Article written by Lois White
I was driving down the road, radio on as always, and a song came on, benign at first until the chorus, and then I couldn't contain the tears. I bawled the rest of the song. Tears flowed so freely that at one point I almost pulled over. It wasn’t “our” song, or even a song that meant anything to us, but it was one that he had changed the lyrics to, something silly that meant nothing really, but in that moment it meant everything. He was gone, and the weight of it hit me again all because of a song.
We had reunited two years prior after years of being apart, a fated love story that brought us back together - a new blended family full of adventures and the promise of new happy memories. He wasn’t feeling well that night, but I went in to work anyway. He promised he would come to the emergency room if he continued to not feel well. That night I called to check on him - he wanted to go to sleep to see if that would help. I told him I loved him and that I would see him in the morning. But the next morning when I came home he was already gone - at 35 years old, he had fallen asleep and would never wake up again.
I cried for what seemed like days on end. Friends came to be with me, to distract and to help. My appetite was gone. My existence suddenly felt as though I was a leaf on the water, floating wherever the wind took me. Calls and texts poured in, from those close to me and friends of his that I had never met. The best offering words of encouragement, help, and support, the worst of those demanding an explanation of how he died. I had no answers, and no desire to reply. So I didn’t. Days stretched into weeks and then months. I returned to work. Life settled once again, the waves of pain ebbing and flowing like the tide of the ocean. A few months passed and the results of his autopsy had come back. The pain and grief again crashed over me. It was a preventable death and a life taken too soon from this earth. The ebb and flow of the waves of grief continued. Sometimes bearable, sometimes so crushing that I gasp for air with tired lungs and a heart full of sadness.
I have accepted that he is gone. He will not return to sing me his silly made up song lyrics except in my memories. There are pictures, and stories, and objects of his to remind me, but that’s it.
I found through this process that there are many things that are helpful, and a few that are not. I would like to share those here:
1. Don’t expect a reply after a condolence text or phone call. The grieving person is overwhelmed and while they may be grateful for your outpouring of love, remember that this time is incredibly difficult to deal with. If you are the grieving person, it’s ok to tell people that you may not respond. I put a post on my social media telling people that I was grateful for the messages but could not respond to everyone, and to please respect my and my partner’s family during our time of grief and loss.
2. Understand that demanding an explanation of death or asking how the person died can be very upsetting. I had messages from people I didn’t know, and some that I did, demanding to know how he died. It made me angry, and it upset me. I didn’t know, and it wasn’t anyone’s business even if I did. A grieving person can be completely overwhelmed by many things, they do not need the additional curiosity of others.
3. The first few days to weeks is when most people step up to offer support and help which is wonderful! But don’t forget that months down the line the survivors still need support. It’s ok to check back in and see if there are additional things you can help with later on. Often needs are not known until later on after the initial dust settles. You can say something like “I know I offered help before and am still available to help if you need anything! Are there still needs that you have that I can assist you with?”
4. Be sure there is someone in your life that knows your pin numbers and passwords, or write them down and make sure someone knows how to find them. Knowing my partner's cell phone lock code allowed me to close down accounts, log out of his social media, inform certain people of his passing, and change accounts into my name. Additionally, having paperwork drawn up to establish a power of attorney may eliminate many issues during this process. It’s easy to say “I’m young, I don’t need to worry about death”, but people do die young. Be prepared for anything.
Remember that grief is different for everyone. There is not a right or wrong way to grieve, or a specific amount of time that is “normal” to grieve. One of my close friends confided in me that he still has days that he struggles, even years later, with the loss of his loved ones. It’s ok to seek help. Talking things through with someone can be very beneficial. You may need medication to ease the anxiety and depression you face, and that’s ok too. Time doesn’t always heal wounds, though it can help to ease the pain. Try not to isolate yourself too much. It’s ok to take time and space for yourself, but it’s easy to get sucked into depression. Ask for help. Many people want to help but don’t know how- making your needs known will give others permission to step up when they are needed. And remember that you are not alone. Lean on those around you, find a support group (online or in person), or talk to a friend.
This journey of grief will continue for me. I’m not sure for how long, but I know that tomorrow the sun will rise, and I will continue to put one foot in front of the other. The waves will continue to ebb and flow, and sometimes crash over me. But life will go on. And so will I.
Closing remarks by Katharina Mahadeva
Grief is something we do not expect to deal with in our younger years and so it remains elusive of how to grasp a monumental loss. Compared to the increasing rate of losing loved ones and friends when we get up there into our 70s, 80s, and beyond, middle age still seems to hold relative calm and distance to this part of human life in many our minds, especially when it involves someone our age or younger.
Loss of a loved one is like a physical wound that may never heal. Some learn to live with the loss, others struggle for the rest of their lives. Most of us have no idea how to support someone who experienced a loss beyond giving our condolences and offering more immediate support. We have societal scripts for these situations we can follow in managing this emotionally wrought area. But beyond the initial stages, we are often lost.
As a palliative care physician, it is part of my training to help others and their families through periods of grief, from the acute event to months past the loss. What I observe is that many people want to help and offer support but are at a loss of how to do so.
Lois’ story and insights show how there are no wrong answers when the support offered comes from a place of love and respect. However, it can be difficult to see past our own need to know what happened. But those answers will be there when they are ready to be revealed. Knowing gives us a sense of control as we tend to scan the story of the tragic loss for any human factors that could have brought it about. This too is normal human behavior. We all want a sense that we are safe from this, that it won’t happen to us if we do the ‘right thing’.
Sit with your emotions and feelings surrounding the grief and simply observe them. You can do this while opening your heart to the grieving loved one or friend and let your presence simply be a cloak to keep them safe in your shared emotional space.
Physical health is greatly affected by grief and loss as well. Simply raising awareness that those experiencing a loss are several times more likely to experience heart disease, heart attacks, cardiovascular disease, and cancer, you can offer support in helping your grieving loved one get or stay connected with their doctor.
There are many symptoms that are normal for grief, such as feeling depressed, intense emotions out of the blue, a tendency to isolate, reminiscing, insomnia, loss of appetite, and even seeing and hearing the loved one who has passed away. However, depressed mood usually responds to visits from loved ones and close friends, and doing activities the person usually enjoys. When this is not the case, or symptoms of grief are becoming debilitating to the point where your grieving loved one can no longer function (in their job, at home, self-care), this may be a sign of clinical depression that requires evaluation and treatment by a mental health professional.
If you would like to delve deeper into what help and resources are available for grief support, I have included a few links below to get you started.
xoxo from Katharina
Links for further information and resources: