Grief is one of the strangest emotional processes that I have ever experienced. I never knew my grandparents really, so their loss was quite minor to me. Equally, I wasn’t super close with aunts and uncles, so when they passed, it was relatively unaffecting. My first brush with death was when I was in about grade 3 and one of the kids in our school drowned in a winter creek. I wasn’t close to him, didn’t know him that well, but kind of in line with some of the emotions you see in the movie Stand By Me, there was some sort of effect.
Fast-forward to age 28, and I lost my father. The exact cause wasn’t determined, we didn’t do an autopsy, but he had been a heavy smoker and he had had several heart attacks over the years. In the end, he was having blood clots and the bypasses were only partial remedies. He deteriorated over the course of a year, always bouncing back but never quite as high. So, while it was to be “expected”, it was a shock when he was gone. The big strong man in my life suddenly felled by time and nature. I went through most of my grief alone. It wasn’t something I talked about with people, and for most of the first six months, I shunted it aside to help my mother. But you can only push that aside for so long before it no longer budges.
Looking back, I know I was depressed around age 29 to about age 31, although I didn’t recognize it as such at the time, and am frequently curious looking back to see if it was general depression or simply unaddressed grief, or a combination of the two. I wasn’t happy with my life, and it eventually catapulted me into a difficult five years of self-reflection — what I call my tadpole years — and allowed me to come out the other side with a re-integrated psyche, for the most part at least, and a much greater acceptance of who I am and what I wanted out of life.
Fast-forward again to age 44, and my mother’s passing. She too deteriorated over the course of a year, and very obviously downward in the last 8 weeks as ring-cell cancer ravaged her body. The blessing was that she was without pain throughout that time; the hell was that she was in palliative care and basically not eating anything so that her body would eventually fail. Almost 7 weeks in palliative care. Which gave us time to mentally prepare. Except there is no real preparation I suppose. We talk about it like it will be easier, but who knows? She was 83 years old, she died relatively at peace with her life, loved ones by her side. There are worse ways to go.
Yet the grief hit me far more profoundly and more visibly than it did with my father. I have a better support network now — including my wife, son, my wife’s family, some of my siblings. It’s a different world that I live in now than when I was 27. Yet the grief knocked me on my ass for almost 2 years. The first year was dealing with all the estate stuff. The second year was dealing with emotional stuff.
For me, grief was like a heavy blanket thrown over everything. I was sluggish in all things. My normal senses for detecting problems were dulled, my reasoning flawed. I knew something was wrong, but I couldn’t quite tell what. I am pretty good at figuring out what’s bothering me…I call it the “sore tooth approach”. Kind of like touching your tongue on various teeth, probing to see which one is sore, I do the same thing with emotional issues. I “probe” my psyche…am I worried about money? No. Is it an issue with work? No. Is it this, is it that? And usually I can gauge my response to see if I get a disproportionate level of feedback from my psyche to tell me, “Ah-hah, you’re upset with x or y”. But with grief, I probed my senses to see if it was grief, and got no feedback. Which I interrupted as being “Okay, so it’s not grief.” Yet I kept probing and couldn’t figure it out. I went to see a social worker / therapist through a referral from our work’s Employee Assistance Program, and working through some of the classic signs, we were able to narrow it down from depression or a specific cause to more general dampening from grief.
For me, as I said, it dampens everything. I feel listless. I lose interest in things I normally enjoy, I just don’t get the positive output / feelings from them. I distance myself from others. I feel even less extroverted than normal. The energy required for social settings is a greater tax than normal on my system. I need longer recovery time afterwards to want to be around people again.
So why am I writing about grief? Because it’s hitting me again this week, and from what I would have thought before was an unlikely cause.
