*Warning* You should have tissue handy while you read this.
Grief is one little word that is so huge and comes with such a heavy burden, but when worked through, can also lead to true feelings of refreshment and renewal. If there is one thing I know to be true about grief, it's that grief is incredibly personal and each person has their own ways of grieving. In writing about this topic, here, in my little corner of cyberspace, I'm by no means trying to spout off some secret wisdom as though I'm some grief expert. I simply want to share what's been going on in my life for the last several months, and share how I've been coping, in hopes that it may offer someone else comfort.
So, for starters, I'm a hospice social worker. I've been doing hospice work for about 3 1/2 yrs. I face death and dying on a daily basis. But, and this is a big BUT...the people who are dying and the families and loved ones of those who are dying, are not my friends. Do I care about them? Sure, most of the time ;). Do I let myself become emotionally attached to them? Rarely, but sometimes it happens. As a social worker, I have learned to develop healthy boundaries between myself and my patients and their families. I have an ethical responsibility to maintain professional relationships with my patients and clients and not form personal relationships. Do I hug them and offer them sincere comfort as they share their fears, and worries and ultimate grief with me? Of course, I do. But I always keep in mind that my purpose is to support them through this time, as a professional, and then move on. If I became emotionally involved with all the families I work with I would be useless. I'd become so intensely emotionally exhausted that I would have nothing left to give my patients, their families or more importantly, my own friends and family.
Quite often I'm asked by the families I work with "How do you do this everyday?" In other words, how do I deal with the emotions of grief and watching people die on a daily basis. Well, first I know my role in all of this, as I just mentioned. But secondly, I'm not watching *my* loved ones die. I'm not watching *my* loved ones lose someone they love. That is the difference. And it's a difference that is huge.
Last October it became personal...
In late October, I got a call from my mom and I felt as though my heart was ripped out. She called to tell me that my on again, off again ex-boyfriend from highschool, died suddenly in his sleep. He was just 35 yrs old. He was a HUGE part of my life every single day for several years. Some of my happiest and saddest moments of my highschool life were with him. My relationship with him taught me so many things and helped shape a lot of who I am today. Our relationship was complicated. That's probably an understatement. And working through his death also proved to be complicated. I experienced a sorrow and sense of emptiness that I had never felt before. Because our relationship was so unique with so many layers, losing him for a final time, has also been a unique loss, with many layers.
I'm no stranger to death in my personal life. In fact, I had my social worker friends recruiting me to work in hospice for years before I finally decided to apply for a position. I always said I had too many "death issues". My maternal grandfather died when I was 6 yrs old. When I was 12, my favorite Great Uncle died. I had numerous other losses that left me angry at God, and confused. In high school, I was touched by death more than any teenager should be. Almost all of these losses were sudden, or at least unexpected to me. The notion that someone can be full of life one moment and gone the next, was one that I learned fairly early in my life.
Unfortunately, I've continued to be touched by multiple deaths of friends, family, co-workers and acquaintances over the last several years.
So, when I got this call from my mom in October, who still lives in my hometown, I knew from the tone of her voice that someone I loved had died. As I tried to work through this incredible loss, I leaned on my closest friends and my amazing husband. I cried, and I cried and I cried. I slept as an escape and I had nights when the insomnia was unbearable. I'm still working through this and the burden of that grief has gotten lighter each day.
Six months later I'm grieving again...
In the Spring of this year, my sweet Grandmother, was admitted to the hospital. After several weeks, she passed away peacefully with my devoted Grandfather at her side on April 25th. This was my first time experiencing an expected death in my personal life, with the exception of my husband's grandmother. It felt very strange to me. I was caught off-guard by how emotional I was. Afterall, I knew she wasn't going to recover. I was the one asking my mom why my Grandmother hadn't been put on hospice, yet. I was the one explaining the dying process to my mother and explaining that her body was showing definite signs that it was shutting down and anything other than efforts to keep her comfortable, would be futile at this point. But even with my acceptance of the inevitable, when the moment finally came that I learned she had died, I was once again, in tears over losing someone I loved so deeply and grieving for my family. The week after my grandmother died, I spent a lot of time in my craft room. I worked through this grief by creating, by working in my art journal. I've become incredibly thankful for the therapeutic value of art over the last several months.
I had to be careful in my hospice work and was very aware of my own grief when working with my patients and their families. I relied on my supportive friends, co-workers and family. And, with time, that grief has become more bearable.
And I thought I knew how grief felt, but I've never felt this lonely...
Just as I was starting to feel like myself again, around the middle of June, my precious, loyal chocolate lab, began noticeably losing weight. At 11 1/2 yrs old, we'd known for some time, that his time with us was limited. Last December, he showed signs of advanced arthritis and was unable to walk one morning. I was a big ball of tears that morning as I took him to the vet and expected for certain they would tell me I needed to put him down. To my elated surprise, he was diagnosed with arthritis and put on medications and within a few weeks, he had moments of giddiness that had him bouncing around like a puppy again.
(about 3yrs old - in a motel on a road trip to Yosemite, Nevada and the California Redwoods)
So, when he began losing weight in June, and his appetite decreased, and I had to fill his bowl less often, my husband and I finally worked up the courage to take him into the vet, knowing that ultimately he was dying and we would be putting him to sleep. We took a few days to make this final decision and I spent sleepless nights petting his silky soft ears, and staring into his big brown eyes, as my own eyes shed tears as I anticipated the loneliness and sadness my family and I would feel.
