Caregiving 101: Part Six: Grief and Loss

October 13, 2018 was a long day. My brother picked up my car to work on it, while my mom and I replaced my bed and took a trip to the dump. We then went to my brother’s to pick up my car. I got home late and had barely settled down for the night when I got the call my father had passed away.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been shocked, but I was. We had only set him up for hospice on Thursday and it was Saturday. During the meeting they had prepared us for a long wait and a new phase to begin. God had other ideas.

The last time I saw my father was that Thursday. He was in a hospital bed, convulsively shaking, thin as a rail, unable to talk or eat by himself, with no idea who any of us were. It was not a pleasant sight and I can still remember the look on my brother’s face when he saw him. It was no way for anyone to live and I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy.

Honestly, I didn’t really expect to grieve a lot when my dad died. Because of how hard it was taking care of him and how hard it was on him, I expected to feel relief. And I did, but I also felt very sad. I wasn’t sure what to do with that.

My brother wanted to go and see him before the funeral parlor came and took his body away and I went as well. It was not my first time being around a dead body, but it was still startling and unsettling. I can’t say that he looked peaceful, but he no longer looked ravaged by pain and misery. He was so skinny, and to my slightly hysterical brain, he looked like the picture of Death as depicted in a favorite television show.

It felt weird being there, after dark, with my brother and sister-in-law. We cried and hugged each other, and I held my dad’s not-yet cold hands. The staff were wonderful and let us know we could have all the time we needed. I honestly couldn’t tell you how long we were there, but it felt like an eternity. And when I got home, I was still very sad.

The next day, my need to avoid my feelings kicked in. My whole family spent the day at my mom’s house. They urged me not to worry about trying to take care of things, but I felt a huge responsibility to let everyone know and to make sure everything was done. My family was splendid in helping me. My mom and I split the duty of letting other family members know. My sister researched what to do about his will and estate. My mom helped clear out his stuff from the facility. We started figuring out funeral dates.

But all day long, neither my brain nor my feelings shut off, both pouring out an endless list of demands on me, and I was completely overwhelmed. The next few weeks were like that, going about my day, but in a constant state of intense emotion and responsibility. I predict you will go through a similar experience. If I could gently urge one thing, it would be to let yourself have time to simply feel rather than numb the pain with your duty as a caregiver. Let other people help you and don’t try to dull the feelings of loss with distraction or escapism. It helps for only the briefest of moments and it denies you the opportunity to truly process. If you’re waiting for the funeral, I guarantee you won’t have as much time as you think.

Funerals should be a place to grieve and to celebrate someone’s life. Maybe that’s true when you’re not throwing them. For me, the whole thing was bound up in too many details, working with the people around me to make things go smoothly, and making sure everyone was okay. I can’t entirely discount the experience because I was truly happy with my dad’s funeral. For someone so hard to like, the amount of support I received for him was amazing. It was also wonderful to have everyone in the same place, for the same reason, and just be together.

The service itself was lovely, but the true value came afterward, when a smaller group was at my mom’s house, eating food and playing cards and just being together. We figured out some logistics while we were there, but mostly we celebrated being a family. It felt like the family I remembered as a child, which I desperately missed as an adult. I can’t emphasize enough how important that is, to be together. Even when you’d rather mourn separately or feel like there’s too much separating you to ever truly be unified. Togetherness for the sake of togetherness brings healing without you even realizing it. And it can make you understand what you truly want out of a family.

That doesn’t mean that you force everyone to grieve the same way. Grief is entirely unique. It hits every single person differently. The phrase everyone handles grief in their own way is true, but, in my opinion, grief feels sentient and it handles you more than the other way around. Dad’s death was not my first time dealing with grief, but it was the first time in which I felt like the main player. Everything needed my stamp of approval on it, which gave me less time to process my feelings.

