June 11, 2016

Defying Society’s Standards of Grieving.


My dad died last October. Six years and 11 days after my mom died. Safe to say I’m not a big fan of October.

As you probably know, the universe has a sense of humor. How that humor has been playing out in my life as of late is that I am grieving while practicing as a grief counselor.

So, go ahead, ask me about grief. I’ll say that it’s different for everyone. I’ll say there are no rules. I’ll say it’s not linear. I’ll say that all the feelings are important and valid. I’ll say you’ll never forget the people you lose. I’ll say that grief evolves. I’ll say that it won’t always hurt the way it does at the beginning, but that grief never truly ends.

I can give you quotes about grief.

I can give you books about grief.

I honor grief.

In a lot of ways, I’m almost friends with grief.

As a grief counselor, I understand the complexity of grief.

But let me be honest. The grieving part of me and the grief counselor part of me are in a bit of a battle of wits right now.

Ask me about my grief and I’ll tell you that I have no words to describe how painful it is. I’ll say that I wish there were rules and that I’m sick of its spiralling nature. I’ll say I’m tired of the feelings. I’ll say I’m drained from waking up in a cold sweat thinking that my dad is alive and being quickly reminded that he’s dead. I’ll say I’m simply done with evolving. I’ll say that it doesn’t hurt like it did at the beginning. It hurts more now. I’ll say all the stuff that grief counselor me tells grieving me doesn’t matter because even though grief counselor me knows that one day I will no longer have to write “Deceased. Return to Sender” on my dad’s mail, grieving me still gets stabbed in my heart every time I write it. And then grieving me gets mad at grief counselor me because there is a part of me that doesn’t want the mail to stop coming because when it stops coming, because then my dad is really gone. And dammit, none of that makes sense to grieving me, even though grief counselor me keeps telling grieving me that it’s all normal. And that is just a tiny bit of the dance playing out in my head on a daily basis.

Nonetheless, it is clear that something is changing. A metamorphosis is happening. My choice is to accept it or turn and run. It’s taken six and a half years and the deaths of both my parents to get me here today. I can see clearly now how each little step has prepared me for this space right here.

I wasn’t a grief counselor when my mom died. Death terrified me just like it does for many people. I was there when my mom died. That’s when death tapped me on the shoulder on the way out with my mom. That was the moment that death anointed me. Death told me it was my job to carry the torch. And so I picked it up. I switched my major to gerontology in my Master’s program. I became a death midwife. I began a local death café. I studied grief. I lived grief. My mom’s death was my teacher. And I grieved. I did the work. I took the time. I stepped over every single metaphorical hot coal. I thought I had this grief thing down.

Cut to six years later in my dad’s bedroom as I sat vigil at his bedside. Just a few weeks prior, he had seemed fairly healthy for someone with Parkinson’s disease. Yet, suddenly, he was in the hospital in full kidney failure. He started talking to dead people while in the hospital. He was discharged three days later, but he never came back to us. Whatever is on “the other side” was better than the life he had in that body ravaged by Parkinson’s. It took him three weeks to die. I was there when he died too.

I never imagined being present at both my parent’s deaths. Talk about the circle of life. They brought me in to the world and I helped usher them out. Nevertheless, once again, death tapped me on the shoulder as it left with my dad, making it incredibly clear that there was still work to be done.

At this point though, death had taken both my parents and left me as an adult orphan. It didn’t matter that I was 46. It’s an odd world to live in when both your parents are gone.

The tears flowed in abundance. The sounds coming out of me weren’t that of an adult, but of a scared little girl, all alone in the world. My mom’s death opened up a raw wound. I spent six years bandaging up and healing that wound, only to have the scab violently ripped off when my dad died, revealing that the wound was never truly healed. It was simply covered in scar tissue and no amount of bandages were able to stop the bleeding this time.

October turned to November, and fall turned to winter, and the nights became really long. I had to start over. And it felt bigger this time. And I didn’t want to do it. So, I didn’t.

I avoided.

I drank too much wine.

I worked too hard.

Life felt scary.

But grief doesn’t just go away. And it doesn’t fade off into the distance quietly. It remains, waiting patiently, for us to turn and face it. Whether we do it in days, weeks, months or years, grief remains there, waiting for us, because it has lessons to teach like no other life experience. I know this as a grief counselor. I see people who are grieving losses from decades ago. Yet, as a grieving soul, I simply didn’t want to learn my own lessons.

