When our Daughter Alexis died in 1997 at 13 months and 5 days old, I was in shock. Despite all the complications she’d faced and overcome, her body just wasn’t built to survive. We’d spent most of the second half of her life at Children’s National Medical Center in Washington, DC. Our longest admission was nine consecutive weeks.
Shock is not an uncommon response to the death of a loved one. One moment we are embracing someone and in an instant they are gone. We see the light literally dissipate from that person’s entire being, sacredly, and steadily. Until they, perhaps like Alexis did, open their eyes for one last view of the world, followed by the release of their final exhaled breath which takes their spirit right a long with it.
I say shock is not uncommon because when someone (or something) dies it takes our neurology some time to buffer and allow integration of this new information to settle in. When it comes to grief, this can take years, and even a lifetime. During that period we can feel untethered.
The strength of our connection with the deceased is in direct proportion to how difficult it will be to wrap our literal heads around the finality of that person’s ended existence. We might still see them sitting next to us, or hear the outcries that no longer exist like Alexis’ sweet voice saying “Mama-ma-ma-ma.” She is gone. But not for me. And this contradiction of reality v. shock and disbelief is what brings us to a flailing around of sorts.
I often describe this feeling of being told the sky is green. Instead of blue. Or that up is down and down is up. It’s like being in a full body sleeping bag (the really heavy down kind) that puts a barrier between us and reality. We know things have changed, but it doesn’t sync into our bones until we let it.
One way to encourage this process which is a natural part of healing and grieving, is to find a ‘home’ base (thank you Jeff Warren @calm.com). Unlike the home base we incorporate in a practice of meditation, where our home base is what we feel as our feet touch the ground, or from our bodies in a chair, or the rhythm of our breath, our home base in the grieving process must be intentional. It must be chosen, sought out and pursued. My experience is that security, and a feeling of truly being tied to something has to be a decision we make.
In 1997 I did just that. For one thing, I tethered myself to a new identity and career as a PICU nurse. That process of finding the right school and program, and actually doing it, took up a lot of time. But I needed something else. I needed a place to go, where no one knew my story, where I wasn’t seen with relentless sympathy and awkward attempts at small talk. I needed to tether to something neutral, something natural, something beautiful.
So with all of my education and college degrees, I walked into the local nursery and took a job working the counter where I would greet customers, take floral orders and even create some of my own. Prior to 1997 I had no knowledge of this world other than the occasional flower delivery I received. The names of flowers and how to take care of them were a new language altogether. Learning which flowers were fragrant, which were just beautiful but had no scent, and how to integrate them into a cohesive arrangement that looked pretty were just a couple of the new skills I would develop.
We have to start where we are. Tethering ourselves when we are free falling in a tornado of grief is critical to start the arduous process of healing. It is a reminder to our brains that there are new things in the world that we have yet to see, understand, or create. Without something to hold onto, we can easily get swept up in the current of “stay busy, feel nothing, and carry on.” I certainly tried this for longer than I wish, and it is one way to go.
But eventually getting swept up in the tornado only delays the work we must inevitably do, if we are to truly survive our loss. Latching onto some new (albeit temporary) job, volunteering, learning a new skill and tacking ourselves down with a random interest we may have never been able to indulge (like working at a flower shop) is in my experience, a proven way to keep an open mind and be present.
Months passed as did the holiday season that year, while I went to work at the nursery. I shared nothing of my Daughter’s death, or what I was dealing with. I just showed up, learned what I could and was able to tether to this new schedule. In total I may have continued that job for a year, maybe 18 months. And eventually I shared my beautiful little baby girl’s story, right up to and including my pursuit of a nursing degree when I wasn’t at the nursery. Eventually I wanted to open up, but I did it in my own time.
Grief can pull us out of the ground by the roots and storm and thrash and blow debris everywhere. It challenges gravity as we struggle to find a true North and stop spinning. None of this goes away by tethering to a part time job at a local florist. But what can happen, is we can have something to hold onto, something that allows us to fly more like a kite that is being blown but is secure, than a burning ember floating and eventually turning into nothing.
The kite route still sucks, because we are still processing the pain. But at least we have something to connect us to the moment, the ground, and our new reality. If you are hurting and trying to find your way, you might consider doing an activity you have never tried before. Join a gym where no one knows you and walk in there like you are still a “real” human.
Practice participating in life, in some new way that says to your brain “Hey, have you seen this?!” Or “Check this out!” Enthusiasm won’t arise on its own, but an intentional choice or activity that declares “I’m tethered, I’m grounded, I’m still alive, I can survive” is a key lever that we can pull when our brains are in disbelief and we are free floating with no anchor.
If you are grieving I truly am sending compassion and peace in your direction. It’s the club no one wants to belong to. But yet here we are. My hope is that sharing our own experiences will lighten the load for the new members as they too, try to survive their loss of a love.