Wednesday, December 16, 2009

How to get through loss

Of course, death comes to us all (even Kirkus, the venerable book review company). Until it does, we're charged with the task of living. I have learned that death gets easier to handle with each new loved person lost. I've learned a few other things too:

When a loved one dies and someone asks what they can do, give them a small task.

Feeling helpless in the face of a loved one's misery is one of the more awful human emotions.
My daughter-in-law asked what she could do, begged. My first inclination: "Nothing, honey, we're fine." But I remembered prior deaths, how important it was to me to feel useful. And so I gave her something to do: bring a pizza. She wanted a list. Less than an hour later she was at the front door with pizza, crazy bread, orange juice and milk, a sympathetic smile and a warm hug. (she's wonderful)

When someone dies, know that you will have visitors.

I'm glad I thought to clear the dining room table, always a mishmash of newspapers, crafts and homework. We had an impromptu party with most of my kids, reminiscing about their Grandma Katie. It felt good.

Surround yourself with loved ones and talk.

It will be unforgettable. In a week where a lot of things will happen that are also unforgettable, but unpleasant, this will shine as something good.

Do something strenuous.

Something safe that makes your heart pump and reminds you that you are still alive. At midnight, Katie, Emily and I walked a couple miles in the snow with our big, at-first-uncooperative puppies. It was ridiculously cold, one leash broke. We stayed out until my legs ached -- it was better than a Wii Fit run. And the peace of a neighborhood at midnight in winter, the silent Christmas lights in windows, felt like prayer.

Get the word out.

Deaths don't only affect close friends and family; no man is an island. Grief shared is greatly diminished. It's why we have funerals. I have been deeply touched reading memorials to people I never met, tributes I stumbled upon, on the web. Reading how beloved people chose to live always inspires me to do better, myself. If someone important to you dies, tell me. I want to know.

Don't make decisions if you don't have to.

Today I stopped at Walgreens for immunity boosters. I noticed they sell contact lens solution. I've gone through extra amounts in the last day. It became a difficult decision, the cheaper store brand or the name brand? Is there a difference beyond price? One's for sensitive eyes. Are my eyes sensitive? Will the name brand last longer? Because I don't use the stuff that much, normally. Single bottle or money-saving double? Give the second bottle away?
It was almost overwhelming, trying to decide. My eyes teared up.
Thank goodness something broke the loop in my brain and I grabbed a bottle (I won't tell which; I won't start second guessing the decision).
Conventional wisdom says, don't buy or sell a house, don't do anything drastic in the wake of an important death. I'd add: Don't make *any* decisions if you don't have to. Change what you must, otherwise stick to routine; there's a reason it works for you.

Be kind to yourself.

Walking around the store I saw things I wanted to buy for Mom Barshaw. She wasn't one to accept gifts, by the way, and went to great lengths to give them back. It was a challenge to give her something she liked and would keep (and I so love a challenge). I saw a magazine on angels, and another on faith, perfect for my mom and for her too, for Christmas. Then I remembered she is dead. Instant grief. I bought the second set, not for Mom Barshaw, but for me.
I'm glad I didn't see a Snugglie there. I'd have likely bought it as well. She was cold, the past few months. I get cold sometimes.
See where this is going?
I looked in the reader glasses mirror, and I didn't see me. I saw my mother-in-law. Tired, older than my age, eschewing the candy aisle. If there had been a small child in the store I'd have fussed over it.
In that moment I understood why Mom often called to let us know about special offers or holiday shows on tv: It made her feel useful. She gathered information and coupons and disseminated them among her children, always considering who would benefit most. Suddenly I saw myself doing the same thing.
I came home and squashed a bug with my bare hand. Mom Barshaw did that all the time; I thought I never would.
It's depressing being 80 years old 30 years early, but I accept it, knowing it's temporary.

Forgive yourself

There are always things I wish I'd done sooner. I'm the Queen of Regrets, dating back to my father dying when I was 12 with love unspoken. I don't make that mistake anymore, but I sometimes let other regrets haunt me. There's limited time, limited order in life, don't waste emotion on guilt that isn't really earned.

Know that grief comes in waves.

At unexpected times the reality will overcome you and it might bring you to your knees. You might doubt your sanity. Keep doing what you're supposed to do. The wave will subside.
Death isn't something to "get over," it's more like a permanent fixture in the living room of your life. It's a lamp you won't be rid of. It's always there, sometimes almost beautiful, other times hideous, always unwanted, but it's something you work around, something you deal with but always know is there. Over time as more people die it's another table, a sofa, a painting you never wanted to accept from a giver who won't be refused. You can close off that room so the stuff won't crowd out your life and kill you, or you can learn to arrange it, live with it, make it work. I choose to make it work.

Throw yourself into a creative project.

Speaking of work, back to it. This book won't write itself.
I'm making the last revisions to the text (am on page 108) and inking final art (am on page 92). I'm glad Ellie McDoodle isn't a long book; 170 pages seems do-able. My pace is slowed but not stopped.
Tonight I'll draw a portrait of Mom.


Anonymous said...

Ruth, this is absolutely lovely, and so generous. I will come back to this in my own times of grief, I know, because this advice is precious! I'm thinking of you, dear one.--Erin

Ann Finkelstein said...

Thank you, Ruth for your words of wisdom.

One Womans Thoughts said...

I believe that the holidays bring about more feelings of loss and isolation. You did a great job on things that help DEALING with death. We need things to do. All true because you have lived through these difficult times yourself. Thank you.


Erin Edwards said...

Ruth, I'm so sorry for your loss. Remember my daughter had another idea of something to do when you're sad, read a treasured book - for her Ellie McDoodle. If it helps you focus, you have two little readers here eagerly awaiting the newest Ellie McDoodle! :)