Nonetheless, here I am, nearly eight months since my dad died. Eight months. Society tells me I should likely have moved on by now. However, I feel as though my fingers are clinging to the edge of a huge abyss I’ve just finally managed to climb out of. I’m hanging here, trying to figure out how to pull myself up over the edge. I know what lies ahead of me are mountains and mountains I need to scale. But those mountains are above land. This abyss tried to eat me alive for a while.

Spring is here now. The days are longer. I need to be out of the dark. And that means pulling myself off of this cliff and turning to face grief. That means facing the coming metamorphosis.

Suffice it to say, it doesn’t matter if you’re a grief counselor or a death midwife. It doesn’t matter if you work with death nearly every day. Grief doesn’t discriminate. It doesn’t play favorites. It takes each of us on an individual journey to teach us what we need to learn. Like it or not. I wish I could say I’ve almost figured out this journey. But I know I still have a long way to go. And honestly, I’m not sure that we ever truly figure out death and grief.

And that right there is what I think is most important about this process.

None of us really know what happens when we die. Sure, religion gives some of us a faith to rely on, but that’s still not absolute knowledge because we, ourselves, have not experienced death from this life form we are in today.  For me personally, I don’t have a strong religious belief, thus, I’m not really sure what happens after we die or where my parents are right now. Do they simply not exist anymore? Is there a heaven and are they there? Are they reincarnated? Could the raccoon couple that showed up in my backyard this past weekend have been them? They stared at me like they knew me and had something to say.

I don’t have a clue what happens after we die. We all have our own belief systems but that’s because our brain needs answers. Our brain loves answers. It doesn’t love the inexplicable quite so much. Yet, the incomprehensible reality of death is what makes it so fascinating, and if we can get our brain out of the game and just allow the journey to unfold, I believe this is where the magic happens. This is the beginning of the metamorphosis.

After quite some reflection, I feel strongly that my dad’s death has immersed me in what I believe is my dark night of the soul. The grief this time around is different than what I experienced with my mom. I thought because I had done this before, I would know how to do it again. Instead, the previous experience was simply the prelude for the massive grief experience that was to come.

I have spent my entire life trying to figure myself out. It took me 36 years to understand I was an empath. I guess it makes sense that it took another 11 to finally hit my dark night of the soul. It’s scary here. Nonetheless, I believe I can finally take this journey because my parents are gone. I’m untethered (as one of my friends so aptly called me). That is a terrifying feeling in many ways and it is likely what is keeping me clinging to this cliff. However, it is also exhilarating and this is where the beauty of grief exists.

If we let ourselves go on the journey, if we stop clinging to the stories our brain tells us, we can learn the big lessons in grief.

A favorite quote of mine is by Frank Ostaseski, the founder and director of The Metta Institute:

“It is always difficult to
move towards our suffering.
We may resist with
everything in our beings
until finally exhausted
we invite it in for a
cup of tea…
The truth in healing
is always there in the
midst of the struggle waiting
to be recognized.”

~ Frank Ostaseski

I believe the healing begins when we surrender to grief. I don’t believe I surrendered the first time. I thought my way through it, with my amazing thinking brain. This time, I have to shut off my brain, open up my heart, exposed and vulnerable, and allow grief inside. Society teaches us that grief is something to “get over.”

What I’m suggesting is that we, instead, let grief join us. Forever.

I know that grief hurts. I spend day after day with clients who want me to help them make the pain go away. I’d love to live a life with no pain. However, what if, instead of running from it, we walk into it?

That’s where I’m headed.

I don’t know what I’ll find, but I don’t need to know anymore. I need to feel. Instead of looking back, it’s time to step into the unknown, it’s time to see what the world looks like without my parents. It’s time to be courageous and daring and defy society’s standards of grieving. It’s time to welcome grief in as a part of who I am, not something I need to get over or through. It’s time to pull myself up off this cliff.

Grief counselor me needs to walk her talk. Grieving me has a lot to teach her.

Maybe we can all start sharing our grief journeys. Maybe we can all start supporting and honoring one another’s path. Maybe in doing this, we can change the way we all look at grief and be more willing to let it in to our lives rather than work so hard to remove it altogether.

At some point, grief will touch us all. It will sit and wait for each of us to face it. Perhaps, we can all learn to allow it to be enveloped into who we are and into our individual life journeys as a companion rather than a foe.

What a difference that could make in the way we honor all of life—the beginnings, the endings and everything in between.



“Letting In” instead of “Letting go”: When Moving On isn’t the Answer.


Author: Kelli Barr-Lyles

Image: x1klima/Flickr

Editors: Katarina Tavčar; Emily Bartran

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