This Thanksgiving was not a typical holiday. There was no big family dinner for me, no turkey or stuffing, no loud noise from nephews and nieces running around. And there was no dining room table to sit around at my parent’s house. Instead, the dining room had become a make-shift bedroom occupied by a living room chair, a small dresser filled with just pajamas, a card table holding a blood pressure cuff, gloves, towels, and a hospital bed. The only thing that remained the same were the towering bookcases from floor to ceiling that overflowed with books, which were now hidden behind framed pictures of grandchildren, children, my aunts and uncles, and model airplanes.
My Dad loved airplanes. Growing up, we would sit around the kitchen table for dinner and whenever an airplane flew overhead, my Dad would inform us kids the type of airplane based on the sound of its engine. He had about 300 books about aviation and airplane history, airport design history (ah, the Art Deco Design of Buffalo’s Central Terminal!), and the evolution of the legendary Douglas DC-3. This was his favorite airplane, of which I endured many lectures of how it revolutionized air transport. He had exquisite DC-3 models he had painstakingly built, framed pictures of DC-3s, a picture of a DC-3 for his screensaver, and even a mousepad with a picture of a DC-3 that my Mom gave him.
Drawings of airplanes and a model airplane made from paper towel rolls made by his grandchildren also nestled amongst framed memories that encircled this makeshift bedroom like a protective wall of love. And within this protective wall I sat with my Dad, as he lay in his hospital bed on Thanksgiving Day. This hospital bed would not be here much longer—only four more days to be exact—before it would be taken apart and put back together in another home, which would hopefully also be encircled by his or her framed memories. This Thanksgiving was the purest and closest form of a Thanks-giving I have ever had or will again. I sat quietly thankful, feeling privileged to have this time alone with him. The true meaning of Thanksgiving was felt that day as I held my Dad’s hand under the dimmed light.
Physical Symptoms of Grief
I truly believe that he is only gone in physical form, but that does not seem to change the grieving process. At first, I was forgetful, in a daze, and had trouble concentrating. It was the epitome of brain fog. I forgot to pick up my brother for the funeral. Then, after the funeral passed, relatives went back to their homes and I and my siblings reconnected with our families after being away to help care for my Dad the past one to two months. It is then that I suddenly experienced intense back and neck pain. Emotional pain shares the same areas as physical pain in the brain.The brain, mind, and body are interlinked into one being. Perhaps this is why I felt the physical pain of grief in my back and neck—years of chronic back and neck pain were already imprinted in my brain. It was the easiest route for my emotional symptoms to physically manifest.
Grief is known to be a psychological-emotional response to loss. But it is much more. It is as much a physical and physiological experience as it is an emotional experience, yet not talked about enough.
You can experience stomach aches, heart ache, lethargy, heart racing, and physical pain anywhere in the body. Emotionally, I felt a state of shock despite expecting my father’s death. His death felt surreal and confusing to my identity and familial existence. Physically, my body felt my shock and responded accordingly. My back and neck stiffened, bracing itself as if in a maladaptive attempt to support me. And underneath the stiffness, I felt the lethargy of grief. I did not want to do anything. I had no motivation but to lay in bed or stare at the television. So, I did just that.
My body was telling me to slow down, honor and nurture myself, to allow myself time to feel the emotional pains of grief. For one week, I cared for myself. I went to the gym, played the piano, journaled, watched the TV, and stared at the ceiling. I allowed grief to surface and discharge over and over, whenever it wanted, through tears, memories, laughter to I Love Lucy reruns, and more tears. Ironically, I had not felt that much peace in a long time.
When the week came to a close, I left my self-centeredness–my self-care–behind and went back to work, shopped for Christmas gifts, and then celebrated Christmas as if life was normal again. And then I got sick. Yep, grief is a strange process. It is exhausting and the distress of it (as well as fatigue from care taking) can suppress the immune system. Grief gave me the Christmas gift of a bad head cold.
The Waves of Grief
Recently, a friend, who lost her father last year, told me that grief comes in waves. Sometimes these waves are small, sometimes they are big. She was right. I learned of this wave-effect. They popped up when and wherever they wanted–when I was buying groceries and saw my Dad’s favorite apple butter; when I thought of something I wished I could tell or show him; when I wished he was around to edit my writing; when I go the house I now just call my Mom’s house; or for no reason at all.
“Once bereaved, always bereaved” is what we said when I worked in hospice. Our memories never go away. Our memories are tied to emotions. In our busy world we often push down grief so we can make it through each day. Companies usually offer only five days for bereavement leave. That’s not a lot of time to learn to cope with the loss of someone who had been an integral part of your life. But we don’t live in a world that focuses on and discusses emotions and emotional processing. We have jobs to go to, family to care for, perhaps our own chronic illness to deal with, errands to run, appointments to make, obligations never ending. When do we have time to grieve?
Grieving requires a fine balance, I am learning. It is a process that takes time. That length of time is unknown and may be always. Grieving is not about “being strong” as we are so often encouraged to be when someone dies. It’s about being brave enough to allow ourselves to feel. I must feel and acknowledge the sensations in my body of tiredness, of a stomach ache, an aching heart, or increased back and neck pain because these physical symptoms are all telling me that it is time to honor myself–I must take a “time-out” to feel the waves of grief rise so that they can fall again. To feel is to heal.
I have been through grief before when I lost my life to chronic illness at age 27. (You can read about my story here.) I had felt the rise and fall of grief as I watched my life and body as I knew it drift farther away while physical injuries, pain, and limitations became my new reality. Loss is loss. I remember the tidal waves of grief I had felt grew more predictable over time, calmer, and more manageable until I now can watch the small waves rise and fall without me getting swept away.
Building a Relationship with Grief
Perhaps this is what the process will be like for me now when grieving the loss of my father. The more I allow myself to feel my grief, eventually my waves of grief won’t feel like tidal waves, and over time, my body will respond less and less with physical pain and exhaustion. There is a sense of relief I feel when I think of the relationship I am developing with grief. I am befriending it. I am allowing it, feeling it, understanding it and processing it.
Perhaps the waves will become smoother and calmer as the days, months, and years go by. Perhaps the waves don’t just become smaller because time passes, but also because I am not afraid of to feel grief and its complexities, nor am I pushing it away. I am embracing it as I navigate this ride with love for my Dad and compassion for myself. After all, isn’t there beauty in grief? We only grieve so much because we loved someone so much, and still do.