How I Learned to Grieve – and Heal

Diagram of a Grief knot

Diagram of a Grief knot (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Six months after Maya died, I was at a business meeting where a colleague shared her devastation over the death of her dog. All I could think was, “You can replace a dog but I can never replace Maya.” I ran from the room and barely made it back to my desk before I broke into sobs.

I had lost my firstborn child and my best friend. Life seemed random and meaningless. Despite years of spiritual and psychological work, I discovered that no spiritual philosophy or psychological insight was stronger than my grief.

I fruitlessly sought answers to the “why, why, why” mantra in my head, always coming up empty handed. A colleague gave me a button that said, “Clinical studies show there are no answers.”

Gradually, I began to accept that I would never be able to answer the question of why Maya died. As I worked on Swimming with Maya, and as I learned to grieve, I gave up asking the impossible

I learned that what and how are much better questions. What can I do now that the unthinkable has happened? How can I become whole again?

One of the books that helped me the most was Judy Tatelbaum’s The Courage to Grieve. It is a deceptively simple but profound explanation of the emotional and spiritual courage we need to grieve our losses fully. It taught me that what I was feeling was a normal, natural process. If I trusted my emotions, and let them happen, I would ultimately get through it.

As my recovery gained ground, I began to see beyond my ego-driven need that life always be “fair” or that nothing bad ever happen to my loved ones. It grew easier for me to accept all the ways, big and small, that life does not shape itself to my desires, or support my illusions of control. I recount this transformation in Swimming with Maya.Swimming with Maya

Even the worst grief can be transformed with humor and compassion. But it takes work. And time. Often, because we aren’t encouraged to face the hard realities of death and grief, we greatly underestimate how much time.

I wince every time I hear someone say, “It’s been a year. She should be over it by now.” Or “He just needs to stay busy,” of someone whose loss is only a few months old. Any kind of loss requires radical life restructuring. The death of a child shatters a parent’s future and upends the entire family. Expecting someone to “get over it” is folly.

Taking time to grieve helps put us in touch with the love that underlies grief. If we didn’t love deeply, we wouldn’t grieve. You wouldn’t want to “get over” your love would you? So why rush your grief?

For me, it’s coming up on 21 years, and I can honestly say that grieving, and healing,  transformed my life.

Grief is the ultimate invitation to grow up emotionally and spiritually. It may seem like a hard road, but it is well worth walking. If you look for them, you’ll find good companions for the journey. I hope Swimming with Maya is one of them.

 

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Finding Words

Talking about the death of my daughter detonates every parent’s worst fear.

“That’s the ultimate loss,” they say. “I can’t even imagine it.”maya_mom

Telling people you are a bereaved parent is like telling them you have cancer. In the early years of grief, I felt like a pariah if I revealed Maya’s death. And yet, I desperately needed to talk about it even when I could see people wanted to flee.

I quickly learned when – and to whom – it was safe to reveal my loss. Now that Swimming with Maya is newly available as an eBook and paperback, I am coming out of the closet all over again. I’ve spent the last 20 years learning how to live with Maya’s sudden death. I’ve stopped trying to protect others from my grief – or from their own.

And, after the massacre in Newtown, two long wars, ongoing gun violence in our cities, random accidents, and malevolent cancers, I believe that we must all face and talk about the death of children.

After Maya’s accident I was exiled from the fantasy world where we control our children’s safety or their destinies. Losing that illusion of control was one of the hardest things I had to face. I plunged into a hell of despair. It took a lot of emotional heavy lifting, and many episodes of backsliding, before I could learn to live without Maya – or accept that I was not in some way responsible for her death.

In the early days, grief weighed on me like an anvil.

I would be the last to minimize the suffering that grieving parents endure. But I am also the first to celebrate the miracle of human resilience. After two decades of recovery, I can honestly say that my life is more joy-filled today than it has ever been. Maya’s death was the “ultimate loss.” But it was also the ultimate opportunity for spiritual and emotional transformation.

I quickly learned that grieving was work; other than parenting, it was the most demanding work I had ever done. Grief waves overtook me in the grocery store, driving on the freeway, even at my office. I learned to cry everywhere.

