Don Egan at Rwanda’s genocide memorial in Kigali.
Don’t let anyone tell you how you should grieve your loss.
Thirty years ago my Mum died suddenly after a short stay in hospital. She was 57 – too young to die.
Later that same year my Dad suddenly died of cancer. He was 57 – too young to die. Not so much like having the rug pulled out from beneath you – more like the whole floor falling away.
A couple of years later, our son died during a heart operation shortly before his third birthday. He was nearly 3 – too young to die.
The first arrow never kills you. It’s the second arrow that kills you. Incidents and tragedies happen, that’s the nature of the world. A tragedy won’t kill you. But the second arrow – how you respond to the tragedy – that can kill you. Perhaps not physically, but emotionally and spiritually it can kill you.
Here’s the thing.
People tell you there are five stages to grief and that you’ll need to work through them in order to recover from your loss. The stages are:
Can I just say – that is a load of bovine manure. Excuse my French. No doubt you will experience some or all of those things during a time of bereavement. Unfortunately, psychobabblers have taken a helpful observation and turned it into a series of hoops to jump through. This was never the intention of its author.
The stages of grief were developed by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross over 30 years ago, as she listened to and observed people living with terminal diagnoses. Since the publication of her book On Death and Dying, the ‘stages of grief,’ as they are known, have become the gauge by which all grief is measured.
In her later years, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote that she regretted writing the stages the way that she did, that people mistook them as being both linear and universal. Based on what she observed while working with patients given terminal diagnoses, she identified five common experiences, not five required experiences.
The important thing is to find a place of peace and healing. For decades my grief felt like a block of concrete I had to carry everywhere. It weighed me down and affected everything I did. It drained the energy from me everyday.
My experience was mostly anger, but an anger I never wanted to express so I kept it bottled up. I numbed the pain by over-eating, over-drinking and escapism.
The thing is, no matter how far you run, you can never run away from yourself.
This year, thirty years after my son died, I think I am finally coming to terms with it.
The thing about emotions is they are like little boxes that turn up to the warehouse of your body and mind. We need to process them. If we don’t the new boxes of emotions keep turning up and soon we run out of room to store them. At some point, the warehouse will collapse and all these unprocessed feelings will explode into the outside world.
How did I come to terms with my grief? You may well ask.
Firstly, I’m still in that process. I’m not sure it’s all worked through.
It was on hold for twenty-eight years, so excuse me if I’m a little confused about what is the effect of the grief and what is the effect of the ups and downs of life generally.
I don’t really know.
But here are a few things I observed over the last few years.
1. I decided to be intentionally thankful for what I do have – even saying a little prayer of thanks sometimes at the end of the day.
I have a nice home, a loving and patient wife, two great daughters and a cool grandson. I have some friends who really care about me, even if they don’t always say so. I don’t live in a war zone. I am not crippled by poverty but I can help those who are.
2. I decided not to be a victim. There are too many people walking about banging on about what a bad hand life dealt them and all the ‘poor me’ stuff. They throw a pity party and are disappointed when they are the only ones who turn up.
I am not a victim. Bad stuff happens to good people everyday. That’s the first arrow. That won’t kill you. How you respond – that’s the important thing. I chose to get on with my life while I worked out what to do with the heavy load of grief that attached itself to me. I don’t want to be ‘under the circumstances’ I want to be over the circumstances of my life.
3. I decided in January this year to change my life and habits. I lost a stone in weight and took more exercise. I quit alcohol all together. I gave up caffeine. I am working on giving up sugar and losing a bit more weight. All that makes me feel healthier, happier and more able to cope. I’m not sure if that came first or I came to terms with grief first. I think they went hand in hand.
4. I decided to value myself. I put a higher value on myself even when others didn’t.
5. I decided to start saying No to things and people I found unhelpful or draining.
But here’s the other thing. That’s what I did. It will probably be different for you. Try some stuff. Keep chasing your healing and wellbeing.
Did I pray? Yes. Through all the years of loss, I did pray but sometimes praying for things doesn’t always give us the answers we want.
When the prophet Isaiah foresaw the coming of the Jewish Messiah, he described him as
‘ A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.’
Book of Isaiah, chapter 53
That tells us that joy and sorrow may be two sides of the same coin.
The four seasons, that visit every year, speak of the miracle of birth, growth, flowering, decline and a death that sows new seeds of hope for the future. I need to fully learn what that tells me. Still working on that.
So my advice if you have lost someone – grieve in the way that works for you. Don’t think there are five steps to work through, but know that what you feel has almost certainly been felt by others before. You are not alone. Get help. Talk about your loss.
Top 5 regrets of the dying! (or why you need more silliness in your life)