On Grieving

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The hands of my father’s grandchildren on top of his, as he lay dying.

 

Grief took me down.    

I know I am not alone in this, it’s what grief does.  

But the experience of being leveled, and the amount of time (three years) that it took me to metabolize the loss and climb out of the abyss caught me off guard. This was when my father died, a death that was in fact a blessing, anticipated, even prayed for. He had been suffering from two aggressive strains of brain disease, Alzheimer’s and Lewy Body’s Dementia, both of which were kicked into high gear from an insult to his brain that occurred at age 68. By 73, he was in and out of psychosis, besieged by hallucinations and agnosia. He told us he wanted to take “an early exit,” and in spite of all his confusion and the mayhem of his mind, he managed intentionally not to eat or drink for the ten days it took his strong body to die. We wanted this for him. We his children, his children-in-law, his grandchildren and his wife, surrounding him in hospice, wanted him to succeed, to find peace by departing the ravaged chaos that had become his life. His terrier Davis was in bed with him the entire time, a comforting sentinel.  For many weeks after my father gracefully passed, I felt a strange elation. Like I could feel his soul, and the peace he’d found, which reassured me deeply.  

But then I realized he’d died. He was dead. You’d think I would have known that, considering the fact I was holding his hand, kissing his face and cheering him on, there for his final breaths, there when the nurse pronounced, “Kit no longer has a heartbeat.” I saw his body in the bed, while his dog Davis ritualistically licked every inch of my father’s arm right after he died. But as dim as this may sound, I still did not get that he was gone.  

And when it finally hit me, a few weeks later, it was a body blow. A sucker punch that came daily for years, leaving me hollowed out, yearning, wobbly, curled in on myself. I would never hear my father laugh, ever again, or feel the gruff yet tender love of his hugs. I remember one evening about six months after my father’s death, lying in the fetal position in front of my fireplace and wondering if I would ever get up again. This death was prepared for, a tragic sort of blessing: how about all the brutal untimely deaths, the suicides? Parents who lose children, kids who lose a sibling or a mommy or daddy at a young age? The empathetic inkling of their grief made me wonder how anyone does this. Loves and loses, then gets up again.  

All of us will experience grief in our lives, and most likely already have. Maybe many times. Loving is a risky business, if you think about it.  

My friend Annie once did an exercise at LAMDA (London Academy of Music & Dramatic Art), which was to walk around the city acting as if each and every person had just experienced the death of their parents. She and her classmates who carried out this assignment all entered a state of profound compassion. They were blown away by the level of eye contact, the heart-opening love wordlessly given and received amongst strangers. Maybe we should all try this. Every single day for the rest of our lives.

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