Last October, my boyfriend’s mother passed away from a long and hearty fight with lung cancer. She was a light that could not be dimmed – even by the grasps of cancer. Through the last two and half years Becky encouraged, prodded, reminded, and prayed that we would all live and love and experience life.
Becky had arranged several trips after her diagnosis: she took all of us to Europe, to Nashville, and visited each of her kids in their homes multiple times. One of the trips she had planned was to take us all to a lakeside resort in Iowa. Unfortunately, we were not able to take that trip with her due to a turn in her illness, but she encouraged her daughter to still plan for us all to go. And Christi did just that.
This last weekend we all packed up and headed to the same cabin with the same itinerary that had been planned before. It was a perfect weekend and it happened to be Becky’s birthday.
In the first year after a loss each holiday can feel like a brick to the stomach. Often grievers will mark the amount of days passed. The unknown of how Christmas or birthdays will be handled can be terrifying. After the first year, milestones like holidays can still be difficult but you begin to have a feel for how to celebrate with your family’s new dynamic. Creating memorials or traditions can really help ease the pain of your loved one’s absence – the subtle shift of just missing them to remembering them with a special memorial can help heal.
We celebrated Becky. We laughed. We rode the pontoon and sat by the campfire. And on the evening of her birthday Christi planned a special memorial for her mother. We each took Sharpie and wrote a message to Becky on a Chinese flying lantern. While drawing a picture for Grandma, Christi’s four year old asked, “Now this is going to make it all the way to heaven, right?” Her 8 year old decided that it was the best the messages were written upside down so Grandma could read them. There were tears shed but there was some laughter too. As the lantern slowly rose through the night sky and the light got further and further away, each of our hearts felt a little bit more connected to Becky – despite the loss.
Memorials are symbols. Some will turn into traditions – like eating crème brulee every year on Rachael’s birthday. Other memorials will be one-time occurrences. Participating in memorials is not a fixation on your loved one; it is not considered being stuck in your grief. These events give physicality to the grief that we feel, but they are also moments of celebration. We conquer death when we continue to celebrate life that was lived. I encourage grievers, no matter how far along in the journey, to continue to celebrate your loved ones. And deep down, I truly believe that they are somewhere celebrating us too.
I’ve been inflammatory the last few days. It’s hard to say exactly what has caused my recent irritability, except there seems to be a real or perceived series of ‘unfairnesses’ this week. My heart has been heavy with feeling like I don’t have anyone on my team or that I’m being put into last place with the people I love. It struck me today as I was getting into my car at the coffee shop – after fuming at my partner for not seeing my point of view about an overreacting neighbor – that with each incidence I’ve been saying in the back of my head “Rachael was always on my side.”
This is a true statement and not an over-glorification of my loved one (which often happens in grief); but in truth, Rachael made a point to always be on my side, my team, in my corner, and she’d drop anything to spend time together. I’ve often felt deep guilt at not providing the same unconditional sisterly pact back – at least not with the same intensity.
So getting into the car, as I started a conversation in my own head of what I wished I could say to this neighbor, or my partner, or the other people who have disappointed me this week, my heart echoed “Rachael was always on my side.” With that, the all too familiar feeling of loneliness settled in and my inflammation weakened.
I flipped on the radio for some ease and within 30 seconds an old song started to play … “I’m too sexy for my hat, too sexy for my hat, whatcha think about that ...” There she was. Dancing between our connected hollywood bath, swishing her hair side to side and forcing me to join in. She wanted me to laugh then and I didn’t feel so alone.
Whether the timing was just right to bring a memory of how she handled me when I was frustrated or whether it was truly a sign that she really hasn’t left me alone is hard to say. But I’m definitely too sexy to stay irritable.
For the past several years, I’ve volunteered as a grief group facilitator. I’ve worked with every age from 5 years old to adults, but most often with the teenagers. Grief is different across the life span – it’s different depending on the loss, on your relationship to the loved, on your personal history, on the factors surrounding the loss … it’s basically different for every individual. However, I relate to the rawness of the teenager’s grief. Often they aren’t young enough to pretend life goes on as normal and hide their hurt, but they aren’t old enough to fully understand why their hurt weighs so much. (Or perhaps that is a projection of my own grief journey.)
In my recent teen group, we’ve spent a lot of time talking about “Triggers.” Many of the participants are in the early months of their grief. Many things can trigger the sadness of their loss – a song in the car, a movie with a death scene, driving by a location from the past. These things can drum up an overwhelming rush to the chest of sadness or panic.
In my experience, as my grief has aged with me, some triggers are more predictable (like the ones mentioned above) and you can prepare for them and often numb to them. But there are still complicated triggers, unexpected, that hit you with force. Just the other night I said the phrase “in the past ten years …” and my throat closed up tight, my chest felt shaky, and my eyes welled with familiar tears as I realized in a few short months it will be ten years since I’ve heard my sister laugh. It’s difficult to explain the way loss feels – the internal grasping feeling, searching for the closeness of your loved one.
Triggers can result in a variety of emotions, depending on the type of trigger and what factor of your grief the subconscious is exploring. I presume that “triggers” will be a frequent topic for Loss and Life. As we approach Memorial Day, many of us will take a moment to remember our loved one. Allow yourself to experience any triggers that might be tripped. It is in the release of these intense emotions that we can relieve just a tiny piece of the weight of our loss.
As the tenth anniversary of my sister’s loss approaches, looms, in the future calendar days of this year, I’m struck with the immense realization of how loss has shaped my life. For many years I struggled to not let grief be something that defined me … in many ways that felt like losing the battle … but its not. I grieve because I love deeply. We grieve because we have the capability, the honor, the gift to connect to people, things, and ideals that we love. Grief, in all its various forms, has become a marker for living and loving.
My goal is to help others embrace the existence of loss in their lives, to memorialize the connections to their loved ones, and to simply walk alongside them in their loss and life. As the broader picture of this mission begins to unfold in my daily life and study, I hope to use this blog to explore issues of loss, as well as catalog some of my personal experience. Hopefully, in this small way, I can connect to you and while we can’t remove the absence of our loved one(s), we can continue living.
Hi, I'm Tiffany. I believe in the power of stories to connect us to each other. I write about life after loss and all the love, longing, and learning that comes from it. Grief is big, love is bigger. My newest stories are about motherhood (after both infertility and loss). In my experience, love doesn't get bigger than motherhood.
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