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What the ‘Stages of Grief’ Don’t Always Tell You

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Grief.

One five-letter word carries a punch to the heart like nothing else.

Grief means loss. Grief means pain and suffering. Grief means mourning.

Grief means someone or something you love is gone. Grief means a gaping hole in your heart.

Grief means that things will never be the same again.

I see posts about the “stages of grief” and the “grief process” — and I hate it.

It makes it sound so sterile, so clinical, so neatly organized.

I hear people wondering when someone will “get over” or “get past” their mourning and “move on with their life” — and I hate it.

It makes it sound so easy.

It makes it sound as if having something or someone ripped out of your life isn’t profoundly life-altering, as if you aren’t living and breathing every day with something that has wounded your soul, as if you’re defective when someone feels your “official mourning period” should be over.

As if the space in your heart that has someone’s name on it should be boarded up, or worse, cleaned up and ready for occupation, all the cobwebs of pain swept away.

As if it didn’t matter.

As if that space could be filled up and smoothed over by time like patching a hole in the wall.

My niece, Sydney, died in a car accident 15 a half months ago on her 18th birthday.

One moment, we were posting birthday wishes on her Facebook page, the next she was gone.

My sister’s first child. The first to be imagined when taking pregnant belly pictures. The cousin who was a few months older than my son, who grew up with my children, who was smart and goofy and stubborn and believed things would always get better if you persevered and hung on. The older sister to two other beautiful girls and the one who usually had a kind word for anyone struggling.

I’ve learned things about grief I never thought I would and that I never wanted to, and I’ve watched my sister suffer immeasurably.

Time doesn’t heal all wounds, and some scars like to reopen.

Grief isn’t neat and organized — it’s messy. It’s seeing a girl who looks like her from the back and crying in the shopping mall because it hit you like a sledgehammer blow that she’s gone. Again.

It’s watching your sister in pain you can’t take away.

Ever.

Grief isn’t something that we “get past” or “get over” so much as we learn to live in spite of.

It’s learning to breathe and walk all over again. And again. And again.

It comes and goes like waves. The holes in our hearts are like the sand on the beach. It erodes and it fills with the tide, but it’s never actually exactly the same again.

And like the tide, it doesn’t really stop.

And the truth is, you don’t want it to. Because grief is the price we pay for deep love. Mourning means we had something worth missing.

And that’s OK.

Because the alternative is never having had that beauty in your life.

Some days — even years from now — the pain will stun you, but some days you can smile at a memory without it being through tears. Some days the pain of them not being here will be a physical ache, others you’ll feel as if they’re smiling and standing right by you and others you’ll feel numb.

Some days you will be OK, and some days you will not.

And some days you will be all of those at once.

And that’s OK, too.

See, the thing that the “stages of grief” forgets to tell you is that it’s a continuous cycle rather than a procession from Door 1 to Door 2 to Door 3 and so on. And not everyone will visit those stages in order, and some will skip a door or two. There’s no time limit on grief because there’s no limit on love, and there’s no right or wrong way to mourn. Those feelings you think you should be over aren’t right or wrong — they just are, they’re valid. And letting yourself feel them is a part of healing.

Sydney believed there would be better days. This is my tribute to her. I believe sharing this will help some of us persevere until we find them.

Persevere

Persevere
Though the road be
Paved with heartaches
And disappointments,
Lost chances,
Faded dreams —
For each new day
Brings new chances,
Brighter days,
Another dream,
And new choices.
Persevere
And LIVE life
For all it’s worth
In joy and in sorrow,
For the next day
May be yours.

In memory of Sydney 3/12/1997-3/12/2015.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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When I See My Father’s Eyes in the Mirror After He Passed Away

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If I stare at myself long enough in the mirror, I can see my father’s eyes. In the four months my Dad has passed, I find myself doing this quite a bit. It’s almost become a ritual.

