Content Warning: This blogpost mentions topics that may be sensitive to some readers. [Death and dying]
Tiffany Bradford-Oldham and I have co-authored this blog as we wanted to take a moment to discuss grief. Grief is a reality that will touch all our lives at some point. We grieve many ways and for many reasons. Still let us be clear. There is NO right or wrong way to feel when you suffer a loss. What there is...are good and bad ways address those feelings.
Grieving Loss - Tiffany's Experience with Grief
These past few weeks grief has been on my mind and the minds of those around me more than usual. There has been much loss in the recent few months. It has been especially looming in the back of my mind when I think about the recent events that have happened in my home city, of Louisville, KY as yet again I find myself connected to the event in an unexpected way (that was my home banking location for many years).
My father died the year I was to turn 12, the week of Valentine’s Day in 1992. My mother died the week of Thanksgiving 2005 on that Monday. It is why I largely ignore both of those holidays, focusing more on Black Friday shopping or Black History Month, respectively. The loss of my parents around those holidays has put a cloud of sadness over both, that will never truly be over for my family as long as those of us who remember them both are alive. Now I won't go into details about the road up to their deaths that doesn’t matter.
Nevertheless, I will say my father who had been ill the last few years of his life died suddenly (stroke) and my mother who had been relatively healthy most of her life died slowly over the course of a year (colon cancer). I cannot say that either experience is easier than the other short and quick or long and drawn out. What I will say is that both reshaped who I was in ways that are both known and unknown to me. I can’t say who, what or even where I would be if they were still both with me on this earthly plane. As I used that grief from their deaths to springboard myself into new places, to try new things and to accept new realities, especially when my mother died.
Anyone who knows me well has heard me mention my parents are dead and that I maintain a strong gallows humor. I don’t have an issue with talking about death, saying my parents are dead, talking about the time leading up to their death, talking about the many times I have almost lost my own life, burying my parents (the story of my mother’s funeral is actually rather funny) or my thoughts on my own eventual funeral services (I have be given last rites before a surgery and my entire funeral plan is mapped out- though my plot I will be gifting to my daughter; I have another option now).
However, when I do speak of the untimely demise of my parents or death, it is often detached and in abstraction. At this stage in my life, I have been a rock for my friends who have joined me in the dead or dying parent “club” as their parents have now entered their twilight years, I have lost several dear friends over the years which we commiserate over, or they know I am happy to discuss their own brushes with death.
What I DO NOT talk about is grief, and I will admit that is intentional. I will admit to you readers that death does not bother me, and I know it comes for all of us...eventually (no matter what Ray Kurzweil is trying or thinking). What does bother me is remembering loss. You want me to cry about death remind me of the feelings you experience when someone you love dies, the memories you won’t be able to create or the loss of the support that diminishes when someone you love dies.
However, this year grief has been at the top of my thoughts as I have had to help others whom I am close to navigate those feelings which always requires me to acknowledge my own. When my father died, I will admit it was easier. I recall crying at my brother’s apartment, which was an old Victorian house they had divided up into apartments as I waited to hear if my dad would recover from the stroke or not. I remember praying that he would pull through no matter what condition he would ultimately be in; yet knowing at the same time this was probably it. My time as an afterschool caregiver was over. Also, at the same time, I remember my brother had yet again, borrowed my bike and I was annoyed. I mention the bike because grief is a strange thing and what you feel is ultimately what you feel. Furthermore, I knew I was not alone. I had my mother and knew that we would be there for each other.
Still, I was a kid. It was hard to grasp how my mother was feeling, just as it was equally hard for her to understand how I was feeling. As she was grieving the loss of a partner and I was grieving the loss of a protector. Additionally, as the old Southern saying goes, misery comes in threes. We had in that same year span lost my great grandmother, the matriarch of the family (a few days before the 4th of July) and my step-grandfather (shortly after in the fall of that year, though to me he was just a grandfather- my biological grandfather, my mother’s father, died years later when I was 19- another grief in threes period.) If I am honest, we were waiting for someone to fall ill or die before we hit July in 1992, though I did not think it would be my father.
My mother and I butted heads often those months after, as we tried to work through our grief. When she quickly began to get rid of my father’s collection of fedoras, ties, smoking jackets and suits; I would undermine her and take them out of donation bags. When she began to engage with her friends or accept invitations, I would give her the stank eye and remind her “WE” are grieving and that is inappropriate. We moved from my old neighborhood closer to my grandmother and my mother began to work more. I took to wearing Black clothing and I visited my father’s gravesite often. I got angrier, less religious. My mother gave me space, became more religious and got me anger management appointments I didn’t appreciate. Yet, we had each other.
We had to learn how to be “just us” and what that new normal looked like without my father. I will admit I had childhood resilience on my side. Grieving when you are a child is different than as an adult. There were moments when I missed my father acutely. Father-daughter dances at my school, I skipped. I excused myself from Father's Day activities with my Girl Scout troop and most folks largely never brought up my father around me or they would whisper around me when the subject of “dads” would come up. I eventually would confront my father’s death when I was 14 as part of the personal essay assignment we were asked to write in an English class. Apparently, me and a cheerleading teammate (Stephanie) both decided to write our essays on what we learned from our dead father’s, which oddly enough we had loss around the same time as well. Though largely by then his loss in my life was not as painful.