Grief also comes in waves. It hits you at different times. You never know what’s going to happen with it or what random thought will trigger it. You’re supposed to come to a point of acceptance, at least that’s what everyone says. But I don’t know if it’s a point so much as a slow descent, one that certainly isn’t finished a few weeks later when you’ve eaten all the casseroles and the flowers have all died and you definitely can’t take any more time off of work. But that’s when everyone else stops treating you differently and acts like you really should be getting back to normal life. Maybe they’re just tired of getting the same answer when they ask you about it. Either way, to me it felt like life was moving on, pulling me along with it, but I was stagnant, frozen, stuck in a past that no longer existed. That’s what grief did to me.

The funny thing about being frozen is, you’re not actually processing. I let the needs of life dull the pain until I thought I wasn’t feeling it anymore because it was gone. But it was only lurking underneath the surface, resurging again at the oddest times and places, when so much time had gone past that it felt somewhat embarrassing to still be feeling grief when I clearly should have moved on.

If you are at that place of grief and loss, I am deeply sorry you are going through that. You will feel whatever cocktail of emotions is unique to you and you will have a grieving process that looks different than anyone else’s. I want to tell you that’s okay. You can ride those waves whenever they hit you and you don’t have to apologize or feel bad for how you’re feeling. Even when you do feel bad, give yourself grace and a place to mourn. If you process better verbally, have a therapist or trusted friend give you that listening ear that you need. Maybe it would help to journal. Maybe you need to be alone, though I don’t recommend that for long periods of time. We are made for community and too much time alone is going to prolong our feelings rather than help us process them.

Your feelings of grief might be mingled with guilt as a caregiver. Mine certainly were. What if I’d done this or that differently? Would it have made a difference? Did anything I do matter at all? Of course, then there was that relief. The feeling that finally . . . this was over. The millstone around my neck, the burden on my shoulders, the constant feeling of stress and responsibility, were just gone. The hardest period of my life was suddenly over, without warning, and I didn’t know who I was without it. And I felt such guilt over that. I should be more sorry than glad that my dad was gone. I should not be so happy I didn’t have to deal with this anymore. Should is such a shame-filled word. I think we need to ban the word ‘should’ from feelings of grief.

When I’m talking with people who don’t believe in God, I sometimes explain feeling relieved because my father was suffering and no one should have to live like that. This is completely true. But the deeper answer is that, as a Christian, neither he nor I have to fear death. Death can be a very scary thing to people, but not to those who know it’s only a bridge. We were always going to live forever, every single one of us. Death is just the way we get there. I’m not saying it’s not hard and we shouldn’t grieve. I’m saying we shouldn’t fear it. I didn’t fear it for my father and I don’t fear it for myself.

The best part? My father is finally redeemed. He is finally the father and the man I always wanted him to be. Not in a way that makes him feel bad and finally know the pain he caused as a punishment. No, in a way that makes him be the man I look forward to a reunion with. The man who will love me as he always should have loved me. A man I can trust. A man who would take care of me instead of me taking care of him. The man who wants his story to be known to help others reconcile with their children before it’s too late in this life. I can finally say that I have a father I can be proud of and I can love him without any reservation or fear.

This doesn’t mean that I’ve completely come to terms with everything that happened in this life, but as far as the future goes, I believe it’s going to be wonderful. If you’re in the midst of it, just know there is hope on the other side. You will get through it, as hard and as tender and as deep as those wounds you bear are. God is right there, the best comforter and counselor and healer there is. He will never leave you, even when everyone else does. So put your trust in Him, and in His ability to bring you through each wave as it comes. He won’t fail you. And be tender and gentle with yourself, just as He is. Don’t ever give up hope you will get through it. Because even if you feel some measure of grief for the rest of your life, it will abate and you will grow stronger. Let yourself feel, but don’t let yourself wallow. Receive strength from your loved ones. Don’t try to do it all yourself. And don’t worry about what it’s supposed to be. There is no such thing. God is in control and He’s got you.

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