Through my father’s eyes, I can see happiness and hope. I can remember the good times and the times when he was healthy and we laughed. The times when I danced on the top of his feet to doo-wop music in the living room. The times when he was enjoying his favorite meal and was cancer-free. Through my father’s eyes, I can see my biggest fan cheering me from the sidelines and always encouraging me to better myself. I share my father’s DNA and much of his personality.  

I want to be happy again, but grieving is so complicated. My grief has morphed me into a real-life Dr. Jekyll and Hyde. My heart hurts and my shoulders ache from the pressures of grieving. The agonizing pain of my grief has ripped a hole in my heart and left a massive void.

Some people have told me, “You’re still upset?” I lost my father, the man who raised me and my best friend. He was a significant part of my life. 

Death and grief are taboo despite the fact that we all die. A simple act of acknowledging someone’s loss provides incredible comfort to the griever. If you don’t acknowledge our pain, it can feel like you’re slamming the door in our face or putting us on mute. You’re sending us a message that our loss is insignificant to you.

It’s been four months since my father has been given his angel wings. How can four months seem so endless yet go by so quickly? I still feel like I’m waiting, waiting for him to come home from the hospital. Waiting for him to answer the phone and announce, “It’s my Lisa Mia!” 

Eventually, I’ll realize he’s not coming home from the hospital, and he won’t be answering the phone anymore. I hope I’m strong enough to handle that moment. Right now, I’m OK with living in denial because the pain is unbearable. Countless individuals have shown my family the power of true, unconditional love. Friends near and far have moved heaven and earth for one purpose: to help memorialize their great friend and provide comfort and support to his family. I am forever indebted to these folks. There are not enough thank-yous for the love you continue to show my family.

Grief rips you apart. Grief changes you. It’s difficult to imagine I will never see my father’s face or hear his voice again.

Even in death, my father is showing me he’s by my side. I see my father in my dreams. A few nights ago, I was hugging him so tight, knowing when I let go he would vanish. He was glowing, he was smiling again, he was healthy again. I felt a grandiose sensation of peace and love. I didn’t want to let go. He smiled and told me to “Be happy.” I believe that was a visitation dream. I struggle to find the words to describe the feeling of love and comfort that dream gave me. 

I am never alone. My father is always with me, and I’m beyond grateful. But I’m selfish — I want my father here like it used to be. I wanted a miracle. I wanted my father healthy again. I wasn’t ready to say goodbye. I miss my father’s guidance and wisdom. I miss my father’s friendship. I miss the beautiful rapport I had with my father, and his ability to be my father yet speak to me like I was his equal. I miss my father! I return to the mirror and search for my father’s eyes.

Through my father’s eyes, I can see my journey, my future. It’s blurry, but he is urging me to continue and to find happiness as I memorialize him. I don’t want to lose sight of my journey, so with a heavy heart I will carry on. Through my father’s eyes, I can see a reflection of who I am meant to be.

Follow this journey on Love Is Infinite.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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My First Fourth of July Without My Dad

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The Fourth of July was a big deal growing up in our house. It meant time spent with my family, participating in traditions and creating new memories.

When it came to traditions, the Fourth of July ranked right next to Christmas for our family. The day was filled with activities from morning until night, and we would cram as much fun as possible into the holiday. And let’s not forget the good food, even better drinks and family fun.

Our holiday always concluded with my dad and uncle proudly displaying the fireworks they purchased. It was a sight worthy enough for the entire block to grab their lawn chairs and watch the show. This was our tradition for many years, giving our family enough stories to write a book. 

But this will be my first Fourth of July without my dad. Five months ago, I watched my father die after a long, courageous battle with Stage IV base of the tongue cancer. He spent four years unable to eat a morsel of food or drink an ounce of liquid.

During the past four Fourth of July celebrations, he was unable to fully attend family barbecues and do all the things our family loved doing. 

