We initially met via Yahoo’s online dating site in the spring of 2005. I was still in Texas finishing up my chaplain residency, but I had accepted a job near Denver, Colorado, and would soon be leaving the buckle of the Bible belt for the more open-minded, high-altitude life. He had adopted a son when the boy was a teenager. Having been a teenager waiting for adoption as well as now being an adult considering adoption in the near future, we had a major connection. Some things just take you surprise, and now that I am grieving his recent terminal prognosis, I am reminded that not all surprises are welcome.
When I pulled into the parking lot of my new apartment complex in Colorado, he was sitting there waiting for me. He helped me move my limited furniture up multiple flights of stairs. We got food from the local Thai restaurant and sat on the balcony eating since I didn’t have a table yet.
Our friendship has continued since that day. He has grown to become one of the people I most value in my life. He has played uncle to my children, patiently listened to my rants, driven me crazy, and cheered me on at multiple finish lines. When I approached the finish line of my second marathon, I was limping. I had irritated an iliotibial band (ITB) and could either walk or hop. He was there as I entered the chute for the finish. I handed him my hydration belt with my water bottles as well as my lightweight jacket. I can still remember his cheers as I said “To hell with the pain, I am NOT walking across this finish line!) and did an awkward run/hop so that I could “run” across the line.
He, and sometimes his son, spent some holidays with us so we wouldn’t be alone. When I needed someone to just be there as I wept, I could always call him. Through doing the weird dance of learning about other people as your friendship grows, he had learned when I needed to just blow off steam, when I needed to think aloud, and when I needed validation, confirmation, and/or advice.
When we would hike together, he understood when I just needed to run, and he was okay with me taking off while I enjoyed one of the few activities that actually makes me feel even a tad bit graceful—trail running.
We thought we were going to lose him during our last stay in Mexico. They had operated on his heart thinking there was a tumor. It turned out to be a clot, and during the postoperative period he had a shower of thrombi which caused a massive stroke. It was a tense time, and with each victory toward recovery, I cheered.
I watched his slow recovery from afar. Every step forward filled me with hope and joy for him.
Since then he has dealt with some hiccups and taken them all in stride; one of which was larger—cancer. And it is the latter that is now going to take his life. The tumor is inoperable, and now he is too weak for additional chemotherapy.
My heart fell when at almost midnight I saw his latest status update asking for recommendations for a hospice since that was the next step. I began weeping which brought Tigger over. We held each other as I told him the news. He went to his room and brought back one of his stuffed animals: “Do you want this for tonight?” What a sweet kid! As we prepared for bedtime, it hit him harder, and we ended up sharing my bed last night.
Grief is a bitch, even the anticipatory kind. For me it has been harder because of the distance between us. I’m in Romania, and he’s in Colorado. While he’s family to me, I don’t hold a very elevated place in the circle of his family compared to lifelong friends, family, etc. I have to hope they’ll update me on his condition when he’s no longer able to do so.
That just adds to my feeling of powerlessness.
Dealing with grief
I’m no stranger to grief, both as a professional and from my own experiences. Here are some things I have found to be helpful when grieving.
- Don’t let it consume you. Like depression, it is something that can completely devour you. If you find you are unable to stop it from consuming your day, try allotting specific times when you allow yourself to dwell on it. I usually try to limit that timespan to 1-2 hours a few times a day. During the other times, I focus on things that I enjoy doing or activities that will take my focus away from the loss.
- A change of scenery can be a powerful thing. Exercise is a huge antidepressant, and the same process that helps with sadness helps with grief. Not only does it provide a distraction, but it releases endorphins which help your mood feel more elevated. Go for a walk, go window shopping, get outdoors, go to a place you’ve never been and just walk. Some people like taking drives, which is fine, but make sure you’re able to fully concentrate. Personally, I don’t recommend drives during times like these. It’s much better to be on foot or on a bike.
- If you find yourself, or a friend or loved one, having a hard time stopping crying, it’s time for some water. The process of drinking water causes an actual physiologic switch in your brain which helps the person gain control over their emotions.
- There is no right way to grieve. Everyone handles and processes it differently. However, there is such a thing as healthy grief. “Good” grief involves letting yourself experience the grieving without expectations. It is normal to feel sad, angry, furious, guilt, happiness, and to fluctuate between them all. Let yourself feel what you feel. Don’t try to reject the feeling, just ride the wave.
- In a situation like mine where you are far away from your loved one, utilize available technology to keep in touch with that person while they can communicate. After their death, if you aren’t able to attend a memorial service, funeral, or whatever, conduct a little memorial of your own where you are. Go to a special place, talk about your memories, say goodbye to them, light a candle and blow it out to signify their life and death. There are innumerable ways you can honor their life and memory wherever you are.
Helping others grieve
Talk about feeling powerless! When someone you love is grieving, it is so difficult to watch. Here are some things that are helpful:
- Listen. When they’re talking, don’t try to “fix” them. Just listen. Validate their feelings. They say: “I’m so angry at him right now!” You respond: “I understand,” “I’m sorry you’re going through this.” Remember, you can’t listen if you’re talking.
- Never say “I know how you feel.” No, you do not. You may have an idea. You may be able to imagine it. You may remember how you felt when you lost your father, but you do not know exactly they feel having lost theirs. People mean well when they say this, but it’s one of the worst things someone can say.
- Desist from using pithy platitudes: You’ll see, you’ll feel better tomorrow. He’s in a better place. God needed her more than we did. None of those are helpful to the other person and are really more about your discomfort and needs than theirs. Just be with them and let them be where they are. Along with that, avoid phrases like they’ve passed on, they’re on the other side, he’s passed away. When you avoid using the “D” word, you can actually complicate their process. People don’t expire or pass on, they die. She’s dead. He’s going to die.
- If you feel like sharing your experience might be helpful, make it short and bring it back to them: “I remember when my brother died. I felt powerless, angry, and abandoned. What is it like for you?”
- Ask open-ended questions, in other words things that can’t be answered with a simple yes or no. This gets people talking about their feelings which can be quite helpful for them.
- Remember that grief doesn’t have a timeline. When my grandfather died from a traumatic accident, it didn’t faze me as much. He was in his 90s, was declining, and it was a quick death. I took off work, went for a bike ride and went about my day. However, when I had to euthanize Pepe, my grief took much longer. Three years later I still occasionally revisit that day or have a brief grief episode.
The process of grieving is such a painful, individual experience, but the worst thing we can do is ignore the process. Be kind to yourself, hurt when you hurt, laugh when you feel the urge, be angry when you’re angry. And most of all, don’t forget to tell people how much you love them and how special they are to you while they’re alive. It’s so much harder after they’re gone.