We took him to the vet the morning of July 10th. I wanted to be assured that we were doing the right thing, so I had the vet run blood work to determine if there was a treatable cause for his significant weight loss and overall decline. His blood work revealed that he had developed diabetes and his blood sugar was sky high. We left the vet with hope that we could manage this, knowing it wouldn't be easy but I felt capable of managing this. Over the next 2 days, our sweet dog got worse, stopped eating altogether and began to develop cataracts. I would never wish that experience on anyone. We put him down the evening of July 12th. That week was probably the worst week of my life.
Hana (named after the Road to Hana in Maui), was the epitomy of a lab. He was an abundance of energy for the first 3 yrs of his life. He knocked me over several times with excitement as he greeted me. He could clear a coffee table with one wag of his super strong tail. We picked him out from his backyard breeder (not a puppy mill) when he was just 2 weeks old. We visited him every weekend until he was ready to leave his mama and we were moved into our new home.
Hana was our baby. He was my baby. He immediately became very attached to me, and was always, always by my side. If I moved, he moved. If I got up, he followed me. If I stopped, he stopped and laid down at my feet. If I stayed up too late, he told me it was time for bed. When I came home, he was always at the front door to greet me. Several months ago, I woke up from a nap on a Sunday afternoon, and walked into the living room. When I entered the room, my husband said "I knew you were up because I could hear Hana's tail hitting the wall. When he walks down the hall alone his tail doesn't hit the wall, but when he walks with you, I always hear his tail". That comment has really stuck with me. I'd give anything to hear his tail hit the wall again.
I've always known that I would be a mess when Hana died. Everyone who has been to my house, knows how attached Hana and I were to each other. Losing him has been the saddest, loneliest loss, I think I've ever experienced. I don't feel that I'm alone in my grief, he was a member of our family, and I know he is deeply missed by all of us. But I think I really feel his absence more than anyone else, because he truly was an extension of myself. He was truly attached to me, physically and emotionally.
When I was pregnant with Taylor, I had a miserable pregnancy. I have very fond memories of lying down on the couch everyday at 4:00 to watch Oprah, and having Hana climb up on the couch and snuggle with me. At that time, he was a full grown 5 year old, 80lb boy, but I loved that he always thought of himself as a lap dog. As I looked through old pictures of Hana after he died, I realized just how attached he was to me, and then to Taylor. In almost every picture of Taylor as a baby, Hana is right there by our side.
In no way do I feel like I have even began to process the grief I have over Hana's death. I'm certainly not in denial, and I've shed more tears over his death than I think I've ever shed in my life (and I cry often), but I know that all that I'm feeling is still the initial layer of my grief. I think, with all my experiences with death and loss, I grieve well. I tend to face grief head on with a "Bring it On, let's work through this and move forward" attitude. My attitude in dealing with Hana's death has been no different.
It's not over, yet...hit with another loss
So, obviously the last 8 months or so, have been filled with loss and grief and have caused me to reevaluate my depression, which is nothing new, but has been well managed for years. When my grandmother died, I knew that it would not be long until my Grandfather also died. His existing health problems, combined with his now "broken heart" would surely cause him to want nothing more than to be with his lifelong love in heaven. And, as I expected, my grandfather's health declined after the death of my grandmother, and he died peacefully on July 27th. Just 3 months and a few days after the death of my grandmother.
Multiple losses, like I've experienced, magnifies giref. With each loss we face, we are reminded of our previous losses. That can be both good and bad. Good, in that it reminds us that we've been here before and we survived. Bad, in that we often find ourselves faced with unresolved grief if we didn't take the time to grieve before. Finally, earlier this week, I realized I had to take some time off work. All of my grief and stress has taken it's toll on me, and I know I'm not functioning where I should be. I only took a few days off, but it's some time for me to focus on myself, process another layer of my grief, and be kind to my soul. I'm so thankful I have a wonderful, supportive husband (who is no stranger to death, himself) who has quietly held me tight through all of these losses, and treasured friends who also help me grieve, listen to me, hand me tissue when I cry, and offer distractions when needed, too. And there are wonderful things that have been sprinkled in these last several months, too. It hasn't all been filled with heartache. For one, one of my best friend's gave birth, which reminded me of the miracles of life. When I've been able to peek out of my depression, I've created expressive pages in my art journal, and I've been playing with some new art mediums and techniques.
So, that's what's been going on. That's why I haven't been posting. Sometimes I feel torn about my depression, because as a social worker, I want to minimize the stigma associated with depression and anxiety, and one way I can to do that is by blogging about my own experiences. But, at the same time, depression is, well, depressing and I don't want to become Debbie Downer on my blog, ya know? I want this little corner to be somewhere that people can come and feel empowered to create and empowered to parent their child with special needs (um, yeah, that's a whole 'nother issue right now, as we face the Taylor's transition to a new school, I could write a whole other post about anxiety, and a post on grief for parents of kids with special needs and complex medical issues). At the same, time though, I want to keep things real, here. I want to be authentic. So, that's why I decided to share the story behind my absence. Grief.
I'll plan a post on specific things that are helping me get through these sad times, in hopes of helping some of you cope with whatever grief you have.
Gosh, that was a really long post for what I said could be summed up in one word.