Trying to comfort me, some people fell back on the old bromide that it was “God’s will” that Maya had died. Even worse, some said, “She’s in a better place now.” I had to stop myself from screaming, “Are you out of your mind?”

Ultimately, I found safe places where I could talk about my loss and get support, chiefly The Compassionate Friends (TCF). An organization for grieving parents, siblings, and grandparents, TCF showed me that I was not alone, and that other parents understood my grief because they were living it too. In addition, I saw a therapist, someone who had also lost a daughter and who understood the depth of my grief. And I attended a grief support group at my church. But writing Swimming with Maya has been the ultimate “talking about it.”

Riding the roller coaster of grief all the way to the bottom taught me not to sweat the small stuff. Writing the book helped me take that journey.

All of us must learn to live with loss as an integral part of life. Anyone who develops the courage to grieve, reaches out to give and receive support, and lets go of limiting beliefs can grow whole again. I had to make up my mind to heal, and a huge part of that was learning to talk about my grief and trusting that others could handle it.

 

 

 

 

 

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How we Die

In the movies, relatives gather around for last words from their dying loved one. They lean in for that last pearl of wisdom or poignant plea for forgiveness. Real life is a little different.

Lawrence Vincent on his 91st birthday

Lawrence Vincent on his 91st birthday

My sister Cathy bent over my father’s bedside and said, “Dad we all love you. We’ll always love you.”

The shipwrecked form on the bed responded, “Yeah, yeah, yeah…” and a few moments later, “Phony baloney!”

By then, I had figured out it was best to keep final words to a minimum.  So I sat on the other side of the bed holding his hand, the skin thin and blue as an airmail envelope, the veins protruding like tributaries to the tips of his fingers. I could still feel his pulse. I anchored on that.

He kept trying to get out of the bed. “I gotta get outta here,” he said, grasping the railings trying to pull himself up, then yanking the plastic oxygen lines out of his nose.

“You’re gonna get outta here, Dad,” I said, “but you can’t get out of this bed.”

“Help me! I want to go,” he begged.

“We are helping you,” my brother Paul said. “You have to take this journey on your own, Dad.”

“Can’t you just push me over?” His milky blue eyes were pleading, barely focused.

We looked at each other. OK, who’s going to handle this one?

“No, Dad,” Paul said.

“We could put you out on an ice floe,” I said, “but I don’t think they have those in the Hudson River.”

My father actually looked at me hopefully as if I could go find an ice floe, transport him there, and make this whole damn death thing proceed a little faster.

That was the scene at my father’s bedside on Tuesday, February 12. My siblings and I left the next day, returning to lives, jobs, and families in Ohio and California.

For the next three weeks Dad’s agitation ebbed and flowed, but his children were not there to witness it. Instead, we got reports by phone from the angels at the Actors Fund Home in Englewood, New Jersey, who administered Roxynol and Atavan, bathed and changed him, and sat by his beside to comfort him.

Dying is no picnic, and when the cause is Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, it’s a fight for every morsel of precious oxygen.

My father died peacefully this morning, at the age of 92, with one of the nurses at his side. A few hours later, I spoke with his favorite nurse, Lisa. She called him “My Larry,” and often told him they were going to get married.

“I loved seeing the terror on his face,” she joked. “He thought I really meant it.”

Lisa visited him for the last time yesterday, rubbed his head, and told him she was there with him. He could no longer speak, but he gave a little groan.

Love is complicated. It includes holding the hand of a man who loved me deeply and harmed me terribly when I was too young to defend myself. My heart was wide open to my Dad as he lay dying, and that is simply a miracle. I’m sorry we couldn’t be with him at the very end, but we were there when he could still talk and enjoy the last morsel of dark chocolate I placed on his tongue.

When my brother asked Dad what he saw when he was gazing intently at the ceiling, as dying people do, Dad didn’t skip a beat. He shrugged and said, “Quien sabe?” Who knows? In the face of life’s great mysteries, my father never lost his sense of humor.

I practically fell off the side of his bed I laughed so hard. This is how I will remember Lawrence Vincent whose motto was “Happiness above all,” and whose frailty and love sent me into the hall to weep with my forehead pressed against the cool tiles, nurses passing tiny paper cups of medicine behind me.

 

 

 

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