Disclaimer: Although this post is based on the writer’s personal experiences, it might trigger emotions related to similar experiences in readers. Please read with caution.
For many of us, grief is always a distant subject, until it is not…
When we have to commiserate with someone who has experienced a loss (especially of a close family member), we do our best to find the most comforting words for bereaved, even sometimes using words like: I understand how you feel. These words are reassuring and valid in such circumstances, and are usually used alongside other forms of carefully crafted words and actions to demonstrate our understanding, solidarity, and support for the grieving person. However, I learned the hard way that regardless of the good intentions, one can never actually ‘understand’ grief… at least until we are the ones grieving.
About a year ago, I lost an immediate family member and this unfortunate experience made me step back and deeply reflect on the emotional, mental and even spiritual toll that grief inflicts on survivors.
- Immediate Reaction
While every loss is unfortunate, the circumstances of the loss is particularly important to the grieving process. Was it expected or sudden? Was there an opportunity for a final moment interaction and farewell or not? Even in cases when the person is aged and/or terminally ill, most would admit that it still comes as a shock and unexpected, much less in cases of natural or unnatural disasters, accidents, sudden illnesses or unexplainable causes. The baseline is, regardless of the age or the circumstance, one is never prepared for a loss. In my case, it was as sudden as – talking to the relative, who was perfectly fine, ending the call to briefly attend to something with a promise to call back later in the day, and then receiving a call a few hours later with the unfortunate news. In this instance, I guess I have to live the rest of my life questioning myself… the what ifs. Would things have been different if I had not ended the call? What would have been his last words to me if the call hadn’t ended? What were his last thoughts or words? Did he think about me in those final moments? Could I have prevented it if I was present? I then began to think about the bigger implications. I immediately panicked when I thought of other relatives who were closest to him and how they are handling the news. And then the calls began…
Regrets… I think that is probably among the most important emotions that the bereaved deal with, especially when you feel that there is more you could have done for or with the person. A woman shared that when she lost her Mum (at 102 years), she had doubts and would occasionally ask herself if there was something she could have done better to keep her alive for much longer. At this point, one thinks back to the times when you might not have had the best relationship with the person or maybe possible disagreements, rifts, and even fights. When you thought they were annoying, burdensome, boring, overbearing, noisy, dramatic, etc. All those little or major complaints you might have had about them. Or you think back to their better qualities, some of the best, fun, and memorable moments you had together. Some funny, lovely, maybe habitual things they used to say or do. And you wish they were still around to be all those things… (good or bad).
At this time, spirituality or faith becomes bi-functional, it could either be a sanctuary or a snare. While some death or loss as inevitable, and a natural life passage as ordained by God or some other spiritual entities, others might question the inability of these spiritual beings to prevent the tragedy. For example, one of my relatives was extremely positive about the loss because she felt that my relative was in a better place in Heaven, and that his departure from the world only meant a better and glorious life in eternity, and an escape from the miseries that abound in the world. For me, I was absolutely angry at God for letting it happen because it could have definitely been prevented. After all, I wasn’t a stranger to the many miracles that the Bible emphasizes, and other countless testimonies that people share at church regularly. I really couldn’t bring myself to believe that all the prayers that were offered for him (who was a devout Christian and missionary) failed to save him or bring him back. And so I stopped praying and reading the Bible…
While I struggled through this phase, many people came through for me. Family and friends back home in Ghana made time to call to speak to me or would join conversations with other relatives to give me words of comfort. Others sent heartfelt messages and donations. Friends here also were extremely supportive. I received plants from friends, which I learned is an American way of comforting and encouraging the bereaved. I am extremely grateful for that. I also received some wonderful pieces of advice from people who had experienced similar losses and would like to share a few here in case someone finds them helpful.
A friend from church taught me unashamed grieving, for which I am extremely grateful for. She told me to cry whenever I felt like it and not feel like I needed to restrain myself to seem ‘strong’. And so I cried myself to sleep many nights. Usually, we tend to tell the bereaved to be strong, which oftentimes is interpreted as not to cry. However, through the many tears I shed, I have come to learn that being able to shed tears for a loved one is rather a display of strength.
Another friend taught me to have faith in the afterlife, citing Isaiah 57: 1-2. I found this particular verse an incredible consolation and comfort, knowing the kind of life that this relative led, which was corroborated by the testimonials that everyone has of him. I am also encouraged and inspired to exemplify his kind of life as a way to honor him. And one also also shared this Jonathan McReynolds song with me, which I would recommend for anyone going through any kind of struggle or challenge.
Finally, my advisor, who was and continues to be incredibly supportive, taught me journaling as grieving – which has also been extremely helpful. Coming from an oral culture, writing is not necessarily a go-to in such situations. However, I have used this practice of journaling to write messages and letters to him; update him on happenings in my life and other close relatives; discuss my thoughts and emotions about the loss; future plans, etc. In this way, he continues to remain part of my life and I feel like I can still communicate with him.
Finally, what I have personally done is to organically include him in everyday conversations with family members or people who knew him. More like things he liked to do or say or how he would have reacted to something. With this, his memories are not necessarily buried but revived in ways that are not necessarily painful.
While grieving, we tend to find other things to distract us, or to keep our minds off the sorrow and sadness. For one, we are all still dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic and that was particularly difficult for me because I was unable to travel back home for the funeral. So I chose work as a distraction. Even when my advisor was willing and gracious to give me some time off, I completely ignored her and buried myself in all kinds of work-related things just to keep my mind off the loss: Comprehensive exam, Dissertation proposal, co-teaching classes, conference presentations, submitting proposals, etc. I really couldn’t sit still, which served the intended purpose but also got me exhausted…
A year on, there is still the occasional tear when a memory drops (you never really forget).
Maybe that will come when I finally see the burial site, or maybe never. For now, I have resumed praying, and reading the Bible, thanks to encouragement from loved ones and my personal resolutions. I do not have many regrets but I still struggle with several what ifs. I still have the support of people who care, and I continue to practice the advices I have received. I am still distracting myself with work because you know, I need to start making real money at some point, hopefully soon :). I still have two of the plants I received and they are doing quite well. I sometimes forget to water them but I have also resolved not to let them die, and so our struggle continues.
Most importantly, I would definitely say that I have grown stronger in many ways, and while it took the harder way, at the barest minimum, I have gained a few helpful tips on how to better support someone in grief.