All Grief Has to Offer
By Shereá Denise
The sudden death of a loved one always seems like something that happens to other people, like an experience that I have never and will never have to face… until I did.
It was almost six months ago when my Supervisor walked into my office and said that there was an emergency at my parents’ home, that it was something about my father. I immediately called my mother, who advised that my father had passed out and, despite EMS diligently working on him, he was not coming through. I remember that the elevator took forever, that the walk through the parking lot seemed endless, that the typically 10- or 15-minute drive seemed to take hours. I remember hitting the steering wheel through tears saying, “Not like this, Daddy. You can’t go like this.”
I have no clue how I got home. I just remember all of the emergency vehicles and nobody really making eye contact with me. I remember seeing a man with gray hair and thinking, hoping that they had brought him through. Then I saw people looking at a white sheet in our backyard and – just like that – the sudden death that I had never had to face was staring me in my face.
66 years old. Cardiac arrest. No prior signs of heart issues.
My tears did not start until I had to call my older sister. When I said it out loud the first time, then the third, then the tenth. I think I went numb in the midst of the telephone calls. Somebody had to take charge and, despite taking charge and performing CPR for quite some time after learning that my father had passed out, my mother was in no position to continue to remain in charge. I had to pull it together.
I knew my father’s last wishes. I knew how he wanted his property divided, what he wanted my older sister to have, and that he trusted me to carry out his funeral in a manner befitting the person he was. I knew that he would want more laughter than tears, for his family to be on one accord, and – if nothing else – for me to hold it together for his family, for our family. I knew what songs he would want sang and who he would want to preach his eulogy. What I was not prepared for was for him to actually be gone.
I cannot tell you how I wrote the obituary, who all I called to participate in the homegoing service, or how I got all the pictures together for the slideshow to be played at the funeral home. I can tell you that the funeral seemed like an out-of-body experience and I barely remember the hot sting of tears on my face. All that I can consistently remember is wanting someone, anyone to tell me that this was a horrible nightmare and that I would be waking up at any moment, relieved to hear: “Baby, can you come help me with this phone?” one more time.
“But unfinished business is the burden of the living.”
-Billy Porter as Pray Tell (Pose)
What they do not prepare you for with the scriptures and stories is the unfinished business. How the words left unsaid, the questions we never asked, and the physical interactions that we took for granted will become like a bull storming through the proverbial china shop of your thoughts. You will beat yourself up about all kinds of things. When was the last time I said I love you? Was there anything that they said might be wrong? Did I hug them as tight as I could have? Why did it take me so long to get there?
They also do not prepare you for all of the firsts. The first birthday without them, the first holiday season without them, the first time you have to tell your medical provider that that person can no longer be your emergency contact.
There are days when the unfinished business is all that consumes your thoughts. Then there are days when you wish you could magically dismiss the unfinished business like unnecessary notifications on your cell phone.
Grief is the “deep and poignant distress caused by or as if by bereavement; a cause of such suffering,”
I think grief comes playing many roles. Sometimes it is the Therapist telling you to release what you are holding. Sometimes it is the Parental Figure scolding you for how you are choosing to cope with what you are experiencing. Most days, most noticeable role is the Trivia Game Show Host who is constantly quizzing you about that person’s voice, the sound of their laugh, their favorite expression. These roles take turns showing up at the forefront of your mind and sometimes they all go to the background while pushing blinding, thoughtless emotions to the center of your brain. I have always hated crying, particularly in public. Grief does not care about that whatsoever. Grief brings out sobs that you did not realize you were trying to control and tears that you did not know needed to be turned loose.
Other times, grief is more like an injured body part that you keep inadvertently bumping. Each time you think that it is healed, you are reminded with a brutal sting that almost seems to echo through the space in your home or in your heart that is now empty.
Grief is never just the words in the dictionary. Grief is always something more.
It does not have to be okay.
Grief does something to your patience too. Anyone who knows me knows that patience was never my strong suit, but – since August – my lack of patience has been astronomical. I find myself being impatient with the people that keep telling me that it will be “okay.” If there is one thing that the sudden and unexpected loss of a parent has taught me, it is that it will not be “okay.” Easier it may get, but “okay” it will never be.
There is no specific way to grieve and grief does not look a particular way. I have grown to resent the advice of some of those people who have unexpectedly lost a close relative. While I understand that your so-and-so passed away and it left you broken, your so-and-so was not my Daddy, the man who I believed to be unconquerable by anything – even death. To see the man I knew to have abnormal strength and the ability to make anyone laugh, laying in box completely motionless is not something that I will ever get over. And I should not be made to feel like I have to get over it and that – if I have not gotten over it by a set date – that something is wrong with me.
The one good thing that sudden loss brings you is the boundaries. The boundaries that become part of your daily routine to preserve your sanity. The boundaries that allow you to call something a waste of your time or to tell someone that you do not possess the energy it requires to deal with them in that moment. As someone who has always struggled with boundaries, the anxiety that I have developed about any and practically everything has made it necessary for me to create, acknowledge, and enforce my boundaries if, for no other reason, than to make sure that I can breathe without being on the verge of tears or feeling like I am hyperventilating.
I have learned to say no when I mean no and to cut people off or let them walk away without attempting to convince them of anything. I have learned to sit with the fact that some people have merely been taking up space in my life for days or years and the time for taking up space is over. The people that did not show up when I needed them the most are many of the same people who feel so entitled to my energy now. My boundaries help me to remember that I do not have to commit to supporting anyone who does not commit to supporting me in the difficult times.
There is no guide.
No matter what anyone tells you, their experience with death will not be yours. There are waters that you will learn to navigate only with tears and prayer. You may lose sleep. You may lose friends. Nothing will compare to the loss you have experienced in death.
You do not have to apologize. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Have patience with yourself. Allow the different forms of grief to show up and accept that grief is not a notification that you can dismiss. Give what you can to each day and do not punish yourself for giving less than you once did. Be gentle with yourself and leave as little unfinished business as possible with those who remain after your tragic loss. Tell someone you love them a little more often. Ask people how they are doing and listen for their response. Hug someone tighter and longer.
Grief never comes bearing gifts. It never comes on a schedule or with an appointment. Sometimes all grief has to offer is an honest look at yourself and how you have been living life. Sometimes all grief has to offer is the wake-up call that you needed and could not have gotten any other way.