One of the most eye-opening and disheartening characteristics of grief that I’ve learned to come to terms with over the last four years is that it truly never goes away.
As I’ve healed over the years I’ve learned to experience joy and love all over again, each time naively thinking: “Finally, I’ve gotten over the hump!” Only to be slammed without warning by a new wave of grief at any given time.
This grief can be triggered by special occasions, including birthday’s, holidays, anniversaries… or it can stem from a totally unexpected encounter, such as running into someone who didn’t know my husband, Larry, had passed away.
It’s the unexpected moments that catch me off guard the most, taking my breath away, bringing me to my knees. As much as I like to believe these moments are more rare than not, I know I’ll face them for the rest of my life. There is no foresight or planning that allows for them, which is one reason why I suspect they’re more difficult to cope with.
This isn’t to say I don’t face grief during birthdays, anniversaries, etc. I’ve simply learned over the years to expect these will be difficult days and I take as many steps as I possibly can to brace myself before the new wave of grief washes over me.
It’s precisely what I’m trying to do to prepare for tomorrow night.
Thursday, May 21st, will mark an occasion I’ve been anticipating for months, one that has me wrestling with my emotions on a daily (or hourly) basis. It’s an occasion that many will face this year. But fortunately for them, not many will have to face it with grief overshadowing their every move.
This week my oldest son, Henry, is graduating from eighth grade and moving on to the next level of academics: high school.
My children attend a small Montessori school and there are 17 graduates this year. The benefit of a small class is the ceremony is very personal and very touching. Each graduate will take the stage, accept their diploma and have the opportunity to say a few words. I wish so badly Larry could witness the poised young adult our little boy has grown into.
It’s moments like these that make moms and dads sit a little higher in their chairs and glance knowingly at each other, understanding the joint effort- by student, teacher and parents- that it took for their child to get to this moment.
The atmosphere will be filled with excitement, proud parents and yes, even a little relief! I’m sure there will be the typical exchanges: “Where did the time go?” “It seems like yesterday my son/daughter entered kindergarten!”
It’s a night when parents will relish in their role as parents, thinking: “Yes! We had something to do with this!”
It’s one of those milestone moments that parents talk about when their child is born. I still remember holding Henry and being so giddy that Larry and I were parents. We’d both get way ahead of ourselves and say things like:
“Can you believe one day this little boy will… graduate eighth grade, learn to drive, graduate high school, hopefully go to college, get married and have children of his own?”
We certainly didn’t want to rush his growing up but I think we were so enamored with the life we had created we couldn’t help but dream about all the wonderful moments we hoped to share with him.
That Larry’s not here to see these dreams turn into reality just adds to my grief.
So while I’ll share many of the same feelings that most parents have, I’ll definitely have a few they won’t. This will be a night when I’ll walk a fine line between being happy and proud of my son and being incredibly sad that his dad is not here to see him reach this milestone.
What makes this more difficult for me is knowing how much Larry would’ve wanted to be here. He waited 44 years to have a family and once the boys were born I swear I never saw him happier.
So as my heart breaks knowing Larry won’t be here, feelings that I don’t typically have are surfacing.
I struggle with feeling cheated that I won’t have my husband’s hand to hold or his smiling face to glance at, that I won’t see him smile back with an unspoken message that says: “That’s our boy!”
I’m struggling with feelings of injustice that every special occasion I know I’ll face with my children is marred by bittersweet sadness… that there will always be someone missing.
Even though I’m facing these tough feelings, one thing is certain: I don’t want to miss one second of celebration! So, the real question is…
How do I ride these new waves of grief?
First, I allow myself some time to wallow. I say all the things that 95% of the time I don’t allow myself to say: “It’s unfair!” “I feel cheated!” “My son didn’t deserve this!”
When big moments in my life occur I need to let these feelings come out. To feel the unjustness of it all. I HAVE to. To ignore these feelings is almost as though I’m ignoring the fact that Larry died.
By letting the feelings surface, regardless of how unpopular and unpolitically correct they are, I’m giving them their own momentum and hope the acknowledging them will make them dissipate quickly instead of festering like an open wound.
And only then I can stand up again and see the brightness all around me.
What else will I do to cope with these feelings?
I will write in my personal journal to help process all the feelings that I’m facing.
I will take extra care of myself and make sure I build time in just for me.
I will engage in activities that I know will bring me peace, like walking my dogs in the morning and giving thanks for EVERYTHING I still have: my boys, my dogs, my extended family and friends, to name a few.
I will appreciate my son’s success in reaching this milestone, because I’ve felt his struggles along with my own for over four years.
I will smile wide and hard because I’ve known many days when I didn’t think I would ever smile again.
I will take notice of every detail- none too small- so I can be sure to tell Larry all about it when I see him again.
And… I will be careful not to let my melancholy affect Henry. I know he wishes his dad was here, we’ve already discussed it. But I’ll have a special present– a personal item of Larry’s- which he can have with him that evening.
After Larry died I purposefully saved some of his personal items with the intention of giving them to the boys on special occasions so they can have a little piece of their dad with them.
Is it enough? Most definitely NOT… but it’s all we have. And we’ve learned over the years to treasure what we do have.
I know you, too, will face moments that are sure to be a mixture of joy and sadness. I pray you’ll find what brings you the most peace during these times.