into one message. And so quite simply I will say: “Please forgive me. I forgive you. Thank you. I love you.”
To all of my friends and family who have shown me the love and support that my family and I have needed this week, and will continue to need: Thank you.
Have a wonderful weekend celebrating all that is precious in your life.