Seven Lessons I’m Learning on the Grief Journey

Six years ago today. Rhiannon's 24th birthday, May 19, 2009.
Six years ago today. Rhiannon’s 24th birthday, May 19, 2009 (photo by Mary Wright).

Today would have been my daughter Rhiannon’s 30th birthday. We’re calling it her “first birthday in heaven.”

If you haven’t been following the story, here it is in a nutshell: Rhiannon was born (5/19/1985) with polycystic kidney disease which led to other issues, including liver disease, an enlarged spleen, and paralysis following a stroke at age 3. Faced with a short life expectancy, in 2011 she began to experience falling blood counts that led to repeated hospitalizations as her caregivers attempted to stabilize her with multiple transfusions. Finally by early 2014 she had enough of that, chose to enter into in-home hospice, which led to her death last summer (8/30/2014). After a beautiful vigil and funeral, Fran and I began the long journey of re-making our lives.

Grief is a journey — a cliché, I know, but it’s true. They say don’t make any major decisions for at least a year. We’ve been trying to abide by that; Fran was approached about a promotion at work but it meant a lot more work and not much more pay, so she wisely turned it down; my longstanding daydream of relocating to Asheville NC has been on my mind a lot lately (a subconscious attempt to run away?), but we’ve decided it needs to wait until Fran retires. So we are hanging tight, focussing on the daily rhythms of life: work and recreation, family and friends, church and cats.

Speaking of cats, there’s an episode of The Big Bang Theory where Sheldon and Amy break up, and Sheldon, insisting that he’s fine, begins to adopt cats — lots of cats. Fortunately, Fran and I have not gone to Sheldonian extremes, but since Rhiannon died we have adopted three (two of whom were ferals we rescued, the third belonged to a close friend who died in January).

So it’s been almost nine months now. The journey continues. Since today is Rhiannon’s birthday, it seems an auspicious day to reflect on how this journey is progressing. I’ve learned — or perhaps I should say, I’m learning (it’s ongoing) a few things about grief. So here they are…

  1. Let the feelings flow—grief really is an emotional kaleidoscope. The first month or so after Rhiannon’s death I was basically in a kind of shock — looking back, those weeks feel surreal. Of course I was crying a lot, but I was also filled with a sense of gratitude and remorse (for not being the perfect parent, duh). Fortunately, the thankfulness has lasted longer than the contrition! But over the months I’ve gone through sadness, aching sorrow, gratitude, anger, fear, nightmares, and also some good stuff, including hope and peace, along with the gratitude. Over  time, the good emotions seem to be more present, the icky ones less so. Thanks be to God.
  2. Thumbs and Pete, two of our three new cats.
    Thumbs and Pete, two of our three new cats. Photo by Carl McColman.

    “Be Gentle With Yourself: Change Takes Time.” I saw that saying on a bereavement card many years ago, and it has stayed with me all these years, but only now am I really cashing in on its wisdom. When a month after Rhiannon’s death I wasn’t crying all the time, I foolishly thought I had made it over the hump and threw myself into my work. That lasted for about six weeks before I hit a wall, and had to step back from a few commitments. Which was humbling, but healthy. The takeaway: grief really does take time: not days and weeks, but months and seasons.

  3. Take Care of the Basics. I’ve gained almost 15 pounds since Rhiannon died (mostly guacamole, although non-dairy ice cream hasn’t helped). An ongoing battle is simply making sure I exercise daily, eat right, and get to bed at a decent hour. It’s humbling to write this as a 50-something, but it’s a sober reminder that grief really can knock us off our game if we let it. I can see why making a major decision is a no-no during the first year: it takes a ton of energy just to stay focused on making the right self-care decisions, day after day.
  4. Cherish relationships. Thank God, thank God, thank God we have a wonderful network of family and friends. Fran and I are both introverts, so we’ve been shying away from parties or social situations where we don’t know many people. But an intimate dinner with two to four close friends: that’s been catnip for us. Sometimes we laugh and talk about everything except Rhiannon. Other times we can only talk about Rhiannon. We have friends who understand, and let us roll with it. Our gratitude is immense.
  5. Get help. Christmas was rough — it felt empty and really, really sad. So we turned to a grief counselor, and now I’m sorry we waited that long to do it. Our counselor isn’t magic; mostly she’s a kind listener and is gently affirming. But it’s given us a kind of framework for making choices that are healthy, nurturing, and loving. Both Fran and I feel happier and more at peace now than at this time four months ago. Perhaps some of that is just the coming of spring or the passage of time, but having someone help on this journey has been well worth the time and money we’ve invested into it.
  6. Mark the Special Days in New Ways. Part of what tripped us up at Christmastime was we were trying to do it just like always, only without Rhiannon. And Rhiannon’s absence was everywhere. But then on Christmas morning, a friend of ours who was recently divorced showed up unannounced at our front door, and although she only stayed a half hour, it was a Godsend. By breaking up our rhythm, it brought a new perspective that helped to shake loose the logjam of loss we were feeling. So we’ve tried to make our holidays since then days with something special about them, often in a new way. For Fran’s birthday we went to the beach; Mother’s Day we toured the Biltmore (yay, Asheville) and for Rhiannon’s birthday — tonight — we’re hosting a pizza party here on earth to mirror the party Rhiannon is surely having in heaven. For Fran’s and my anniversary we’re taking a road trip to New England. Does this make these days automatically “happy”? Not hardly. But by mixing things up a little, we aren’t sitting ducks for sadness. And that, in itself, seems like a triumph.
  7. Give yourself permission to hope and enjoy. This is a process, but it seems to be a beautiful one. Life is filled with unexpected joys and quiet pleasures, so simply showing up each day offers new opportunities for happiness and hope. Like I said above, the kaleidoscope seems to be tilting more and more toward the positive, and we are accepting that. The other day I found a Pinterest board for grieving parents and showed it to Fran; she found it hard to relate to the emotional tone of near-despair that characterized many of the pins. “Am I a bad mother for not feeling like that?” she asked me. “Of course not,” I reassured her. “You’re simply farther along on your grief journey; remember, six months ago we did feel that bad.” Grief is not something to judge; everyone’s journey is different, everyone’s rhythm is different. Even at the best of times, life has its ups and downs; but under the shadow of grieving those normal rhythms can feel huge, almost too much to bear. But — with self-care, good relationships, and help when you need it — even the darkest shadows can be safely navigated. And there’s light on the other side.

So that’s where we are today. It’s not perfect. We still cry. Not as much as six months ago, but some. For my part, my heart is still tender. Perhaps it will always be, at least on some level. That’s okay. It seems a small price to pay for the awesome privilege I had of being Rhiannon’s parent and friend. She taught me so much: about life, about love, about suffering, about dying. Someone once said “living well is the best revenge” but I think it’s also the best way to express gratitude, even in the face of grief. I can never repay Rhiannon for all that she’s given me, so I just try to live the best and happiest and most creative life I can, and I imagine her in heaven, cheering me on. And that keeps me going.

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