“I just almost called mom to tell her my mom is dying.” My stunned face and dropped jaw drove the point home to my sister as I walked away from our mom’s living room hospital bed to get a little fresh air. Mom was a fixture in our lives. She was the default co-parent to my son as I was a single mom over 11 years. She was my emergency contact and my literal lifeline. She was the first person my sister and I would share anything with. And now she couldn’t speak and didn’t even seem to hear me. My reflex was to call my mom for help with this horrific tragedy; but my mom was dying.
The oxygen cannula hissed as my mom tugged the tubing away from her nose, and I turned and shrugged. Hospice means comfort, and if she doesn’t want the oxygen, I thought, we can give her that small dignity. It had been five days since I took her to the emergency room, due to a persistent cough that had not yielded to antibiotics. With a breakneck pace, she went from walking herself into the E.R. on a Wednesday, to being mostly unresponsive in the hospice wing by Friday, and then home in my childhood living room Saturday night as her body quietly and shockingly slipped away on Sunday evening.
We were reeling from the turn of events, but somehow magically met her needs in those final days. The experience of nursing a loved one to their death- when we spend a lifetime nursing loved ones back to health- was surreal and repugnant. When she died, my sister and I, along with our extended family, held a Coors Light toast over her body and then retreated into ourselves to process what had happened. The funeral director arrived after I matter-of-factly called to report my mother’s death. When they began to remove her body, my vision went white and my body gave way as I collapsed into a chair.
Not my mother. It seemed impossible.
The next few weeks, we shuffled through our days and duties. I returned to work. My sister moved into our mom’s house to begin clearing it out. We planned a memorial, complete with a playlist of our mom’s favorite tunes. We accepted condolences and managed affairs and somehow functioned despite our heartache. We also parented our own children through that grief; their “Mimom” was a special, doting presence in their lives and her absence was inconceivable. We managed, though, and resumed some semblance of normalcy fairly quickly.
Overall, I felt okay. Until I didn’t.
Within a couple of months, I found myself unable to get out of bed in the mornings. Work seemed an impossible task. My mind could not focus and my body was leaden. I was subsisting on a diet of leftover Christmas cookies and simple soups. Her final days replayed over and over in my mind, distracting me and disrupting my days. My train of thought derailed during the most menial tasks. I couldn’t form sentences, I couldn’t find the words, and I couldn’t remember a damn thing. I wasn’t always sad; but I kind of just wasn’t there.
It was grief. This cognitive puddle, sieve-like mind was a symptom of grief that I never anticipated. It felt like quicksand and it was pulling me in.
A shift occurred when I realized that I was at risk of drowning in this grief. Somehow naturally, blessedly, I began to adapt in ways that allowed this grief but also allowed some life. Clearly I could not ignore the reality of my mother’s death and could certainly not avoid the intense and persistent emotions around that, but I also couldn’t wallow in the mire; it was intolerable. Too much pain, too much dysfunction, and too much to lose to get stuck there. I couldn’t drown. Yet I knew in my heart this was not some inspired “comeback” or triumphant “reinvention” after loss.
All I wanted was to keep my head above water.
The notion that we can kick grief to the curb to “come out on top” is, to me, ridiculous and lacking humanity. Grief is not something to beat; it is something to live with.
Over the next few months, I was able to adjust some thoughts and behaviors to stay afloat. It was my only goal. I had no aspirations other than to stay afloat.
In talking to other grieving people, I’ve learned that these simple interventions can be so helpful for most people. It is my life’s work to support people through grief, and these tips can go a long way in providing comfort after loss. Below are a few things that prevented me from drowning in grief. Consider experimenting with some or all of them to keep your head above water.
- Your Primary Goal is to Stay Afloat: When you adapt this mindset, it relieves myriad external pressures and self-imposed goals. For this acute grieving period- whether it lasts 6 months or 6 years- your primary goal is merely to stay afloat. Do not complicate this by pushing yourself into arbitrary goals and ambitious endeavors. Keep it simple.
- They Get 80% of You: When wracked with grief, we can not function at 100%, yet we expect to and try to and subsequently tire ourselves out. We thrash about as we are drowning, trying to swim, when really, we just need to tread water. Scale back your efforts, particularly as they pertain to others’ needs or perceptions. If you are functioning at 80% right now (or 60% or whatever-percent), that is what the world gets of you. They get 80% of you. It is temporary but it is essential.
- You Have a Concussion: When we are sick or injured, we generally scale back our activities and relinquish our commitments temporarily in order to fully recover. So it should be with grief. A dear mentor of mine related grief to a concussion. She is a pediatrician, and when her own mother died, she recognized that the “grief brain” and other symptoms of her grief were starkly similar to the effects of concussion: Brain fog, concentration issues, queasiness or appetite issues, fatigue… And because she shared that with me, I was able to conceive of myself as having a “concussion” as I grieved. The treatment is quite similar too: Rest, hydrate, avoid screen time, engage in light physical activity and avoid unnecessary stimuli or stressors. The key part to concussion treatment? Time. Give it time and space while you nurse your wounds. So it is with grief.
- Write Your Grief: Even if you a not a “writer,” please consider this. “Grief brain” is akin to a tangled mass of yarn inhabiting your mind. When we write, the tactile component practically pulls at the strands and begins to unknot them. The process of writing, regardless of the content, is inherently therapeutic. There are many ways to approach this, including journal writing, letter writing, stream-of-consciousness writing or using prompts. The end result is irrelevant, and in fact for most people shredding the pages when finished is helpful. I offer one suggestion for a writing activity if you want to experiment with this: On loose paper, write a letter to the deceased. It can be free form, or you can use these starting prompts: “Since you’ve been gone….” or “What I really wish you knew is…” or “My life has changed since your death in these ways…” or “One thing I just can’t accept is…” Once you’ve written the letter, shred it or toss it. Don’t even review it. And then write again the following day. Try this for 5 days and see if there is a benefit.
Since the death of my mother (which was one year after the death of my grandmother and seven months prior to the unexpected death of my uncle), I continue to use the above techniques and I continue to recommend them without reservation. My hope is that, by starting with even one of these approaches, you can manage your grief in a way that helps you stay afloat. Stay gentle with yourself and take good care. I wish you peace and comfort in your grief experience.