- Intense sorrow caused by loss of a loved one (especially by death)
I have never lost anyone close to me. Both my parents are still alive, and the only people I have known who have died were never close to me. Some of you may be wondering how I can write about a topic of which I have no experience, but this is not just about people dying, it’s about living.
Around the world, every day, people die, and they are someone’s loved one. Even though I do not know them, I know they must be suffering a great loss. When people we love die, we feel as though something has been taken away from us. Not just the person, but a feeling, like part of us has died. And indeed it has, for they were as much a part of you as you of them.
Grieving (sorrowful through loss or deprivation) is a natural process, which they say, must be gone through in order for us to achieve resolution and move on in our lives. Failure to allow the grieving process to take place will result in us staying attached psychologically to the person even though they are dead.
How many of you have lost people you have loved? Were you really close to them? Was it your husband or wife, parents, child, or a best friend? If the person was old then we feel like nature has run its course, and death was inevitable, but if a young person, or a child, dies, especially in traumatic circumstances, such as murder, or a terrible accident, it makes it hard to bear – especially for a parent. They know they are not supposed to outlive their children.
In this modern age of medicine, we all assume that we are likely to live at least five or ten years past retirement age, but it didn’t use to be like that. Not so long ago the life expectancy of an adult may not be much more than thirty or forty depending on varying environmental factors such as disease or war. Many children died in the delivery room, or in early infanthood; some didn’t make it past early adolescence.
We should count ourselves lucky that we live to such an old age. A combination of better diet, less war, better clothing and housing, and the availability of medicines has meant we can regularly live past eighty or more – unthinkable up until recent times. And it is with this age in mind that we plan our lives, and the lives of our children. We all assume we will live a long life. That is our first mistake.
On the island where I am living right now, the animals have spent the last month giving birth. Foals and lambs have been born, and many sea birds hatched (although many eggs were attacked by predators before they hatched), and I have watched their first few weeks of life with great interest.
Several of the lambs have died, but many more have survived. The chicks seem to be doing well, but again many have died. The strongest and some may say the luckiest have got through the hardest part and now have to concentrate on living.
Every day is a challenge for them, as indeed it is for us. We have no idea what will happen from one day to the next, so to presuppose nature, and arrogantly give ourselves a determined life span, seems remarkably short sighted! So we must remain open to the reality that the outcome of a chain of events can most certainly affect us.
“Goodbye love, I’ll see you this evening.”
“Ok, have a nice day, don’t work too hard.”
“I won’t! I know, let’s take the kids out for an early dinner this evening, then maybe a movie.”
“That sounds good, don’t be late home jim.”
“I won’t. Bye.”
You get into the car, and start the engine. It’s a bit chilly so you put the heater on and tune into your favourite radio station. The traffic is quite light as you join the motorway, and you relax. You’ll be in work in about forty minutes. You sit thinking about what you’ve got to do in the office, but suddenly in less time than it takes to blink:
“Oh God, what’s happening?”
There is the crushing sound of metal. It all happens so fast. You see bright flashes of light, your world starts spinning upside down. You can’t breathe. YOU SCREAM. The pain. You exhale. It is over. Your life ends.
Yesterday… 08.25 am.
“What’s wrong steve?” His wife asked, waking up with a start.
“Oh, that stupid alarm didn’t go off again; I’ll have to get a new one.”
“Take it easy, you’ll give yourself a heart attack!” his wife called after him as he quickly dressed and ran out to the car.
“Oh no,” he thought, “I’m going to be late again for the second time this week; my boss is going to kill me.”
He put his foot down and got onto the motorway. Suddenly a careless driver cut him up, and he blasted on his horn in annoyance, and the other driver gave him “the finger.” This infuriated Steve even more and he chased after the car, driving erratically until he had pulled alongside, gesticulating wildly at the other driver and swearing until finally he pulled back. This event left him in a real rage, which set him up for the tragic events which subsequently followed.
He got into work late, and his boss was there, as always, to chastise him;
“I’ve got no place in my organisation for someone who can’t even be bothered to get up in the morning!” his boss chided him.
