When my terminally ill, 35-year-old beloved husband lay dying on a small hospital bed, with two oxygen masks over his mouth, I knew the kind of terror that was coming next. I knew that grief was about to overtake me. I felt that heavy dread, but, at the same time, as I lay next to him, listening to his final breaths, I also felt present and grounded.
To my astonishment, during his final hours, some kind of knowing or power had come over me that had enabled me to bear the pain of losing him. I remember every second of those hours as if I were an observant as well as a participant. Being present and also having a broader view helped me carry out my duties during his last day.
When he died that night, his pain and torture ended, while mine was just beginning.
When I walked away from his hospital bed, I suddenly felt like the weakest, most beaten-up person alive. It was as though the powers that had carried me through his last breath evaporated. The chains of grief were heavy and unbearable. I felt like a prisoner who knows her sentence and doesn’t even attempt an escape.
I carried the leaden weight of my body home to share the news with my two daughters. Again, I held a dual perspective. I was fully aware that their identity would change forever. And, I had a glimpse of who I was becoming—a mother who would not let her daughters define themselves predominantly by the loss of their father.
Helping Children through Grief
I was determined to teach them that they have the power to choose the vantage point through which to view their life and life in general. Their loss would be a teacher, not a prison that defined everything else. I knew, even then, that that perspective was the only way they would get through the death of their father intact.
As I headed toward home, I knew that I had a job to do. I had to find that magical balance where the girls felt that it was okay to break down but also knew that life would go on.
As I stepped into the house, my six-year-old daughter raced toward me and leapt jubilantly into my arms. “Mommy, Mommy, you’re home!” she shouted.
And then, suddenly, the reason for my being home seemed to dawn on her. Her face went from bliss to darkness, as she must have remembered what I had told her 10 days before.
Before I had left for the hospital to spend the last days of my husband’s life with him, she kept asking me when I would be coming home. I kneeled down, looked her in the eye and said, “Love, when I come home from the hospital it will be when Daddy dies.”
She had gone quiet and said, “Okay, Mommy, I will see you then.” And then she went off to play with her sister.
Children like to know about things; they want to be part of the big picture. My husband and I had always brought our girls into the harsh reality of life with cancer, so why stop now when it mattered the most? My daughter had to experience the grief from within the story and not as though she had no part in it. It was important that she have the memory of the intense sorrow she was feeling. Sugar-coating her feelings would be taking away the magnitude of her loss.
In my arms, she was crying huge silent sobs. I carried her to her room, sat on the bed, held her and said, “Yes, Daddy died.” Her arms were wrapped so tightly around my neck it was hard for me to breathe. She was holding on as tightly as she could.
They say that children are resilient and can overcome anything, but my daughter needed to rely upon my strength. I wished for time to stop. I wanted her to have this memory of us together so that she would know that she was part of her dad’s last chapter and that I had been there for her. That she had not lost me as well.
She aged years during those moments, and her heart ached with the knowledge of something so unbearable.
I trusted my daughter by not trying to take away her grief. I knew by doing so that I’d be instilling in her the ability to trust herself. I also trusted myself with the decision to treat my daughter with respect and allow her to hold her grief so that she could feel her strength and also her weakness. She needed both experiences to start her journey to recovery. She would one day know how far she had traveled and how much stronger she had become.
My instincts proved to be accurate. Today my daughter is a very healthy, mature 11 year old, who accepts life as it is and doesn’t dwell on how it could have been. She still misses her dad and always will, but she also enjoys her life fully. Her teachers are always commenting about her great attitude and sunny disposition.
The journey I took with my daughters was separate from my own journey of grief. They ran parallel to each other but in a very distinct manner. My children knew Mommy was grieving but it never overshadowed their own grief.
This is my tip for the newly bereaved with kids: Share your journey with your children not just by telling them how you feel but also by showing them how you live. For instance, I shared some of my tears with my children, which showed them my vulnerability and sadness, while my strength was evident everywhere around them. Kids copy adults like a mirror sometimes, so it was important for them to know that crying is not a weakness and that it was part of the journey. But they also got to see how strong I was by working and making sure our home was fully functioning.
Growing through Grief
I come from a family who stands by you when something grave happens. Actually they don’t only stand by you but they take on your pain, your everyday chores, your motherly duties and your life. I knew this and understood it, but I didn’t want it and I also knew it would not be good for my long-term recovery.
While I lived at the hospital, my parents had stayed with the children. After my husband’s death, I sent them home, telling them, “I have to do this on my own, otherwise my grief will last longer.”
