Grief is a Wild Untamed Thing
This is my mom. Stunning, isn’t she? Beautiful inside and out. It’s hard to believe it’s been two years since she died.
In some ways, the time has flown by. And much has changed. My strong and disciplined dad who used to swim three days a week, work out in the gym and write a nature column for the newsletter in the community where he lives, suffered a heart attack and now also battles dementia. My son, who was a little boy in his first real suit at his grandmother’s funeral, is now a young man, taller than both his parents with a deep and resonant voice that still surprises me on the phone. Who is that guy?
But one thing is constant. I still miss my mom. And I know that as long as I’m here, I always will. Dealing with all my feelings has been a process. Here are a few things I’ve discovered along the way.
Grief is a wild thing. You can’t tame it. You can’t control it. I mean, did I want to cry in the middle of a department store on a hot August evening? No. But there I was in Marshalls on my mom’s birthday, the year after she died. A sappy song from the ’80s was playing. And then I saw a beige blouse that was just her style. Man, did she rock a nice neutral. I wanted to buy it for her, but I couldn’t. I was once again slammed by the realization that I could no longer locate my mom on this planet in physical form. So I cried. Big sloppy tears in the aisle between summer clearance and formal dresses.
There are times when you really want the emotions to flow, you’re ready to just let go and feel your pain. You’re in a safe place. You’re with people you love. It’s “appropriate,” even expected, to express your feelings. And nothing happens. No matter how hard you try. In fact, in spite of trying, the expression of grief you so desperately want to release does not come.
Other times, crying is the last thing you want to do and there you are, perhaps as I was, but likely not, weeping in front of a bunch of bargain-hunting fashionistas.
This year, I’ve decided to stop fighting it and seize whatever opportunities I’m given to grieve, and surrender to them. What else can you do? As Jeff my meditation teacher says, “Better out than in.”
Grief has no expiration date. Some people tell you that grief gets easier over time. And I have noticed there is a rawness that scabs and callouses. Some people tell you to anticipate a year of grieving. But I have found that not to be true.
It’s been exactly two year since my mom died, and I am not done. In fact, there have been some days this second year that felt more gut-wrenching than the first, because I thought I was somehow supposed to be finished with all my sadness. So now I say maybe there are no rules, no deadlines. Maybe you just have to take grief as it comes.
Grief has a saving grace. For me, it feels like every major milestone in life comes with a host of surprising feelings that nobody lets you in on until you get there. Like after my son was born and they just let us take him home from the hospital — without a permit or any type of formal training whatsoever. It seemed amazing, insane, actually, that I could just stroll out the door with this exquisite bundle of humanity in my arms. Especially since we really had no idea how the car seat worked.
At the other end of the spectrum, I also remember one of the first times someone I cared about died. In the days after it happened, I was just as stunned, but in a different way. As I rode in a car to the funeral I looked out at the busy street in awe. How were all these people walking around, going about their business as if nothing was different? Did they not understand that the world had been irrevocably altered by the loss of someone so dear?
Recently, my friend Whit and I were talking about losing a parent, since we both had gone through the experience. At one point he said: “Grief is kind of like the most wonderful club you’d never wish to belong to.”
I had to think about this. Here was yet another surprising concept to take in. There was a club and I was a member, along with everybody else in the world who had ever lost someone they loved? He talked about how grief can provide a lens into a different way of seeing things, a shared understanding of how to live life with perspective.
So I thought about that, and how my life has changed since I have been not only been touched, but fueled, by grief.
Since my mom died, I quit a job that wasn’t right for me so that I could spend more time with my family. I grew more committed to my spiritual practice. I went back to school to study patient advocacy, and I will graduate in June armed with new skills, knowledge and a strong desire to fight for the rights of elderly patients as well as those who care for them. And most recently, I started writing, something I have wanted to do for four years but finally found the courage to start.
And so I decided, maybe Whit is right. I certainly am a reluctant member of this club. But I also realized sometimes grief spurs us to challenge ourselves and realize dreams we didn’t know we had. And the way it can bring us all together, that can be something kind of wonderful.
Diana McKeon Charkalis is a journalist and content strategist who lives in Los Angeles with her husband and son. She frequently treks across the country to spend time with her 93-year-old dad, a loving father, retired wildlife biologist and WWII Navy veteran who also happens to have dementia. She blogs about life, death and caring for aging parents from across the country at longdistancedaughter.com.