Sunday, March 29, 2009

Getting Through the First Week

The last few days have been hard. On Friday, we donated Dad's medical equipment to Care Chest; that felt good, but was also much more emotional and difficult than I'd expected. The friend who used his truck to transport Dad's scooter, etc., also moved some of the bigger stuff we wanted (a bookcase and a medical scale) to our house.

I'd started Friday in an absolutely foul mood, no doubt in part because I'd forgotten to take my antidepressant the evening before. In the afternoon, I went for a long walk, which helped. Then I went to school for the first time all week to pick up mail and haul home piles of grading. I had some lovely condolence notes from students and colleagues, and also a long, comforting phone message from the nursing-home doctor, who told me I'd been a good daughter and made all the right decisions.

When I got home, Gary asked if we could eat out, since we were low on groceries. We ultimately decided to do our fancy-meal-on-Dad that evening, and, wonder of wonders, managed to get a last-minute reservation at the most expensive of our favorite restaurants. I dressed up in a black skirt, a red blouse -- since red was Dad's favorite color -- and the gold necklace he gave me when I graduated from college. Fittingly enough, we were led to a table with three chairs, not two, so we decided that Dad was there with us. We toasted him, and treated ourselves to the most extravagant things on the menu, and had a great time. It was really fun, and it felt like something Dad would have enjoyed and would have wanted us to enjoy (and it actually wound up being less expensive than we'd expected).

Yesterday was hard, though, because it was the one-week anniversary of his death. I got through it, and even got a little work done -- although the remaining amount is truly scary -- but it wasn't fun. Saturdays will be hard for a while.

This morning I went to church and got a lot of hugs. Now I'm waiting for a friend who'll be dropping by with food; her mother died right before Christmas, and we had a long talk on the phone last night about how disorienting it is to lose a parent, and about how much we wish our culture still gave people space for a year of mourning, instead of expecting them to be functional and competent after two weeks.

I don't expect to be functional and competent for a while. This is a problem, given those piles of grading.

People keep telling me to "be strong," which has become my new least favorite meaningless phrase. What does strong mean in this situation? What would weak mean? Is strong code for, "Don't be visibly upset, because then you'll upset the rest of us?" Can I still be strong when I feel like each limb weighs 150 pounds, the way I do today? (My sister feels the same way, and she has to take care of my mother, on top of everything else.) My body is having physical responses to grief over which I have no control, although I'm trying to be good about exercise. And then there are the people who say, "I hope you feel better soon," as if I have a cold.

Everyone means well. I know that. Nobody knows what to say; I know that too. When in doubt, don't say anything: give the person a hug.

My new favorite saying comes from one of our deacons, who wrote an article for our church newsletter that includes a quotation from Winston Churchill: "When you're going through hell, keep going."

I spoke to my mother today. She told me she no longer enjoys or wants anything. She's no longer interested in the cats or in television, her two mainstays as long as I can remember. My heart aches for her, and for my sister who's working so hard to care for her. My mom's brother is helping out with expenses, luckily. I wish I could be there, but I hope I won't have to be there too soon. I'd like to be able to get through the end of the semester without more upheavals.

But I'll do my best to keep going, whatever happens, as long as I can go very slowly, and limp a lot, and take plenty of naps along the way.


  1. Hi Susan,

    I'm so, so sorry for your loss. I was there a few months ago and there is NO WAY to be strong. I think the only advice that means anything is: be honest with yourself. Face what you're feeling. Don't be strong for anyone.

    I would suggest writing it out For Your Eyes Only because I can tell you that helped me and might help you.

    And I've taken great comfort in fiction, which I think we probably have in common also.

    Your writing here over the past few months has been incredibly heart-wrenching. Thank you for sharing that with us. I know things will feel better in time.

    Thinking of you,


  2. I am still occasionally not functional and competent and it has been fourteen years. Grieve at your own pace and in your own way. Hugs.

  3. I keep thinking of an article I read last year in National Geographic Adventure magazine, about surviving disasters. One of the things that differentiated survivors was that they reacted to bad situations by taking small, concrete, directed, manageable steps. The author summarized this as "Do the next right thing."

    A death is not the same as a disaster, but getting through it may be similar.

    You remain in my prayers.

  4. Dear Susan, find something to do. Mama has been gone a little more than a year, and I have sorted and copied old pics for scrapbooks(Mama was a packrat). Going through what was important to her made her feel closer. I am getting ready to start a new project. I am going to try to make a Mama quilt from some of her favorite clothes, things that all her kids and grands and great-grands will remember seeing her wear. I have never made one before, so this is going to be quite a challenge. For now, I agree with your friend's comment above - keep doing the next right thing. You are in my prayers.

  5. Susan, one of the best gifts I ever received from a friend was when he cried with me over something that had meaning for me but not necessiarily for him. I think his approach was much better than most folks. People, myself included, don't always know what to do with the pain they feel in response to someone elses. I love you and will always hurt for you. Because I'm an optimist at heart I'll also try to find good things for you. Cry till you no longer need to cry, but never give up that gift of tears. It's the way God gave us to express our selves and we don't use it as often as we should.


  6. The only way you get through this is to just keep putting one foot in front of the other. And stopping every once in a while to have a good cry.

    It's not healthy to stuff everything you're feeling down inside and "suck it up." All that accomplishes is a spectacular emotional meltdown at a later date.

    Grieve your own way, and apologize to noone.

    Those of us who love you are holding you up in prayer in the meantime.

  7. You are getting lots of great words of support and context, I'd like to add a piece which, if it helps, great, if it doesn't ignore it.

    One of the best things I ever saw in a "grieving 101" class* was an image that looked kind of like a cyclone: imagine a series of loops that overlap but get bigger and bigger. The first loop is the cycle of emotions you experience after you dad's death -- this cycle will repeat, over and over, but the circles keep getting bigger--i.e. the time frame gets longer -- the feelings don't necessarily go away, but they become less intense, and less constant with time.

    The amount of time, and how you experience it will be unique to you, as someone else said, everyone grieves in their own way, and there is no one "right" way to do so.

    It's hard, but from everything you are writing, you're doing a good job of wading through and keeping on, riding through the inevitable ups and downs. Continue to be gentle with yourself, and to take comfort from that which gives you comfort. Remember you are loved and surrounded w/love (including the love of your dad). Prayers continue.

    *Since your dad was on hospice, even though it was only for a very short while, part of the hospice benefit is a year of bereavement follow-up. If the hospice has some kind of bereavement class you may consider doing it when it doesn't feel quite so intense. Sometimes getting some good tools from a compassionate but not intimate source can be helpful.

  8. Anonymous12:11 PM

    Dear Susan,

    As an alternative to the advice "be strong," I have come to appreciate the advice "be gentle."

    Peace be with you as you go through this difficult new experience of grief,



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