“Yeah, sorry about that, the traffic was bad.”
“Well don’t let it happen again, I’m sick of it.”
Steve trundled over to his desk, grabbing a strong coffee on the way.
“Steve!” his boss called over to him. “I need you to go to one of dave’s customers for a couple of days, he’s called in sick.”
Although inconvenient, it would allow Steve to get away from his boss for a couple of days.
That evening in the hotel he decided to have a few drinks to relax. Why was he still working at this company? He hated his boss. He could get a new job any time he wanted, he didn’t need the stress. He would find something closer to home, that way he could spend more time with the family. It might mean less money, but they could cope with that. As he pondered his life, one drink turned into two and three turned into four.
Next morning, he felt suitably hung-over as he got into the car, but also felt remarkably positive after his evening of thinking. As soon as he got back home he would start looking for a new job, then he could tell his boss where he could stick his job. With a wry smile, he indicated to get onto the motorway, and pulled out. For what seemed to be no more than a second there was an incredible noise of crushing metal, then total silence. He closed his eyes for the last time.
Just another pair of regular guys on their way to work. They never knew each other, and probably had nothing more in common than that shared moment in time. Like all events we see as “tragic” (simply sad; especially involving grief or death or destruction), we try to work out where we could have done things differently. What if? What if?
If only dave hadn’t been ill, then steve’s boss wouldn’t have sent him to see the customer, and the two men might be alive today.
But there is no use trying to re-imagine a scenario again and again to see how you would have done things differently. I will not be so callous to say that if it’s their time to go, it’s their time (after all, these are people who love and are loved), only that in life, nothing is certain.
It is true that even up to the last second before the accident; if either of them had noticed one another, or steve had been caught at the traffic lights, he was so pleased to have got through, just before they turned red, the accident wouldn’t have happened – but it did. No what if’s, no if only’s, just finality. Death.
And so starts the grieving process, the remembering, the crying, the missing, the why me, and finally acceptance and resolution, and the moving on with life.
Grief is a very personal emotion, no two people feel the same way. Some people just spend all day crying, whilst others just become introverted. There is no right way to grieve. We grieve because we are attached to someone through love. We do not grieve for people we do not love although we can empathise with them, and we do still show compassion.
Would jim’s wife grieve for steve? Of course not, neither would steve’s wife grieve for jim. In fact, they may hate each other’s husbands for “causing” the death of their loved one, especially if an enquiry finds one at fault. This will give the griever more opportunity to feel angry and hurt at being left and having their husband “taken from them.”
Who do you cry for – yourself or your loved one?
This is a hard question to answer. What do you think? Of course you cry for your loved one, because they are dead, but you are the one who has been left alive. As an old man said to me once, ”I want to die before my wife. I do not want to be the one left alive. I do not want to be sad all the time.” At the time, I thought it was rather a strange thing to say, but now I see it differently. It is easy to die, but to be left with grief is the hardest thing in the world, especially if, like him, you had spent sixty years together with your wife.
But death catches us unawares, and there is no sense in wishing yourself dead, just to save you having to go through, what is, after all, a natural process.
So here you are alive, left, abandoned in this strange, dangerous world. Your protector and lover vanished into thin air. Why did they leave you? How could they do this to you? Suddenly we become selfish, even though death happened to them, not you! We feel aggrieved, let down, disappointed.
“We were supposed to live until we both grew old” you cry.
But we all die. Some sooner, like the lambs just born, and some when they are old and wizened. There is no trick. It is just life. Acceptance of this is the first stage on the journey to resolution, at which time you will be able to look at a photograph of your loved one, still cry, but recognise that you are the one alive, and have a responsibility to yourself to keep living, not in pain, but in joy. You are alive!
Everyone who has lost someone experiences great sadness. You will no longer see them laugh, you will no longer feel the warmth of their body next to yours, you can no longer hug them, you can’t even argue with them. It is as if your heart has been ripped out. The emptiness, the loneliness, the misery. But this is normal. If you are attached to something the mind will not let go of it easily. Although we have photographs and memories, we want the physical body back. But learning to stand alone is one of the greatest challenges.