I must have looked quite determined as they knew to trust me with this decision, and they listened to me and left.
My plan was to figure out things by myself. I passionately wanted to stand on my own two feet. This meant going back to school, getting a job within one year and raising my kids on my own.
There were many days when I surrendered to grief, when I was subsumed by the excruciating absence of the one who was forever gone.
Other times it felt as though grief and I were fighting each other every minute of the day. I didn’t know it then, but I was not willing to grieve lying down.
Honestly, I was not standing up straight either.
But I was not supposed to dance my way through grief. I wanted to survive it by acquiring new skills, a new attitude and a new life. And I did.
Gradually, over time, I was able to transform the chains of sorrow into an unlimited power that transported me to a life of passion and creation.
It didn’t happen over night, and, in fact, the first glimpse of a life without those chains occurred in a very funny way.
First, I want you to imagine that my life at the time was like the movie, Groundhog’s Day.
I would wake up, drop the kids off at school, go to work, pick up the kids at night, do homework, have food, go to bed, and then it would start all over again. I was emotionally and physically exhausted. When you are in the tunnel, you can’t see the light. The tunnel is relentless and it feels as though there is no way out.
During the week leading up to Christmas, and my second Christmas without my husband, the mail carrier kept driving past my house, without delivering my mail, including all of my precious Christmas cards.
I realized this was because there was snow and not much space to park his mail truck, so I woke up on a sunny Saturday morning and shoveled the snow away from the mailbox and created enough space. I was so looking forward to all those cards. To my surprise, he still did not stop.
You can imagine the disappointment I felt after shoveling for two hours! So I put on my boots and started running as fast as I could to catch up with him. Eventually, I did, and, completely out of breath, asked him, “Can I please have my mail?”
He handed it to me and then mumbled, “Why don’t you ask your husband to shovel a little better.”
With a straight face, holding back my tears and showing as much strength as I could muster, I said to him, “He would if he could, but he’s dead.”
I walked away with my mail, feeling victorious.
That day I decided I was no longer going to allow grief to keep me passive and just accept what was happening to me. Not accepting the mail carrier passing my house brought me closer to not accepting my life as it had become: sad, sorrowful and pitiful, spending Christmas, alone, thousands of miles away from family.
Yes, my husband was dead, but I was here, and that day I decided that I would show up in life fully alive. And from that point on, I never let my grief get in the way of getting what I wanted, what I deserved and needed.
I started to see the light more and more often. I began to have the strength to proudly go for what’s mine. My grief was starting to be transformed into that source of unlimited power I mentioned before, where I was finally able to move myself, and my life in a new direction. I went back to work with a changed attitude. I went back to my routine with a hopeful point of view of my future.
Three weeks after that Christmas I applied for a much bigger job within my company and I got it. Glimpses of what life could be again were materializing before my eyes. People started behaving differently towards me; it was as if they saw Christina again. I started asking for things and felt that I deserved to receive them. I saw myself as someone with magnificent strength and a fearless attitude. After all, I had been to hell and back. What was there to lose? Not much!
I planned a party for all of my friends who were with me during the previous two years when I had become absent. I wanted to thank them and invite them back into my life and our friendship.
A couple of months after that Christmas day, I met my future husband, and my heart started beating a little faster again. If I hadn’t taken the steps of rebuilding my own life, reclaiming what was always mine and getting to know the stronger me, I would not have been in a position to receive his love.
I earned my results. I earned personal and professional growth. I showed up and finally managed to stand up straight, and show to the world the person I had become.
You Can Shift Too
Everyone who has gone through such a loss also has the ability to shift their life into a place where new things are possible.
There is so much power in loss and it can be used as unlimited fuel to get into action and start the process of rebuilding.
Unfortunately, however, strong grief can end up freezing the bereaved in time, and most of the cultures in the world allow for the freezing to take place. The freezing is not grief; it is like a secondary infection that actually stops the grieving process from progressing.
When a big loss takes place, what is really happening is a dramatic shift, a shift that is not utilized when you stay frozen. Especially when you are trying to go back to how things used to be. While some will argue that we don’t allow enough time for grief anymore, and most books and research point towards the stages of grief as a journey, I would argue that while it is very important to have time to mourn, it’s equally important to be able to know when it’s time to take action and shift from the life you once had.
There has to be a change of focus in the grieving culture, where we are encouraged to see that time does not have to stand still and grief does not have to take forever. We need to remove the shame of moving on and replace it with acknowledgement, strength and hope.