Editor’s Note: This column first appeared three or four years ago. The Badge & Gun, ever mindful of the stress and grief resulting from the devastation from Hurricane Harvey, is reprinting this advice to grief-stricken victims.
By LISA GARMEZY
I would have quit. At 26, inexperienced and unprepared, Cheryl Strayed hiked from the Mojave Desert in California to the Oregon-Washington border.
Conquering hunger, desert heat, damage to her feet and much, much more, she recovers from the loss of her mother to cancer. Unintentionally, her best-selling memoir Wild is a case study in grief.
Family falling apart after the death? Check. Feeling let down by God? Check. Taking way longer to deal with the loss than anyone thinks you should? Check. Cheryl’s experiences are shared by many of our clients. Life without their loved one seems impossible.
Dealing with a death may be harder when the news is delivered thoughtlessly. In the book, Cheryl and her brother leave the hospital to get some sleep. They come back to find a sign on their mother’s closed door, directing them to stop at the nurse’s station. Clueless, they do. Before “hello,” they hear, “We have ice on her eyes—she wanted to donate her corneas.”
Four long years will pass before Cheryl sets foot on the Pacific Crest Trail. In that time, the stepfather who helped raise Cheryl and kept watch with her during her mother’s illness pulls away. Eddie moves someone else into the home he shared with his late wife and stepchildren.
“He was still our father,” Cheryl writes, “but he did nothing to demonstrate that.” Sometimes the loved one who passes away is the glue that holds the family together, and losses follow on top of losses.
Breaking down the Pain
Counseling starts with the premise that all grief is unique and no two people handle it the same way. A 2,633-mile hike wouldn’t be my choice, but it’s okay. So is wearing one’s loved one’s ashes in a charm around your neck, as one of the Newtown dads does, or painting your toenails in your murdered family members’ favorite colors, like 16-year-old kidnap victim Hannah Anderson.
Therapists have just one rule: hold off on major decisions if you can. Let reality sink in and your seething emotions settle down for six weeks or so, before you make a change like moving. This includes the decision to purge your loved one’s belongings.
Mourners expect deep sadness, but the other strong feelings they experience catch them off-guard. Anger is common. You can bet it will crop up if the deceased’s lifestyle contributed to his passing.
On the trail, Cheryl experiences a wave of anger at her mother for all the mistakes she made. She’s angrier still that she must give up the fantasy of pointing out her mother’s mistakes and graciously accepting a tearful apology.
Cheryl had sought reassurance from her dying mom, asking, “Have I been the best daughter in the world?” Guilt is also standard. No matter how much time you spent with a loved one, or how much you helped, the finality of death leaves all of us feeling it wasn’t enough. We wish we had given–and taken–more.
The bereaved feel guilty too, for not reacting as they think they should. A great deal of grieving can happen before an expected death, or during a struggle with Alzheimer’s. People don’t realize how normal it is to be relieved that the patient’s suffering and the family’s ordeal are over.
In grief counseling, clients come to terms with their “taboo” emotions. We nudge them to accept others’ help and resist the temptation to withdraw from a world that seems joyless. We remind folks on our couches that spiritual practices usually offer comfort. Perhaps most importantly, we teach that it is not disloyal to delight in life.
The wilderness is Cheryl’s therapy. Half-way though her journey, on about day fifty, she watches a spectacular sunset. She realizes that she no longer needs to be amazed at the abuses of her past, since there are “so many other amazing things in this world.”
She forgives her mother for her casual child-rearing and her “it’s only an herb” excuse for smoking marijuana in front of her kids. She forgives Eddie, accepting that he was there for her when she needed him, and it’s alright that he is gone when she no longer does.
The Road Ahead
Our heroine has grown stronger and more whole. We don’t move on and leave the dead behind, we accept a changed future and take our loved ones with us. Some say grieving is the process of crafting a new, altered relationship with the deceased. A lot of people have silent chats with loved ones who have passed away.
As an M. D. Anderson brochure says, you know you’re better when you can laugh without second-guessing yourself. Most of the time, memories bring comfort instead of pain.
Grief is the lousy driver who slows but never comes to a complete stop and later flies at you out of nowhere. You will heal, at your own pace, and in your own way. But if you’re hiking, for the love of God, break your boots in first.
For more information, go to www.americanhospice.org and search “working through grief.”