Things I'm Learning About Death

Photo: Diane G. Wilson

Photo: Diane G. Wilson

There are things in life we have to learn the hard way, it seems.

Death of a parent or other loved one, or even facing an unthinkable trauma like terrorism all can provide us valuable lessons. Maybe we can only learn these from direct experience. Hopefully you can learn from mine. 

I’ve recently confronted the loss of an immediate family member. Although I’ve had other losses, this is the year of my mother’s passing.

I ask myself, from my training as a psychotherapist and coach and from my humble and flawed background as a daughter and sister, having made all possible mistakes, what I can share that might make life less difficult for you? Here are my lessons learned, so far:

The Expected Can Surprise
My mom was 88 years old and failing. While her death was not medically a surprise, it’s true you’re always surprised when it comes. In the case of our family, we expected every day for months and months that she’d be gone. Then, she is gone, and it still feels like a surprise.

The Cost of Insensitivity Can Be High
There can be a cost if we’re not working hard to be conscious and careful in our dealings with others around the major decisions to be made – who gets what and when and how to sell the old Buick. Don't let your family get torn apart by issues that got distorted while grieving, reacting and trying to protect themselves. 

With families, remember that everyone may be a little crazy during this time, at least initially. Labeling, scolding and being impatient with others won’t help you or them. It’s a time for compassion, not judging.

Grief Is Tricky
People can be grieving even if they are not crying a lot. There is a full spectrum of symptoms that can occur, and they depend on the personalities, relationship with the deceased and more. Some people may get spacey and preoccupied while others need to “do things” immediately, no matter what, to check them off a list. Lack of focus is a common reaction.  I found myself unusually exhausted at the end of the day. I’ve heard others say the same.

The Cycle and Length of Feelings
Yes, everyone grieves differently. Some people may be more in touch with their feelings immediately while others may not experience the impact for weeks or months. 

The first week after the loss can easily be the most difficult and disorienting. I’ve seen huge shifts for the better after 30 days. 

Much has been written about the Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ cycle of feelings. While everyone seems to have some degree of her stages of Denial, Bargaining, Anger, Depression and Acceptance. However, as with job loss, I doubt this is a predictable sequence of feelings for all of us. And that’s okay.

The pacing through grief work can vary. It could take six months to a year and a half, even longer. Allow family and others to grieve on their own schedule. 

What Not to Say
Loss of a loved one is an issue of the heart, not the head, for many of us. Our brain functions allowing us to manage our daily tasks.  Returning to work can be a relief for many. The work routine and distraction from the world of our feelings can be a comfort. Still our hearts may be broken.

This heart/head distinction helped pinpoint what was happening for me.  When friends sent love, hugs and good thoughts, it impacted positively. Logical or rational comments, though the intention is appreciated,  didn’t provide that same type of comfort: 

How old was your mother?
That’s a good age to have lived…

We all can’t live forever you know. 

Not so helpful. :(

The Importance of Mindfulness
There is great value in sitting still and observing your breathing; keeping your attention in the present moment and not letting your thoughts and feelings become who you are.

Whether it’s anger, sadness or resentment, what we resist feeling will persist in our heart.

Just accepting the mind’s endless, random activity is freeing.  Staying with feelings reduces their power; it frees you to see past them into the beauty of what is.

Gratitude Practice is Critical
Death is a sad event but it does not mean good won’t come from it. Accept the good. I am grateful for my siblings, friends, and clients, and for having work I love. I am grateful for being open to the connection, kindness and generosity of others.  This has not always been an easy thing. 

I have been guilty of avoiding friends instead of connecting when they were at this same passage of life. I was afraid of making a mistake and hurting them by not knowing what to do. I know much better now. I am grateful for what these difficult experiences can teach us.

There is power in outreach like sending notes, cards and short emails to let people know you care about them and their loss. Simple notes. There is a whole world of people, some of them I know and some I’ve never met, who send cards. Hallmark is so right, it’s special to receive these gestures of compassion and kindness.  Don’t be afraid to do this with your friends and even family.

It’s Real Folks
This whole idea of death became more real for me with this year. If my mother, the person who had been alive every single second of my life, can die, we will all die someday. 

Yet that lesson makes each day even more precious. Enjoy your day. <3

All my best,