Finding Ways of Coping with Life’s Losses

Mists of Siena, Italy — author photo

I feel like I have been perpetually sad since November of 2004.

I’m a happy person. If you meet me, you’ll think I must have constant joy inside. I smile a lot, laugh easily, heartily, and from the belly. It’s not an act. With the blessings of my life, to not convey happiness would be hypocritical.

At the same time, there is a gnawing grief that started with the accidental passing of my cousin that year, which has never abated through other family and friend tragedies and deaths.

One of my dear uncles died after a long battle with many maladies. I’m using that word because he would have liked it. He would have laughed at the old-fashioned sound of it and the way it rolls off your tongue when you say it aloud.

My uncle suffered, but he didn’t complain and he didn’t let issue after issue beat him down. He smiled, laughed, kept adapting and dealing with a long roll of health issues, always moving forward. Despite the physical limitations that hit him, he kept doing. When I’d visit him at the nursing home, so far removed from the house and garden he loved tending, he’d always say, “If I have to be somewhere, this is a good place to be.”

I like to think I am somewhat similar to him. As each hit pounds another blow on my shoulders, I keep going forward, reminding myself, “This is a good place to be,” coping, handling, figuring out how to survive the latest overwhelming loss.

Maybe I give myself too much credit.

Maybe not.

1949 — Dad & Uncle Jim at a healthier time

Did I know what went on in Dad’s mind in the fourteen months he dealt with Lou Gehrig’s? No.

Did I have an inkling of what my uncle thought as he went through years of one thing after another attempting to force him to a stop? No.

Their bodies let them down while their wit and intelligence stayed rapier sharp. What thoughts did they keep to themselves that let them manage their diseases and yet look forward to every day, knowing their last was coming?

As open as people can be with one another, there are those deep places inside us that we tend to shelter, to hide away.

In re-reading Randy Pausch’s The Last Lecture, it is again striking how honest he is discussing his pending death from pancreatic cancer. He opened up to let us in, unveiling his emotions with grace and wit and humility.

We’ve heard the phrase that you never really know anyone. How does the Billy Joel song, The Stranger, go:

Though we share so many secrets,
There are some we never tell,
Why were you so surprised,
That you never saw the stranger,
Did you ever let your lover see
The stranger in yourself?

I think my older sister and I stand a chance of knowing most of what goes on in the other’s head. That said, during a recent conversation, we agreed that people are mysteries to us. We two are well-connected with our much-loved younger brother and kid sister … the four of us have a unique bond that always existed but that developed into a tangible entity when our parents were passing away. We try to understand someone’s motives for behavior knowing that our own are a puzzle to them.

With others, you can be stronger

We came together in a manner that we took for granted, but that astounded the hospice folks. Jackie would fly in from Montana every so many weeks and stay for at least two. She was in charge of medications and interactions with the Veterans Administration for Dad. I handled finances, scheduled and attended doctor appointments, and dealt with the ALS organization. Joe was, because he lived on the same dead-end country road, the primary onsite caregiver — spending every night with our parents through Mom’s death from cancer, until Dad’s passing. Joanne took up the cooking chore. She prepared meals they could both eat, then as the ALS erosion continued and Dad could no longer chew, she pureed dishes for him.

In that time of infinite sadness (we are still sad), boundless laughing and carrying on, we came together to cope with the pending loss of both parents, the death first of Mom, helping Dad deal with that, to losing him eight months later. It changed everything for us and as a result, we are closer than we ever were.

I’m close to my husband.

We talk beyond surface conversations, we share humor and frustration. I find that we’re growing together over the years. But do I ever really know what goes on in his head or he mine? No, I don’t think I do and he freely confesses that he doesn’t track me. We are fortunate to share so much humor because that fundamental joy keeps us on the same plane.

But did we siblings know what each other was thinking? I am working on a family memoir, working title, 110 Pounds, for what Mom and Dad weighed when they passed. I am sure when my siblings proof it, they will say, I don’t remember this, why don’t you mention that, and you got this wrong. We will have each placed those memories in the deepest recesses and will dig them out differently from one another.

When you are struck with great sorrow, you search for answers in the world around you, asking, “How can I survive this and move forward?”

The authorities cite five stages of grief and the ways we cope with death: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance.

Dad with his girls — pic for Mom, who was in the hospital

I’ll add two words to evoke different feelings: Sadness and Resolve.

My family is full of pragmatists.

So, denial over our heartaches? Not so much.

We usually take what slaps us in the face, acknowledge it, and immediately begin dealing with the situation.

There is downheartedness, there is resolution, and then there is life. We go forward day after day and we fight through the sadness and we resolve to be happy, to shove the anger aside.

For me, sadness is as different from depression as resolve is different from acceptance. Being sad is a state you slip in and out of during a day as you go about living and suddenly have a moment of bereavement come to the forefront of your thoughts. You’re sad, you dwell there, then you go back to your life.

Depression can be a state that you are captivated by, coming out of it occasionally, a disease that requires medical and or therapeutic help.

Resolve is squaring your shoulders, confronting life without a person you love and determining to keep getting out of bed each morning.

Acceptance is realizing they are gone forever — unless your beliefs allow you to think of being with them in the after.

Dad looking from his home to the one he was born in

During Dad’s ALS housebound time, I would catch sight of him sitting in the wretched wheelchair the disease confined him to, staring out the living room window, the window he’d looked out for forty plus years.

I would wonder what he was thinking. For every incredible conversation we ever had and the emotional connection we shared, I never knew what Dad was thinking as he sat there, body failing him, mind as willing as ever to live life to the fullest.

Even though we frequently wear those stranger-masks with each other, sometimes in order to cope with our despair, I have to take mine off and openly weep. I have to say to my husband that today is a sad day, which inspires him to provide extra hugs and laughter-causing antics. I have to write about the hard things and let the world know that despite the challenges: I’m happy. I am the happiest I have ever been in my life.

But man, oh man, am I sad. Author of The Writer’s Travel Journal — for your adventures. Essayist of humor, grief, & family — they go together.

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