Loss marked the year 2022 for me. Death came without knocking. Not one, but two chairs are empty in my house this year. My mother lost her battle with cancer and my father died 42 days after from a heart attack. The loss of a loved one makes grief linger long after the coffin hits the ground. It also lasts longer than the length of people’s compassion.
The death of a parent is exquisitely painful because, in my experience, it is the only form of unconditional love there is. I will never be loved in the same way again. My mother’s death was slow. I must confess that at times I wished she died sooner because when you love someone you just want them to be at peace and to put an end to the hurting. It traumatized me to see the person I loved most in excruciating pain, dissolving faster than sugar in water. The once strong and very capable, fierce woman became infantile. I remember drying her hair and reminiscing about the days when she used to do the same for me in my childhood. It hurt me to switch roles, but it also humbled me because I realized how fragile life really is, and in a way felt gratitude for being able to repay her for all the love she had given me so selflessly.
I cried my eyes out since the day she got her diagnosis. I had the time to mentally prepare for the impending moment of her passing, to repent and ask for forgiveness. I did not have that with my father. It was stolen from me. The mourning of my mother was interrupted by another heavy blow. I did not know whom to grieve. He died in my arms, together with the many unsaid words we both swallowed throughout the years. His death left me with an incredible feeling of guilt.
Guilt eats away at you. I wish I did not yell at my parents as much as I did. I wish I picked up the phone more often when they would call. I wish I hadn’t spoken half of the sharp words I did. Often we show the greatest disrespect to the people we love the most because we know that no matter what we do or say they will always love us back. We take them for granted. I didn’t know any better. Had I known better, I would have done better. I was operating and reacting in the best way I knew how.
But even with that compassion and grace, grief continues to hit hard in the most random of places—like a supermarket. When I go shopping sometimes, I look at the increased prices of the tea my father used to drink, and then I am reminded he will never drink it again. I buy it anyway. Moments of happiness that other people experience now have a bitter taste because they remind me of all the things my parents will never see me do like getting a driving license, getting married, or having kids. The pictures on Instagram of family dinners, outings, and moments of togetherness, to which I would normally react with admiration, are now the source of irritation and resentment. The feeling that the whole world should stop living is a selfish but real desire most people who have endured loss experience.
How dare this world continue on when my loved one is gone?
Pain demands to be felt, so I am allowing myself to feel these uncomfortable things. Sometimes, when I walk my dog in the park, I sit on a bench and let it hurt. I try to localize the pain and figure out where in my body I’m feeling it. Much of the time, it sits in the center of my chest and sometimes in my belly. Although pain convinces us we are dying, when you confront it by feeling rather than avoiding it, you realize it is just a feeling that’s visiting.
Sometimes those big feelings of pain lead to crying. I come from the Balkan, a place where people don’t really talk about heavy emotions or deal with them. It’s a very patriarchal place where expressing emotions makes you weak. At my father’s funeral, a friend of his interrupted my sobs with a pinch to signal that I should pull myself together—as if it was shameful to cry. It is quite the opposite really; crying is a sign of bravery. To be open with your emotions is to honor yourself. Crying is purifying. It is a way in which we can regulate our nervous systems in a helpful way. A way of releasing the pain that is pent up in our chest and the unspoken words that form a lump in our throats.
Lastly, another way to grieve, and probably the best, in my opinion, is to continue on their legacy. I am trying to incorporate into my identity all of the qualities I admired them for. There remains no greater compliment than to be compared to my parents.
For those existing outside of grief, show up for those who are. You don’t need to talk, console, and use lame phrases to offer comfort. Nothing is going to bring their loved one back, and we—the grieving—are very well aware of this fact. One of my friends, who is not very good at showing emotions, would invite me to places. This was her way of saying: ‘I love you, and I am here.’ And of course, the pain still followed me to those places, but her presence made the pain bearable. It made me feel less alone.
Even as life demands your attention, try not to forget about your grieving friends and family. Invite them over, send a letter, deliver a gift that might bring even a momentary respite to their heartache. They have lost someone dear to them, be as patient and as gentle as you can.
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