Six years ago, my brother was killed. He was murdered.
Six months ago my friend’s husband died in his sleep.
Twelve years ago, my mother died. She had Alzheimer’s Disease.
Grief over the loss of a loved one, can be quite painful. Life does go on, and, slowly, the sharp pain subsides. Yet, so many events rekindle the sadness, the loss. The anniversary of a death, a birthday or a holiday reminds us of the good times, the shared memories, and, for the moment, the grief returns as though it never left. The fact that death if finite, however, is a gift in a strange way; it allows us to securely place the memories in a special place in our hearts and to savor those special anniversary moments.
Grief for the living
But what about the loss of a loved one who is still alive? How do we manage our grief when dad is here, yet, due to illness and decline, it feels like he is no longer with us? I hear time and again about the struggles that confront all of us as our loved ones – parents, spouses, siblings- grapple with chronic or terminal illness and disability.
Sometimes we contend with a slowly deteriorating illness like Alzheimer’s or Parkinson’s Diseases. At other times, what we struggle with is a change in behavior, a lack of engagement or a hostile response to overtures of help. Or, maybe, it’s not an actual illness, but rather mom is alone for the first time and totally withdraws. Still, other loved ones may receive a difficult diagnosis of a cancer or disease that will lead to death in the not too distant future. How do we manage the grief that we live with day in and day out?
All of these situations have two elements. The first element is the very real and practical level of care that we may be called upon to provide. I’m not going to discuss that practical level here. Instead, for now, I will be focusing solely on the second element, grief.
Stages of grief
Elizabeth Kubler–Ross’ ground breaking writing on grief still rings true. It is applicable for both anticipatory grief and the grief surrounding the loss of our loved one due to cognitive or physical decline.
Of course, when we first hear a diagnosis or observe some concerning behavior, we struggle with the knowledge of what this might mean. If the person is our spouse, we might go through a period in which we wish it was our illness, not theirs, that we must face. Or we might go into denial and continue acting as we always have, ignoring the change in behavior or the diagnosis. Or, conversely, we might dive into treatment planning, as a way of bargaining—“If I do all this, maybe I can save her”.
Our anger will likely show up just around the corner, possibly after we are exhausted from caregiving, or frustrated with his push back or lack of response. On the other hand, our anger might be directed at the doctors who aren’t doing “enough”. Sometimes the anger is directed toward God or the universe—“It’s too early; it’s too tough; or it’s just not fair.”
Acceptance: Letting go
Eventually, however, if we are to come to a place of peace, we must embrace acceptance. That doesn’t mean we are happy about these changes, or the diagnosis. ……………It is what it is.
So what does acceptance actually mean? In a Buddhist sense, it means taking in the pain with the understanding that we can expect no permanence in this life of ours. With every sorrow, there is a joy; with every hope, a fear; with every light, a dark. We can’t have one without the other. Appreciating this understanding allows both the good and the bad to be a part of our psyche.
Acceptance means appreciation that we have no control of so many aspects of our lives. Letting go of the illusion of control can be so very frightening but, also liberating. It’s more than daunting to control what you can’t. Letting-go frees up so much energy, energy to enjoy and connect with our loved one.
Acceptance means seeing the situation as it really is, not as we wish it was. Such acceptance opens the door to respond to our loved one’s actual needs, not the needs that we have or imagine that they might have. Not only is this a benefit to the ailing person, but it keeps us from hitting our head against a wall! Grasping the reality allows us to plan and prepare, as well as to love and enjoy.
Letting go while still holding on
As we climb out of our despair, our fear, our anger and our longing, and move into acceptance, we can really be there for the person we love in a way that they need us to be, and in a way that our best self wants us to be. We can be a part of their light in this dim time of their lives. We can be their rock in these turbulent moments. We can also open our hearts and reach out, bringing in the light to our own heart, allowing us to heal.