January 28, 2016

How to Handle Grief during Life’s Defining Moments.


We all have defining moments in our lives—sometimes one, but often many.

If we are lucky, we have one that is so brilliant that we remember it above all else. Maybe the event itself stands out or maybe it becomes defining because we do so much to get through it.

I’ve been in one of those transitions. Some of the connections or acquaintances in our lives are seasonal and some are forever, and sometimes it’s those who are seasonal that teach us something about forever.

Before I knew him, I was afraid to express myself in any true way. But my need to know him was stronger than any insecurity I suffered. After I knew him, I received genuine acknowledgement, and was never judged or laughed at, nor were any expectations imposed on me. I grew up in ways I did not know I needed to. Our connection was immediate and present.

I worked full time and was also a full time student. In my down time, I also kept two blogs. While I couldn’t afford frivolous time wasting, I still found myself making time for long talks at random hours in the night, taking artsy pictures to share, and lighting candles in honor of that someone who was on my mind.

“That’s really good art, Sara.”

”It’s just an iPhone filter.”

”No, art is art no matter what you make it with, and you have an artist’s eyes.”

The admonishments I never asked for, nor expected. “Keep writing, you are a real writer…Your stuff is pretty damn good.”

When I met him, he had cancer. I usually always knew when he was sick, and when he got better—even before he told me. When he was well, I was happy to see the spark in his eyes when he spoke about some of his projects. But, I had taken a new job promotion and all my energy was spent trying to to stay afloat. I was exhausted and had nothing extra for anyone, so this time, I missed knowing.

”The cancer is back…I really need to focus on this.”

”Are you saying you want me to leave you?”

”No of course not…But you are my friend so I feel I should let you know what’s going on with me. And I want you to do what’s best for you.”

”I’ll be here until you don’t want me to be.”

I stayed with him in our space as best as I could, but I couldn’t be there the way I would have liked to. The late night talks turned into just a few midday day talks when he was able. When he had energy. I sent letters or cards and wondered if he had seen them. Time became pliable in a way, because for him time would pass and he wouldn’t notice. In these situations a friend or lover can’t take these kinds of things personal. You talk when you have the opportunity. Work doesn’t matter—it’s just something we have to do. Bills may be forgotten. You get a call or a message, and you take it because you don’t know when you will be able to again.

It was “right now” until there was no “right now.”

I knew his time was close and I made an effort to see him. Before I knew him, I never knew a person to be in the stages of dying who was still more alive than most people. In times like this, age or geographical statuses don’t matter—you are holding that person’s soul. You are talking to that person’s mind. You are kissing that person’s spirit. He gave me all he could for about an hour maybe, on his patio and thanked me, as he always had.

Like he always did, he thanked me for visiting. Then, he assured me that we would see each other again. I chose not to argue with that—I felt he needed me to agree.

When he left, I grieved over the totality of our time.

In the past I would have spent money, but I walked into stores and then left empty handed. “There is nothing here I want,” I thought. In juvenile romances of the past, I have consumed to compensate. I realize now those times were all about me trying to define myself. There was no more of that. Spending money doesn’t define us, no more than statuses or labels we take on. There was nothing that could make me not feel this loss. There was nothing I could write that would help ease the pain. By the time he left this world, I was in the throes with nothing to steady me. So, I did what he would do.

“You just gotta do it.”

I went on autopilot and worked through Christmas.

While everyone celebrated, I imagined throwing things at them and yelling for them to get out of my workplace and go the hell home. By the end of the season I was hollowed out. The night was the hardest—it had had its own routines. So I tried not to be home.

After him, it was the same world but a different me. A me who needed no permission to grieve. I got a tattoo—working out the emotional pain in a physical way—and it became a beautiful symbol.

Maybe we all need a before and after one of these defining moments in our lives.

I would give anything for more time, or one more conversation. Before him I wouldn’t have known how to navigate this. Now I work through it my own way, because I know what it means. And I would go through those in between years with him all over again—some stories cannot be rewritten.


Author: Danielle Bethune

Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: MartinaK15/Flickr

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