Eleven years ago, my father passed away.
I was young. And I remember how I tried to make sense of it.
Parents are significantly older than their children. They have “adult ailments”. And sometimes, that leads to death. Parents die. I suppose it’s normal. But I wasn’t given much time to think about it.
One year after my father’s death, my sister passed away. Only a year younger than me, she had a lot of life left to live. Do siblings die? I didn’t have time to wrap my mind around that either.
One year after my sister’s death, my grandfather passed away. Three deaths within three years.
Losing your family is a tragedy. And along with my mother and brother, it was one I had to learn how to deal with on my own.
But as I eventually discovered, dark circumstances give birth to illuminating revelations. I’d been given a perspective on life that not many people will get to experience. I could allow it to be a burden or I could extract lessons from it, and lend it to those around me.
It’s important to acknowledge that there are no rules on how to deal with grief. Because no two are the same. Every pain is different, every recovery process is different. So if you’re grieving – at any stage, my only hope is that I can play a small part in helping you navigate through your pain.
Here’s what I know about grief, and about being a griever, after a decade of living through it.
Don’t resist it.
The most important thing I learned with every loss is that you must allow yourself to feel IN REAL TIME. Don’t be strong – I’m serious. Fall apart. Because only when you break down can you begin to put yourself back together. Don’t evade your feelings, and don’t set them aside for a later date. Because once the funeral is over, and everyone resumes their daily lives, you’re alone for the first time. That is when you really feel the weight of everything that just took place. And this is not where you want to be tackling the pain alone. Face it while your loved ones are there to pull you back into safety.
You never get used to death.
And you’re not supposed to. How naïve I was to think that I would handle my sister’s death better because of my father’s death the year before. We’re human beings. We’ve been built to feel, to attach. Every relationship is special. And the loss of any one of these relationships is devastating. The pain isn’t any less intense the second or third time around. The mourning period isn’t shorter either. Allow yourself the room to experience each and every loss as if it were the first.
You’re not meant to come out of tragedy unscathed.
And it’s unrealistic to think you can. You’ve endured life-altering, gut wrenching pain. That doesn’t just disappear. You don’t just move on from it. Your mental health has taken a beating. And some of those bruises won’t heal. There are things that set me off now. So I’ve consciously marked what takes me to a sad or scary place. Whatever that place may be for you, if it’s difficult to endure – don’t endure it! You’re allowed to protect yourself. And when it can’t be avoided, do what you can to manage the pain. Find coping mechanisms that work for you, and utilize them when needed.
You’re not like your peers anymore.
While everyone else my age was doing what young people do – dating, exploring, learning about themselves and others – I was just trying to live. Trying to survive every day with this gaping hole where a parent and sibling were supposed to be. And this is why you should give yourself a break from time to time. You’re keeping up with everyone else, without the luxury of moving ahead with the same ease. It can also be lonely at times – being surrounded by people who aren’t walking the same path. But I remind myself that with this pain come lessons that not everyone will gain access to or will only have access to decades from now. So I choose to see it as an advantage.
Empathy is your superpower.
No one understands pain better than you at this point. When you hear about death, the people dealing with it aren’t just random people anymore. Because you know what their pain must feel like; you know what their days are going to look like. You feel connected to them. The desire to help almost feels like a responsibility. People in pain gravitate towards you for this reason. And it’s a comforting thing, for both them and you, to be in the presence of people who get it.
It’s not going to be okay.
And that’s okay. What have I learned after three years of loss, and eleven years of the recovery process? That it doesn’t get better…but it does get easier. The pain becomes a part of you. It finds a home in you, neighboured by your joys, achievements, and failures. Accept that it’s there. You’d be surprised at how much lighter you feel when you say, okay, I see you. Some days it’s good at bringing you down. Other days, it leaves you alone. It’s a series of these highs and lows. Accept this, too.
You will never be free from death.
A reminder I received recently after a dear friend passed away – ten years after the other losses. Death will happen again. And it will hurt. It will always hurt. We’re not meant to be calm all the time. Sometimes we need to feel things. Pain, anger, sadness, uncertainty, fear – these emotions vigorously clear out our insides. Now, there’s more room for the good feelings. So after the hurt, each time we must choose to focus on the good, on the beauty. It’s difficult, when you’ve made peace with loss, and then suddenly you have to do it all again. But there are new lessons to learn in each and every death. As we get older, we will see that life is just a series of recalibrations.
So, how do I stay in this place of optimism despite the circumstances? Well, I don’t ever have to fake it – that’s the truth. Pretending like you’re okay only hinders your progress. This is what I discovered: it’s possible to find peace even in the most treacherous places – around me, and within myself. And it’s possible to feel whole, even when you’re missing pieces of you.
At the start of it all, I remember thinking, how will I live the rest of my life without them? How will I ever make it to the end? But I WILL make it. And so will you. Those cracks in your heart? They will mend.
Now it feels as if I carry my dad, sister and grandpa with me wherever I go. As if they reside in my heart, filling those spaces split open by agony. It’s something I don’t think we can do with people who are living. And that’s special.
If you are struggling with the loss of a loved one and are in need of resources to support your mental health, please consider the following: