All my life my mother was a schoolteacher. Through the years, she taught several different grades, but primarily she taught elementary school. However, it wasn’t until I was in fifth grade that I discovered that my mom had actually gone to school to be a singer. She had a beautiful voice. Although I remember her singing in weddings and that she had taught piano out of our house most of my elementary school years, it never occurred to me that music might be something she wanted to pursue. Because her mother was a teacher she had also gotten her teaching degree alongside of her music degree. So, when she met my dad (who also had his teaching degree) and had us, she took the steady route of schoolteacher.
When I was in college, I became aware of this past dream because my mother got the opportunity to do something that she’d always wanted. She was able to join the alumni choir from her college and tour Great Britain. This was a magical time for her. It was something she cherished greatly. However, it came with a cost. When she returned home she started having trouble standing, she would lose time, and she was having trouble with her memory. After many doctor visits, they were able to determine that the plane ride had started a bleed on her brain. Then—whether it was related or just allowed the doctors to identify it alongside of the brain bleed—it was around this time that my mother was diagnosed with ALS.
This was a difficult time for my family. There was a thick tension in the air. Even before the disease took its toll and limited her mobility, there was a constant reminder that this was terminal and would end in loss. Even though we had the luxury (if you can call it that) of mourning her loss before she actually died, the end was no less devastating. She was truly a shining light that was taken from the world far too soon. The impact of her loss was felt immediately, not just in our family, but all the lives she had touched throughout her extraordinarily caring life.
During the last year of her life, I had graduated college and decided that instead of pursuing my career I would go home and help. So, I was living with my parents during the end of my mother’s life. Because she had been unable to climb the stairs, they had given me the master bedroom which was on the second floor. They had converted the back den on the ground floor into their bedroom. Often, my mother would come to the foot of the stairs and call to me when she needed something. This was such a constant occurrence that I became very attuned to the sound of her voice, no matter where I was upstairs.
Shortly after my mother died, I could swear I heard her voice calling to me from the foot of the stairs. It was so instinctual that I was headed into my room from the hallway and instead turned around to face the stairs and reply to her. My mouth was open with the words coming out when I looked to the bottom of the stairs and realized that she was not there and she would never be there again. It was a moment of being caught between two realities that both seemed completely real. Of course, as I looked at the stairs the weight of her loss came flooding back, and it seemed very obvious that I had not heard her. I was playing out a scenario that happened so often that it became somewhat of an echo.
That particular scenario is very common. Many describe a time when, right after the loss, they experience an everyday interaction that now was not possible. However, this could also happen with significant family scenarios even a year later. Holidays are probably the most dominant on the list. It is very similar to losing a limb. Although this is a very drastic experience, often those who lose a limb forget from time to time. For instance, those who’ve lost a leg will step out on the missing limb forgetting entirely that it isn’t there. Some will have phantom sensations like an itch that they can’t scratch on the limb that is no longer there. The brain is telling them it IS there, but reality and their senses are confirming that it’s not. This can be so unsettling, especially in that brief moment of transition from the phantom echo to remembering the reality of the loss.
Loss is inevitable. It is the fragile nature of our existence that we have been given the miracle blessing of life, but that physical life will end at some point. When we are first able to comprehend complex thought we come face to face with this fact. We know it most of our life and loss happens every second of our life in some part of the world. Yet, when we come face to face with it in a personal way it is nearly always a heavy emotional impact. This is normal, but it feels far from it when it is happening to you. As we mentioned earlier, this can last up to and sometimes longer than a year. So, if loss has entered your life recently, here are some important things to keep at the front of your brain as you navigate the next year.
You’re not crazy.
This first year will bring many emotions, thoughts, and experiences that will make you feel absolutely crazy. It’s important that you understand that you’re not. Your brain is working exactly the way it’s intended to. When something matters in your life it becomes part of your story; part of what affects you. When that something is another person it only makes sense that their loss would cause upheaval. It’s the great paradox of love and connection. The thing that brings us such stability and peace also can bring great pain and disruption. For your brain to move on without a hiccup would be unhealthy. All the emotions and thoughts and confusion you were feeling are just the echo of things that matter moving from the here and now to the past. The person isn’t present, physically interacting as part of your story. You’re not crazy, you’re grieving.
This is not to say that counseling isn’t necessary. Counseling can be an incredible resource to help you navigate the transitions from life to loss.
Don’t avoid the events. Embrace them.
The coming year will be the biggest time of transition. Each time you’re in a location experiencing things externally the person will be missing from that physical existence. That missing element that was their life will definitely be felt. Many choose to avoid events so that they don’t have to remember what was or feel the impact of the loss. Although it may make sense on the surface, it actually will do great harm for you mentally. When you lose somebody to death, their physical life ends, but your life continues. Experiences continue to happen for you. When we try to stop new memories from forming because of losing what was, we’re trying to control something that can’t be controlled. We’re setting ourselves up for failure. It’ll be important for your transition for you to allow yourself to experience things in the coming year without the person in your life in order for your brain to accept to the new normal. The confusion and feeling of being crazy you’re feeling is your brain trying to live in two realties: one with the person and one without.
The following year will be a year to create new memories. The first year after the loss it’s okay to remember them and take stock in that particular holiday without them. It will probably be a holiday or event that includes pain and hurt, but it will be an important one to experience in order for joy and stability to return. You have to keep living and experiencing. It’s what you were created to do with the blessing of life.
You may think that the event will be ruined because of the loss. It won’t.
It will be different. It will be filled with a myriad of emotions, but it won’t necessarily be ruined. Change is inevitable. Change has to happen for us to be healthy. This is a good opportunity to go through a normal transition of change. To keep the event from being ruined, you have to be able to let it change organically. Holding on to what was will mean a greater chance of it never being as good because it won’t ever be the way it was. If you try to hold on to something exactly the way it was with significant missing pieces, you’re setting yourself up for failure. So, along with not avoiding the holidays and events, it will also be equally important for you to go into these things without pre-conceived negative emotions. Know that they’ll be different, but leave room for pleasure and happiness. Often people feel guilty the first year when they are happy or feel joy without the other person present. You can’t avoid remembering. The first year, many things will trigger you. Instead of assuming the worst, walk in with an open mind and allow yourself to feel positive emotions if they come.
If the loss is a death, do something intentional to keep the person’s memory alive.
It’s very easy to focus on the pain or the actual event of a loss whether that’s death or some other tragic event. When we care about somebody their life is far more important than their loss. Most of us would see this as a very obvious statement. However, it’s hard to keep this in mind in the first year. To be able to focus on their life rather than the loss it’ll be important to do something that honors their life. It might take the form of a new tradition you add to your Thanksgiving where you talk about things you were thankful for in your interaction with the one who is gone. Have a time of the holiday where you share stories about past years that involve the one who has died. Start a physical tradition like creating a special ornament that honors the loved one that will remain part of future holidays.
Helping new generations remember and cherish generations past is important. This happens almost exclusively in the brain through story. Story gives context and meaning to people and events that are not present. They are the glue that bridges time and space.
For example, I was sitting with my six-year-old on his bed about to go through the nighttime ritual before he went to sleep. He has this stuffed animal that I bought for him before he was born. It’s a long blue dog named Limbo that he uses as a pillow. That dog has been everything to him.
On this particular night he was getting socks out of the sock drawer and putting them on Limbo’s paws. He thought this was a brilliant idea, but didn’t really know why. I was able to remind him that Limbo originally came with socks. I also reminded him that his nursery had been designed around an original story I wrote for him about a magical land where all the animals wore socks on their feet because of the belief that the warmth of your heart was directly related to the warmth of your feet. In this magical land named Parkapita, socks grew on trees like fruit so they were always plentiful. In the story Limbo had lost his sock and needed my son, Truman to help him travel back to the land of Parkapita to find more. In the end they both discover that the warmth of your heart is more about the kind things you do for others (like trying to help them find their socks) and the connection you make while doing it rather than the external things (like socks).
This story was a labor of love that I worked on while he was still in his mother’s womb. His entire nursery was designed with sock trees and other life-sized cut outs of the land of Parkapita. We even bought socks for every stuffed animal in his room. Even though this was so important to me, Truman, as a six-year-old had no memory of it at all. It never occurred to me that as time progressed and we had more kids and we moved houses and life organically shifted that this very special thing would be lost in his mind. So, for what seemed like an hour we sat on his bed with my phone and looked at pictures of his nursery that turned into pictures of him as a baby that turned into videos of him playing that turned into special moments with family members like his late great grandfather whom he is named after. Story is very impactful. It keeps important things in our life present even when they are physically gone.
Loss is hard but inevitable. Hiding, avoiding, stuffing, feeling crazy only prolong the difficulty in the first year. Remember, everyone handles loss differently, but we can’t handle it if we don’t face it.