To the well-organized mind, death is but the next great adventure.”
― J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone
“Death ends a life, not a relationship.”
― Mitch Albom, Tuesdays With Morrie
The dreaded phone call finally came on a Friday morning. My brother’s words were somber as he explained that my 93 year old Mom had a stroke during the night and was not responding. We rushed her to the hospital and the attending physician gravely clarified that the size of the stroke and the bleed were too much for her old frame and she only had a few days. She maintained throughout her life that she wanted to die at home so we brought her back and she got her wish. Her death was not a complete shock given her age but when death claims someone it’s complete, no do overs, no second chances. She was my go to person, always supportive, unconditional and seemingly eternal. I knew this one was going to be the big one, there was no one quite like Mom and now she was gone. As I drove to work I felt an overwhelming sense of grief because that’s when I would call her. We chatted about our week and even though over the years she was less and less able to keep a conversation going her love was as bright as ever. That was what the call was all about.
As we have seen with Malaysian flight 370, families of every culture want closure, they need some physical evidence of the person, so they can grieve properly. All cultures practice some form of ritual around death, it is a universal process with all human beings. When we lose a loved one, a friend, a colleague, a wife, a family member it puts a hole in our life where they once were. So how do we cope with this bitch called loss?
Some of the reactions to loss can be quite severe and may range from shock and disbelief, sadness, guilt, anger, fear and even physical symptoms. When someone dies or is near death we may experience denial, isolation, anger, bargaining and depression, eventually coming to accept the loss as we will in our own eventual death. Even though coping with loss is different for everyone and even though there is no right way to experience it, there are some skills that can help. Here are a few suggestions.
1. Feel it. Grieving is the bodies way of letting go. Trust your body, it has millions of years of knowing what to do when it comes to loss. Our natural response is to be strong, keep going, to not look back, stiff upper lip and all that. But doing that only stuffs down the feelings and they will eventually come up somewhere or somehow like depression, anger, drinking and drugs. Don’t try to legislate emotions, let them be. When we push our feelings down it’s like holding a beach ball underwater and then letting go, it will pop up in a different place every time.
2. Use your support system. The larger our support system the easier the grief process. Being able to talk to others and receive comfort is solace for the soul. The more people that we have around us during a time of loss the better we cope. Receiving support helps us to remain connected to life. Don’t be shy, reach out to those who care during this trying time. It is also an opportunity to become closer to family members and those we love. Talking about how we feel and what we are going through can be supportive but just being with people we love helps us remember that life is for the living and we have to keep on living.
3. Take some time off. Walking, sleeping, sitting quietly connects us the naturalness of the life cycle so we can accept that death is the most natural thing. All living things die to make room for more living things. To connect to the natural order helps us to accept what has happened to us. Take some time to remember and appreciate the loved one that we lost. It’s helpful in the grieving process to consider what was good and keep it close to us so we can move on. Breaking our routine can be a time to digest what has happened and allows us to remember and to grieve. Appreciating and respecting the power of grief and loss helps us to work it through.
4. Remember the good things. Recalling the positive and thinking about what they brought into our life helps us to celebrate along with our grief process. When we lose someone we love, there is empitness in our lives where they used to be. To remember what was good and carry that goodness in our hearts helps us to experience the positive as well as the negative aspects of loss as we move through our grief.
5. Look at the big picture. Take a moment at night to look up into the sky and consider just how immense the universe actually is. Imagine or go to the beach and look way out to sea and consider the enormity of our planet. This perspective enables a larger view of our world and our lives. We can see just how much there is to know about life and our own experience in it. Everyone goes through the same basic progressions and we all lose people we love, whether by death or the loss of a friend or lover. As we cast our eyes out into space we can focus on the eternal ebb and flow of life and death and with this understanding we can begin to make peace with our loss. Loss is something that never goes away entirely, it comes up at every birthday, anniversary or holiday and at these times we revisit our loss and reconnect with our loved one. So we don’t need to hold on, we will be reminded again and again who it was that we lost and come to terms with it once again.
Importantly, those we have loved live on in us, they are always there in our hearts and in our dearest memories. On the positive side, loss can help us look deeper into what our life is about and what we want to do to make it more meaningful. Life itself may not have meaning but our lives can mean something to us. Religion helps people to feel that their loved ones live on somewhere in peace and happiness and it comforts those who believe in an afterlife. For those who are not religious or see loss as the end can also find peace in knowing that death is part of life’s continuum and feel grateful for having known someone who will be missed.
Even though loss takes someone from us, we must eventually move forward and tend to the living. The more we truly understand how fragile life is the more we may want to live it. The renowned author of the seminal book On Death and Dying Elizabeth Kubler-Ross said “It’s only when we truly know and understand that we have a limited time on earth – and that we have no way of knowing when our time is up, we will then begin to live each day to the fullest, as if it was the only one we had.” Loss helps us to determine what we want for the rest of our lives and remember to not sweat the small stuff and like the saying goes, it’s all small stuff. If life is about adventure, laughter and good work, then make the most of it while our brief candle burns. The essential Neil Young once said “It’s better to burn out than to fade away.” People on their death beds never wish they had taken less risks, worked harder, made more money or regretted telling their loved one’s how much they loved them. If loss tells us anything, it is to make sure we let everyone we love know how much we love them while they are still here. What else really matters in the end?