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Grief, Loss, and Sudden Death

Hi friends. I've been thinking a lot lately... thinking a lot about a lot, but in the background of my thoughts, I seem to be mulling over what it means to grieve. So, I thought I'd share some of my thoughts.

Tomorrow marks 17 years since my dad's stroke. I don't think I would have named what I experienced as "grief" back then or in the many years after, and I'm not sure I would name it grief today... but I would definitely name it loss. I lost my father that day. Even though he survived, the man I knew was gone. It was a massive loss, but in the years that followed after I moved back home to help, I regained my dad. My "dad" was someone I didn't always see growing up, but I had glimpses. It's ironic that his being incapacitated is what gave me the dad I had always wanted—one that was present and attentive. In many ways, he was a captive audience for the first time in his life, and I got to benefit from that in connecting with him in a new way. I am grateful for the years I had with him after the stroke, even if they were challenging and stressful.

The loss, though, was hard. I was reminded of it daily as we lived on eggshells wondering everyday if today was "the day" he'd be gone forever. In fact, I used to say that every morning with my dad, I experienced the loss all over again. And in many ways, I did—in varying degrees. As a result, I used to also think that sudden death would have been preferable to the slow, ongoing, demise I witnessed for over 14 years. I rarely said it out loud, though, as I had friends who had experienced the sudden loss of a parent, and their grief and shock was palpable. It seemed a bit insensitive to suggest that sudden loss was somehow better than slow loss.

The simple truth is: all loss sucks. So, as I watched my dad slowly lose more of his abilities and cognition, I maintained my belief that sudden death (or quick illness and death) would be preferable. There were many nights that I prayed that my dad wouldn't end up semi-comatose being kept alive by medicines and machines. That's not life, to me. And then... Lucas got cancer.

It was three types of cancer, actually, and I found myself praying for more time. I had changed my mind. Sudden or quick death? No thank you. Give me more time. Give me ALL the time I can get. There was no part of me that was ready to say goodbye to my beloved companion of 13+ years. In truth, unless by some miracle he was able to outlive me, he would always have died too soon. But here I was, faced once more with loss, and it was everything I didn't expect.

On the heels of the experience with my dad, I guess I thought things would be somewhat similar. Loss is loss, grief is grief, right? It turns out, that's not true. As a licensed therapist, I studied grief. I knew all the stages, and I understood what was meant to happen. I had given myself expectations for what I would feel and experience, and none of it happened. At least not in the way I expected.

Grief is something that I now believe can only be defined by the person experiencing it. Nobody else can say how, when, or why the grief shows up the way it does for anybody else. While I know there are different types of grief (such as losing a child, which has its own support network because it is so unique), I have come to believe that grief is entirely personal. And I also think it should be. Because nobody else but the surviving member of that relationship can truly understand what the nature of the relationship was.

After Lucas died, a couple people suggested that I just "get another dog." They would never be able to understand that he wasn't "just a dog" to me. So, the thought that I could replace him and the relationship with "just another dog" makes no sense (and it wasn't helpful). And that's okay. I can see now that they said it because either a) they were uncomfortable with my grief, or b) they were trying to help me heal. If the latter, it was well-intentioned. From my perspective however, I can now say that I am sorry that they have never felt the depth of unconditional love and support that I experienced with Lucas.

I see how lucky I am to have had that experience when I hear comments like that. It actually reinforces the bond that I shared with him, and in many ways validates the extent of the grief I am experiencing. And, it's a grief that has no manual, no rule book, and no time limit. Grief is weird, and personal, and in many ways, I will grieve the loss of Lucas for the rest of my life. And I am 100% fine with that, because it means that my love for him was infinite.

So, I now understand that grief is incredibly personal and will manifest in ways that are unique to the one experiencing the grief. For example, I haven't been crying very much—other than the spontaneous leaking that happened almost every night before bed—because my body is smart enough to know that this grief needs to come out in small doses and be tempered by memories of love and joy. In order to do that, I put myself into emotional denial. One of the stages of grief is denial, but for me, I've qualified it as "emotional denial" because I am 100% cognitively aware that Lucas is gone. I am not in denial of that fact. However, I am in emotional denial, because I need time. And space. I need both of those to be able to adjust, process, and figure out what life looks like without my best companion. Without the one who often gave me a reason to keep going and make me laugh and smile daily. The one who kept my heart happy, regardless of what was going on around me.

I need to rearrange things so that I can come to an emotional acceptance of the loss, which takes time. And this brings me back to my original statement: Sudden loss is preferable to prolonged loss. From my own experience, this is both true and not true—at the same time. I would have given anything to have more quality time with Lucas, and yet, having 14 years seeing my father incapacitated was something I wouldn't wish on anybody. Though I can now say that I believe the 14 years gave me something I could never have realized until Lucas passed—it gave me time.

My grief for the loss of my dad was being processed everyday for 14 years. It sucked to live through, but it made his ultimate passing more of a relief than a loss. The loss came when he was still alive and in a wheelchair, unable to do much of anything except smile, say a few words, and hold my hand. Those moments gave me the space and time I needed to rearrange things emotionally to come to a place of gratitude and peace when he passed. Yes, I cried (I wailed, actually), and then I took a deep breath and felt peace.

The grief lasted for a few months, and every once in a while I get a pang of it and go say hello to his headstone in the cemetery (I know he's not there). It's nice having a place to pop in and focus my attention. It could have been a tree, or a bush, or anything tangible really, but my dad chose a cemetery.

A few weeks after Lucas died, my mom asked me if I wanted to have a tree planted for him. It was such a loving thing to ask. And yes, I hope to one day. I just have to figure out where. It would be nice to have somewhere to go to focus my human attention, even though I know he's always still around me. (Thankfully.) So, one day I will do that. For now, I will continue to give myself space and time and allow the musings on grief, loss, and death to continue to play in the background of my mind.


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