Monday, March 18, 2013

Grief: The Healing Choice

I will never forget April 13, 1978: it was the day I walked into my house and discovered that my fifteen-year-old daughter, Sharon, had died of a drug overdose. Yes, I know that is a difficult sentence to read. And even though I have done so numerous times, it’s also difficult to write. Almost 35 years later, I still can’t look at that particular arrangement of letters and numbers without being mentally transported back to that horrific day.

If you’re a parent, you’ve probably considered what it might be like to lose a child.  (Chances are you quickly pushed the thought away, as it’s too dreadful to contemplate for long. I understand.)  Almost certainly, you suspect that the death of a child is the worst thing that could happen to a parent. How could anyone get over such a loss and resume living a normal life?
The short answer is, you can’t. There is no “getting over” the fact that your beloved child has taken her last breath. But the longer answer is, there is life after a child’s death. Not a life that’s identical to the one you led before—you cross an invisible line and there is no way back—but one that is worthwhile and that contains fulfillment…and sometimes even joy.

There’s a prerequisite, though: to move forward, you must first make the choice to grieve.

That’s right—to a larger extent than many people think, grieving is a choice. Consciously or unconsciously, you can decide to ignore grief when it presents itself: mentally squelching it, postponing it through frenetic activity, and neutralizing it with drugs or alcohol.
But here’s the irony. Not grieving is, in the long run, more painful than the pain you’re seeking to avoid.  It’s widely believed that repressed grief can lead to illnesses like upper respiratory infections, digestive problems and even cardiovascular disease.  This makes sense: the stress and anxiety that come from exerting that much control over your thoughts, emotions, and body are profound. And of course, the potentially dire consequences of self-medication are obvious.

It’s also possible to “shut down” and become stuck in one of the phases of grief.  Even though others may think you seem all right on the surface, the truth is, you have actually “agreed” to stop growing, loving, daring, and moving on in exchange for not feeling any more pain and loss.  Frankly, this is not living. It’s merely existing.
I have healed—and continue to heal daily—after losing Sharon, but only because I have made the choice to grieve. Over the years, I have screamed, cried, vented my rage, and submerged myself in intense waves of grief whenever they washed over me. Over time (and initially to my surprise) I discovered that I was able to enjoy my life once more. I have even found that my appreciation for life, my joy in small delights, and the richness of my relationships have grown.
This may surprise you. It surprised me.  But it’s undeniable: grieving my lost child has opened my eyes to everything lovely and wonderful about our world.  I see, act, and react more authentically. My compassion and gratitude for others has grown, and I stop to smell the roses more often—I call it ‘living from the gut.’ I see this as the “reward” for choosing grief: Once you have descended to the lowest of lows, you are also able to experience new highs, That’s because your soul and psyche are much like a balloon that stretches in all directions.

Be aware, however that grieving is not a linear, predictable process. Its progression and manifestations differ from person to person. You certainly never “finish” grieving. Rather, you must make the choice to grieve over and over again as the years pass.

If you are facing the loss of a child, please, choose to grieve. Yes, there will be darkness, but I promise, you will also come to see the “silver lining” gleaming through.  
Finally, let this truth resonate in your heart: the new life you’re creating would not be possible without the love you felt—and still feel—for your child.  It is her final gift to you.  And accepting it graciously is your final gift to her.