For most of us, our whole life is spent with someone else. We have a boyfriend or girlfriend from our teens, then we get married, and even if we divorce, we usually end up with another partner. As a social animal we find it hard to be on our own. But in grief, you learn that, although you miss the person, you also have a life, an independent life, able to be lived in a state of joy. Even if it does feel as if you won’t ever be able to face the world again alone.
We don’t just grieve when someone dies. We may also grieve for a partner who leaves us, and we may also grieve for children when they leave home. It is not death that makes us grieve; it is loss, and our attachment to the loss. Grief does not exist independently. To understand this better, I want to tell you two short stories.
When people talk about having split up they always talk about the anger and pain during the divorce, but they never talk about it as grief. I have only recently understood that what my mother was going through when my father left us was grief. It went on for several years, and she could not come to terms with her loss. She had been brought up to believe that when you got married, it would be forever, and had never considered in a million years that it wouldn’t be permanent. It wasn’t my father she felt sorry for, it was herself. She felt sorry wouldn’t have him around anymore – how would she cope? Why did he do this to her?
She cried and cried for years, she was so ill at times, she would be bent over the toilet being sick, with me supporting her; and that is for someone who not only wasn’t dead, but had run off with another woman! What a waste of positive energy. But she didn’t see it like that. She was the victim. She had lost something important to her, and that was her “other half.”
It is interesting to note that the expression “other half” is used to describe one’s partner, as if being without them does not make you whole. It is only when we learn to stand alone, that we will be truly free from our attachment to loss, to learn to be whole on our own, without the dependence on someone else to make us whole.
My mother eventually resolved her grief in exactly that way. She found her independence, filed for divorce, and made a conscious decision to move on and enjoy her own life. After all, my dad was happily enjoying his.
Man’s greatest challenge is to stand alone
The second story is regarding a great friend of mine, my uncle; my mum’s brother. Every year he and his wife came down to stay with my mum for their two week summer holiday, and I always made sure I’d get to see them while they were there. Last summer was no exception.
I was over on the west coast of ireland working as a chef, and I invited them all over for a week’s holiday. As usual, we had a great time, my uncle quizzing me about guitar chords, us playing golf together, sharing a few drinks. They left with me saying cheerio at the airport, but little did I know I would never be able to speak to my uncle again.
Two months ago he suffered a stroke, and fell down the stairs badly damaging his brain. This brought on a form of dementia, that left him, in a moment, in a different world. I went up to see him in hospital a few months ago, and although the face was the same, it was like staring into nothingness. He didn’t recognise me and indeed didn’t recognise anyone, including his wife and children. He was locked in a world they couldn’t access, and he couldn’t access their world. This was one of the saddest moments I have experienced. Knowing someone so well, who not only didn’t know who I was, had no idea of who he was, or even where he was. My aunt said to me that she couldn’t stop crying and asked how you grieve for someone who isn’t dead? I told her that the grieving process is the same whether the person is alive or dead. It is our loss we are suffering from.
But it is strange to see someone you have known your whole life, sitting there in hospital, completely vacant. For me, knowing he will never know me or speak to me again, and will silently slip into death in years to come, without any last goodbyes, will be a sad moment.
As humans, we do not seem to be very well equipped for dealing with sadness. That is why it is so important to speak to someone during this process. Although you can talk to friends and family, there are many trained people who will be able to give you the support you need. I urge you to seek this assistance and resolve the grief that is inside you. You owe it to yourself to rebuild an independent life, a life you can live with total joy, because you never know when it will be time.
Let us not look back on the loss of loved ones with sadness, and statements like: “I wish I had been nicer to them, or loved them more.”
Don’t wait until people die. You are alive now. They are alive now.
Together in the moment. Now is the time to show them you love them; to hug them, to show them compassion. Do not wait until it is too late.
If we all spent a little more time being nice to people we would not spend so much time in regret.
Celebrate life now. Do not wait until people have passed away. Resolve your differences, share friendship and experiences. Above all, live life to the full as an individual. You are whole, not an “other half.” Live as one, and the grieving process may just become a little bit easier.