As I sit down to write, I look out the window and notice how cloudy and dark the day seems to be. The skies are gray and a bit misty as the rain drizzles down. The birds are not active – most of them have taken shelter in trees. I can spot the red feathers of cardinals peeking out under leaves – decorating the large beach tree in our back yard. Today’s weather mirrors the topic I am planning to write about. Grief.
I am not an expert. All I have is my experiences. While I have faced loss at other times of the year, this season seems to have had more than its share.
Although grief is invisible, it seems to act in some ways similar to the storms that visit our new home state of North Carolina. There are times when, due to illness, or awaiting an anniversary of a loss, we can anticipate the emotion of grief. But, also like some storms, grief can arrive quite unexpectedly. We have learned that one minute the sky is beautiful – blue and cloudless, and the next minute thunder roars, clouds rush in and we run for cover to escape a drenching. The anguish of sorrow can be like that. Sometimes an unexpected drenching, and other times grief comes in drips and drops.
Plan Ahead for Grief
Just as we can plan ahead and carry an umbrella for those unexpected times, we can also be prepared with coping strategies when grief inevitably shows up. Sometimes the anniversary of a loved one’s passing will bring on sad memories. Other times, a significant day, such as their birthday will be the trigger. If possible, be prepared by planning a distraction by gathering with a friend or two for coffee or drinks. It might also be nice to visit over a meal or dessert.
My oldest brother died in a car accident two days after his birthday, so the remembrance of him is strong at this time of the year. My younger brother died in a motorcycle accident just after achieving some major milestones in his life. The remembrance of him is not so much triggered by the day of his passing, but more often when I encounter others who have made achievements similar to his. I came across a helpful article by a Mayo Clinic staffer. They refer to these episodes as an ‘anniversary reaction’. The article offers tips and coping strategies to help. They include planning a distraction and focusing on the good things about your relationship with your loved one.
I have discovered that the emotion of grieving does not show up only after someone’s passing. For well over a decade, dementia stole bits and pieces of my Mama’s life. I found myself grieving at times over losses of her various abilities. Especially hard was when she lost her ability to form words. I remember yearning to hear her voice one more time. That experience enabled me to pass along what I learned when a friend of mine was lamenting that her mother could no longer carry on a conversation – she said her mother only rambled on without making sense. I offered my friend some advice that I have been finding myself saying over and over: If it is at all possible, record your loved one’s voice while you still have the opportunity.
Grief When we Don’t Understand
Grief is sometimes compounded by our inability to make sense of our situation. Each loss carries with it the struggle to understand why. Why at this time? Why in this way? The answers to those questions are likely not available to us on this side of heaven. I particularly struggled with this when my oldest brother died in a car accident only 8 months after my youngest brother died. He was so young. He was a wonderful husband, father, and grandpa – as well as brother. It wasn’t until one day that I came across a verse in Acts 13 that said, “David served God’s purpose in his generation, and then he died” (paraphrased). At that moment, I realized, that must have described my brother as well. Even though I didn’t know the whys, I could trust the Who.
Though grief is a universal emotion, it is experienced by each one of us uniquely. There are few rules governing its intensity or length of stay. That being stated, it is natural to expect the sorrow to lesson over time. If it does impact your ability to function in daily life, you may consider consulting a grief counselor or other mental health provider.
How to Help
When you encounter someone who is grieving, the best gift you can give them is to actively listen. Don’t steer away from the subject if they want to talk about their loved one. Another way to help is to give assistance in practical ways such as an offer to drive them to an appointment, run errands, or help with housework. The more specific your offer of assistance the better. If you know of someone facing an anniversary of a loss, making a phone call or sending a card to let them know their loved one has not been forgotten can be an act of kindness.
There are no one-size-fits-all answers for anyone who is grieving. Aiming for kindness is the surest path forward. The one thing I have learned through the various losses I have experienced is there is reason for hope; the sadness of memories will surely become sweeter over time.
Has your world been touched by dementia?
My book, “FinishingWell: Finding Joy in the Journey”, is a collection of stories and tips about doing life with my Mama. May it encourage and inspire you to find joy on your own, unique journey. Find our group on Facebook