Many times, I would tell him he needed to at least try to come. I would tell him he needed a little fresh air and he was probably just depressed. I’m ashamed those words ever came out of my mouth. Back then, I had nothing but good intentions, but looking back at those words, I realize now they were so hurtful and totally inaccurate. Of course, he wanted to attend, but his sickness prevented him from doing so.

My father loved the Fourth of July. He was a proud American who served his country during the Vietnam era while stationed in the United States. He often reminisced about his Army days. Right up until the day of his passing, he reminded me to call the U.S. Army and get the footstone for his grave.

He would often tell me, “I earned that footstone, don’t forget!” We did get his footstone, and my father had a full military burial complete with taps.

Adjusting to a world without him unnerves me in unpredictable ways. Yesterday, as I was doing marathon shopping at ShopRite, I came face to face with their Fourth of July display. I stood there, staring at it for a moment. Then it hit me like a ton of bricks — my dad wasn’t coming to our party this year. There will be no wishing that he is having a good day so he could trek to my house with all his medical paraphernalia. There will be no need to me make sure our guest bedroom was tidy in case Dad needed to rest. How could that be? Just last year Dad was at my house, sitting in my living room and cracking jokes with everyone. I remember watching him and thinking to myself, “Yes! This is how it’s supposed to be! My dad is having a good day. Thank you, God!”

What once was a time of family and togetherness is now a time when my emotions are running high as I’m navigating the loss of my father. My feeling of loss is more prominent than ever as I prepare to celebrate without my dad, the man who proudly served his country and loved this holiday. 

Last year was my dad’s last Fourth of July. Let me repeat that: Last year was my father’s last Fourth of July on this earth. He spent that day at my house, where I made sure I hugged him and told him how much I loved him. In the midst of the hustle and bustle, I remember my father hugging me tight and telling me, “I will always love you. You will always be my baby.”  

When I watch the spectacular firework display this year, I know I’ll shed a tear, but I’ll also look up and thank my dad for giving me a lifetime of precious memories to hold in my heart.

Follow this journey on Love Is Infinite.

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Thank You to My Better Half for Loving Me Through My Grief

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My heart and mind have been skipping all over the place. I go from anger to grief to confusion to sadness to hope with a dash of creativity and a side of anxiety all at once.

There are moments when I know you’re at a complete loss as to what to say, think or do. I must apologize for the moments when I’ve shouted in frustration, “You don’t understand how I feel!” while I’m engulfed in the ebb and flow of my tears and sorrow.

Then there are moments I gaze at you with love and admiration for being my raft while I’m overwhelmed with waves of grief.

Cancer stole pieces of my dad before it took him from us. It denied my father the opportunity to have a normal relationship with you, and it denied you the chance to know him whole. I am haunted by the simple fact that you were never given the opportunity to sit in a restaurant and enjoy a meal with my father, my family and me. I am broken hearted you never were given the privilege to truly bond with my father.

Precious memories were robbed from us.

My grief journey is complicated, jumbled and chaotic. Despite all my pain and suffering, I see you. I see you through my veil of tears. I feel you holding me up when I am falling down. I feel your love during my darkest moments. 

My father’s death still seems unreal. One minute he was alive and speaking to me, now he is not. One moment he was breathing, the next he was not. My father’s death has left an agonizing sting on my heart.

Your love is what is healing my fear. Your love is what calms my distressed heart. Your love is what mends my broken mind and body. Your love is what I can count on. 

Your ability to love me through my grief is a magnificent gift.

In my mind’s eye, I see us sitting by my father’s side the night before he died. I was devastated and was convinced I would die, too. I sat there holding my father’s hand, focusing all my attention on his hand. I wanted to remember my father’s strong grip and the man who guided and protected me my entire life. The pain in my heart was staggering. His cries were heartbreaking. We couldn’t give him food, we couldn’t bring him fluids. I was watching my father die, and I felt helpless.   

Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed you rising up to slowly massage my father’s back. I listened to you comfort my father, vowing to take care of me. I watched a single tear roll down my father’s cheek. With tears in my eyes, I witnessed my first love slowly fade away and  watched my last love begin to take his place. Thank you.

Like a knight in shining armor, you’re determined to protect my heart and shield me from the pain of my grief. As you guide me with your love and witness my grief, you’re giving me the greatest gift of all. The gift of your unconditional love and the strength to continue my life with courage and bravery.

As I walk through my grief journey, you’re teaching me that love is a gift each of us has to offer to our neighbors, friends and family.

With love and understanding, all things are possible.

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The Never-Ending Timeline of Grief

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Grief. Only a select few are ever spared from the experience, so you’d think we would be more prepared. A quick search on Amazon reveals nearly 62,000 books on the subject, but I have yet to encounter someone who has read “Grief For Dummies (yes, there is such a manual) or any other guidebook before they are fully immersed in the situation.

 This “one-size-fits-all” premise regarding grief implies that everyone encounters, digests and processes it in a similar way. However, grief is a highly personal process, and the progression continually fluctuates depending on the circumstances of the moment. I, myself, commonly exhibit three different modes of grief. (Though I am sure there are others lurking, just waiting to be exposed.) The personalities in the trio take their turns coming and going, sometimes intertwining with one another and at other intervals completely overshadowing a counterpart. They are predictable in their unpredictability. My current triad includes:

1. The Neon Sign: This is when I want everyone to take notice of my widowhood. I yearn to have my grief heralded by the town crier with exclamations of “Sympathy for the suffering!” and “Alms for the widow!”

2. The Grace Kelly: Like a favorite pair of classically-styled earrings, my grief during these moments is subtle and demure, never ostentatious. It’s the pièce de résistance that you can’t quite put your finger on, but you know it’s there.

3. The Influenza: This is the ailment you try to ignore, attempting to maintain the stiff upper lip. The problem is, the more you try to stifle this type of grief, the harder it is to breathe and the increasingly nauseous you become.

All these types of grief ramp up their intensity when you are preparing to confront a significant occasion. Birthdays, holidays and anniversaries will forever be altered once you have lost the person you primarily celebrated them with. My struggle dealing with the date of my 25th wedding anniversary was featured last year in the Huffington Post.

What I didn’t disclose in that piece and what nobody warns you about, is the before-and-after of such monumental events. The prelude and the aftermath are the most grueling of days – and the ones when you feel the most isolated.

The days before, often weeks, are a gradual crescendo of angst. You become increasingly anxious, making sleep problematic. You’re apprehensive about facing the day. You fret about whether or not you should even get dressed or answer the phone. If it’s an event that you have to attend – want to attend – such as a child’s graduation, you are fearful that you might collapse into a puddle of tears at an inopportune moment.

When the date arrives, it is rarely as troubling (or as uplifting) as forecasted. You feel guilty and grateful simultaneously. The sorrow is a deep, sharp ache. The loss is palatable. Yet, the compassionate comments of friends and family are consoling. The cards, flowers, and other reminders of their affection boost your disposition and fortify your resolve to make it through the day. Soon, you experience a delirium of grief that is both euphoric and melancholy.

But, the day after can be the cruelest for the uninitiated. Calls, emails or presents don’t materialize to celebrate, soothe or mourn this day. Beguiled with sentiment just 24 hours earlier, you feel forgotten – bereft of comfort and understanding. You’re unexpectedly exiled into a solitary, emotional confinement with no provisions. It’s up to you to navigate your way back into normality.

Another common assumption among the non-grieving is that there is a time limit to mourning. Somehow, the process of grief is believed to have a finite end date, although no one can tell you exactly when that is. I’m more than seven years out and I have yet to to have a complete 24 hours when I don’t perceive the absence of my husband. He crosses my mind continually, i.e., when I make a meal I know he would have enjoyed, when one of our sons achieves a major accomplishment or when I contemplate our unfulfilled dreams for the future. In reality, there is no conclusion to bereavement. You just become more adept at managing (or disguising) your lamentations.