A coworker at work lost her husband last week. He was 55, in good health, and the death was both sudden and unexpected. He has two daughters, was training for a marathon, etc. There is very little in his profile, or even my teammate’s, that I can identify with…I don’t know her well, although we work together regularly. We’re not social outside of work. I have a vague recollection of maybe meeting her husband in passing once, but that is all. There’s nothing in this relatively distant event that should trigger grief in me. Sympathy, sure. Compassion, sure. Empathy, maybe, although again, hard to draw a lot of links between loss of a parent and loss of a spouse, so more imagined than from experience.
Yet grief is kicking up its heels over the last week. I feel less patient with delays at work. Things that regularly wash over me with no effect are pissing me off with wild abandon. I feel the urge to tilt at windmills and say, “Seriously? This is your idea of a high-performing organization? THIS is what you waste your time on creating?”. I’m a corporate planner — I drink the kool-aid for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, it goes with the job. Hell, I even have to make it and serve it regularly to others. But my tolerance level is down. I almost blew off dinner with Jacob and Andrea last night as I didn’t want to be around people. Or more specifically, around people I have to interact with. I’d prefer to be faceless in a small crowd, like at a sports bar for wings. I’ll likely go Thursday night.
But planning for the funeral this week has been odd. I often find the dance around visitations and funerals confusing. Generally, my view is that if you didn’t know the people socially, or didn’t work directly with them, your connection is too tenuous to attend the visitation or funeral. While the grieving might find it supportive, I find it too intrusive, almost like an imposition. Some people treat it like a social occasion, to catch up with old friends, but for me, funerals and visitations are about three things only:
- Saying goodbye to the deceased;
- Paying your respects to both the family and the deceased; and,
- Supporting the family through a difficult time.
Nowhere in there is there anything about socializing. If you are close to the family, the order probably reverses; if you are farther away, maybe that is the order. I also generally feel like visitations are for extended family and friends, whereas the funeral is more intimate, more personal, more for family and immediate friends.
So, like most coworkers, you do the dance. My parents would have never had to think about it…there were certain norms they were used to, it was obvious to them whether they went or not, and to which. I never cracked the code, but it was obvious to them. Not so obvious to me. So I debated whether or not to attend the visitation or the funeral, or both. “Neither” wasn’t an option, I obviously feel a strong enough connection to my teammate that I would go, but to what? Similarly at work. I did some in-person notifications, and sent out a nice note to the directorate with the details. We avoided the “group card” where everyone scribbles in corners with something that I thought was potentially weird and turned out quite well — I bought some simple blanks cards and envelopes, pretty much just folded construction paper really, and people are writing notes on them to put in a box for now. We’ll collect them at the end of the week and pass them along. I haven’t written mine yet, will do so likely tomorrow. But it’s going well and giving people an outlet to move forward.
It didn’t, however, solve my question about which event to go to. And then, my wife shared a little phrase that I am sure I heard my mother say a 1000 times and that never really registered with me. “Visitations are for people who can’t make it to the funeral.” Maybe it’s a Peterborough thing, but that resonated with me strongly. And I realized some of my hesitation.
At the visitation, I would feel incredibly awkward trying to comfort the daughters I have never met, or pay respects to the deceased who I also barely met. I would feel like I was intruding in what should be, if not private, at least reservedly intimate or personal. I would feel like a looky-loo at a traffic accident. Whereas the funeral, by contrast perhaps, is more manageable. Part of a large group, no need to intrude into their personal space, their personal grief, their experience of saying goodbye to their husband and father.
And with that decision, my body has released some of its tension. I have been close to tears several times in the last few days, with thoughts of my mom and dad, but never so close as right now writing this. If anyone asks, I’ll swear it’s allergies. I found it difficult even talking to people last week — I told about 5 people and that was my limit. I was starting to lose it. Talking about the death of someone I barely knew.
Grief is a fickle mistress who comes into your life, uses you up, and discards you at her whim. But at least I have a way forward. I will attend the funeral. Odd that a simple cliche is what is comforting me today. I should ask my wife for her advice more often. Just don’t tell her she sounded like my mom.