You would think that once you’ve lost someone, you’d know how to deal with all losses. You imagine there to be a generic formula to deal with loss—follow these three easy steps and you’ll feel a-okay in no time. That every time a friend lost someone you’d know all the right things to say and be able to explain it all to minimize their pain. But unfortunately, even after experiencing loss, you aren’t any closer to the answers than before.
Just yesterday, my dearest friend lost a close relative. And since I’m not particularly good with expressing how I feel verbally, I thought I would write today’s post about all the things I wish I knew happened after someone passes away that I didn’t know when I experienced it and some suggestions I have in dealing with the loss. This is based on my experience alone so in no way is this a complete list so if anyone would like to add anything, please do.
1) There is no pain equivalent to that you experience when you know you will never hear the voice of someone you love. No matter how much time you have to “prepare” for a death (whatever that even means…writing thank you letters for condolence cards in advance? writing a eulogy before the person has died? picking out your funeral outfit like a prom dress?) there’s no way to anticipate the pain you will feel when it actually happens. Because no matter how much “preparation” you have, the ending always feels sudden, like a book being abruptly slammed shut right after the final word has been read.
The pain usually manifests itself physically, and it’s different in everyone. For me, it was a sharp pain ripping across my abdomen as though someone had drawn a blade across my body. Other people I know have experienced the feeling of being punched in the gut, or the feeling of a rock sitting in their stomach. But need not rush to the emergency room, the good thing about the pain is that it comes in waves. It’ll crash down on you at the most inconvenient times and bring you under and just as you feel yourself drowning, the sea calms and you are pushed back to shore. Remember, you are always pushed back to the shore. Shaken and disoriented, this is when I recommend taking a nap.
2) No one knows quite what to say or even how to look at you after they know about your loss. Your friends act funny when you call to tell them the news. They hesitate on their responses, choking on words that they’ve never had to say before. All you can do is help them along the way and thank them anyways for at least picking up the phone. Don’t get mad at your friends; chances are they’ve had minimal experience with loss and have never had to comfort a friend in such a situation. And even if they have gone through it, they still don’t know what to say because they don’t know what you will want to hear.
3) At the memorial service, wake, and/or funeral, everyone will say “I’m so sorry for your loss.” The proper (and typical) response is “Thank you.” I prefer (and suggest), “Yea, me too.”
4) As you enter the funeral home, you will be assaulted by the smell of stale flowers that have been sprayed with a perfume laced insecticide and no matter how hard you blow your nose afterward, it will not go away because all the flowers come home with you since no one wants to throw out the flower arrangement that cost more than this month’s rent. The flowers sit in your kitchen as you watch them wilt and die only to remind you of loss. Throw the flowers out if you can; or maybe compost them before they began to wilt.
5) The weeks following your loss, you have to pack up all of the person’s belongings. You will open the door to their room and sit on their bed. Rest your head on their pillow and breathe deeply to inhale the remnants of their scent. Keep their door closed just to keep their smell inside as long as possible. However, even this fades in a matter of days. The pain however, lasts much longer.
Folding their clothes, you decide which ones to give away and which to keep when really all you’d like to do is leave them in the closet for when they return. Because of course they’ll come back. Of course they’ll walk right through that door in just a few hours. That’s all. They got held up at the supermarket. Or maybe they’re on vacation. One day they’ll walk right through that door with Mickey Mouse ears on their head and a nice tan….
And even after everything is packed away in nice pretty boxes, including their ashes that you keep on your bookcase, you still feel no closure. No sense of healing looms on the horizon; all you do is try and keep your head above water.
6) Take the time to heal. Whether this takes months or years, no time is too long. It will not happen if you don’t put a little work into it, though. Talk to people about your loss. Experience the pain. Only then do you learn to move ahead with your life while still keeping the person in your heart always.
7) Time passes. You learn to live without the one that was once your everything. You teach yourself new ways to exist that circumnavigate around the gaping hole that now sits in the middle of your life. You tell people what you need instead of expecting them to read your mind. You ask for help when you can’t do it alone. You learn that your identity is not just the loss that you’ve experienced. You nurture your individuality and slowly, the loss becomes only a part of your story—the headlining title no longer. Suddenly, the gaping hole shrinks and you can easily step over it without the fear of falling in. You learn that life exists after a loss. You realize that you didn’t die with the person and that your life is still going on. And that finally, you want to be present for it.