“Time heals all wounds” is hollow consolation to someone who has endured the lacerations of loss. I often hear, “You won’t get over it, but you will get through it” — even from my own lips. As if grief is a bad traffic jam of emotions you just need to suffer through for a period before you can leave it behind.

What I have come to realize is that grief assimilates; your character adapts to its presence. It both compromises and strengthens your emotional immune system. It’s chronic and haphazard. Sometimes, you may find yourself unexpectedly callous to another’s pain, as if you are thoroughly wrung out of empathy. Other times, seemingly innocuous occurrences can incite an over-the-top response. (I recently had a 30-minute crying jag over a car commercial.)

Quote the Eagles:

“You can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”

Comprehending that grief never completely dissipates brings about a peculiar, peaceful acceptance. You learn to tolerate it, master it, even shield and protect it. Sometimes it is ugly, brutal and raw. Other times, it’s oddly soothing and life-affirming. Poignant and bittersweet, it is yours and yours alone to both despise and cherish.

For those who are grieving, grant yourself the time you need to contend with your next challenge. Whatever the occasion or trigger, give yourself permission to pause before you return to your customary, post-loss self. Don’t agonize if you can’t “get over it” in an arbitrary timely manner. To the friends and family members of such individuals, please be wary; be conscious of your loved one’s struggles. Grief never leaves. It is never concluded. It simply evolves.

This piece originally appeared on the Huffington Post.

The Mighty is asking the following: What’s one thing people might not know about your experience with disability, disease or mental illness, and what would you say to teach them? Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

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What I Want My Small Town to Know Since My Parents Passed Away

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I know you know who I am. You’ve been seeing me in the grocery store with my family for 24 years. You’ve watched me perform in Christmas concerts, on the basketball court, in the rodeo arena and on the school band stage. You watched me graduate, and you see me every day at work.

You know both of my parents passed away and left my sisters and I orphaned. You donated money to my family after each death and brought food to our doorstep. You’ve held fundraisers for us and praised us for our strength.

But there are a few things you don’t know. You don’t know I feel anything but strong the majority of my days. You don’t know some of the things you say, although they’re meant to be light-hearted, can pierce my heart like a dagger. Tears well up in my eyes, and my vision goes blurry, but I’ve become pretty good at hiding that from you. I’ve become adept at hiding my emotions and putting on a happy face.

You don’t know I get upset every time you talk about calling your mom or hunting with your dad. That’s not any fault of yours, of course. It’s a stage of my grief I hope you never have to know. A stage I hope I can soon overcome.

I have searched for support in grief groups and communities and in therapist and psychiatrist’s offices, but you didn’t know that either.

You don’t know there are days I wish I could hide in a hole and never see another human face again. You don’t know that when you’re upset about the weather or because something hasn’t gone your way, I want to shake you and tell you how good you have it.

You don’t know on some days I am the happiest person in the world. Invincible is an understatement when I feel like this. These are the days I may come off as witty and funny.

You may know who I am, and you may know loss. But you don’t know my story, and you don’t know my loss. You don’t know my grief.

Please don’t label me by my losses or my grief. Please don’t assume you know me. I’m not the girl who lost her parents. I’m not “the strongest woman you know.” I am me. I have a name.

Please just be happy to be alive and embrace every day. Relish in the moments you share with your family and friends. Be proud of who you are and what you’ve overcome. But please don’t assume you know someone or what they’ve gone through. Please don’t offer advice if it isn’t solicited.

Everyone is unique. Everyone experiences life and loss in their own unique way. So, embrace your uniqueness and accept everyone else’s.

Thank you for being there for me and for helping to make our lives a little bit easier. Thank you for being so kind in some of the darkest days of our short lives. Remember, there are still dark days, and there is still sadness. We are working towards our new selves, so please give us time.

Lead photo source: Thinkstock Images

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