Losing my mother, was a different story entirely.
If my father was my partner in crime, my buddy, and my giver of sage advice. My mother however, I would find had become part of my soul, my shelter from storms and the keeper of the softer parts of myself that I rarely showed. Losing her at 25 was devastating. I remember feeling like I was doing the greatest betrayal by praying she would die (she would a few hours later). It felt wrong saying that prayer knowing how much none of us wanted her to go but understanding the truth of her not being able to stay. Knowing that as a person of faith I believed she would be able to be with my father whose death bed promises was probably the only reason we had had her as long as we did.
It was her death was the catalyst for many things in my life. I cut my hair off, ALL OF IT. I made a death bed promise I would move west to California (I had stayed home to take care of her...and she had opted to stop fighting cancer so I would move on), I got serious about starting my own family and it was the first time I took therapy seriously.
I opted to use my grief as a push to live, but there is no right or wrong way to feel but allowing it to paralyze you is when it can become a problem.
This year, grief has come for me. My father-in-law was diagnosed with colon cancer (though for now he seems to be doing ok). On March 26, my best friend since kindergarten lost her father. Now I will admit he was a complicated man, and I was not (nor was my parents when they were alive, especially my father) his largest fan. Nevertheless, he was equally a presence in the 38 years I've known my best friend. So, I have spent these last few days helping her grieve what could have been and what should have been as well as who he was to her. Then we have the mass shooting back home (actually there was 4 shootings in Louisville that day) at the bank I frequented every week that has put a cloud of mourning over the city as they gear up for the Derby celebrations.
I hope this is my triad of misery for the year, but I know eventually I will get the call that some I care for will die (more than likely one of my aunts or my grandmother given their age). Nevertheless, here is what I have learned:
- Laugh, even when it the grief is crushing...find the joy in your memories of them.
- Death can be freeing, while in the moment you may feel guilty about it, but it can be the reason to take a new direction in life.
- There is no wrong way to feel about someone’s death but be mindful of how you let that death influence your actions.
- Time does take the sting off, but you will never truly get over the loss of someone dear and that’s ok.
- Finally, its ok even years removed to still cry as if it’s fresh.
Now while death of a loved one is often why or what we think about when we grieve. We do grieve other things...
Grieving a Former Self - Julie's Grief Experience
Before the pandemic hit, I was finishing my senior year of undergraduate studies. I felt like I had really come into my own. I had a fulfilling job, internship, school was wrapping up, and I had great friends and a busy social life. I loved being the life of the party, a true extrovert in my prime. Life was good, and I felt like I was on top of the world.
But then, on a seemingly regular day in March, 2020 the pandemic hit the U.S. Life as I knew it came to a screeching halt. Suddenly, I found myself stuck at home, isolated from the world. I was scared, uncertain, and overwhelmed. I escaped into Animal Crossing for FAR too many hours. The life I had known was gone, and I was left mourning a former self.
At first, I tried to stay positive. This would be my chance to slow down, focus on myself, and to take stock of my life. I started baking, exercising, and reading more. I tried to stay connected with friends through Zoom. But as the days turned into weeks, my graduation got cancelled, all the news I consumed seemed to be getting worse and worse, the reality of the pandemic started to sink in – as I sunk further into my couch.
I missed my old life. I still do to an extent. I missed the freedom to go where I wanted, when I wanted. I missed the excitement of planning trips and hanging out with all of my friends. I missed the energy of being around people, going to concerts, and going out to dance or do yoga. I missed my old self, the one who was carefree and surrounded by my people.
As the pandemic dragged on, I moved across the country. I found myself sinking into a deep depression. I felt like I had lost a part of myself, and I didn’t know how to get it back. I left the place I called home for 24 years, in the middle of a pandemic, and felt more isolated than ever.
It wasn’t until I started noticing the effects of my grief that I realized I needed to make a change. I was angry! But, I couldn’t keep living like this – a shell of who I used to be, stuck in mourning my past self – a person who could no longer exist in the same way. I needed to find a way to adapt to the new reality and to start living again.
I started small. I went for walks around my neighborhood, even when I didn’t feel like it. I started doing yoga again – you don’t actually need to go to a studio to practice! I called my friends and family more often, started trying new things and focusing on finding joy in the simple pleasures of life. It wasn’t easy, but slowly I started to feel like I was coming into a new normal. This new version of me.
As I started to rebuild, I realized I didn’t have to go back to my former self. The pandemic, graduating college, and moving had changed me – and given me the opportunity to grow and to learn. I started to embrace the changes.
I still miss my former self. But I also know that I have grown in ways that I never would have before. I am grateful for the lessons I have learned, the people who are now a part of my life, and all the experiences that brought me to where I am today. In the end, the pandemic forced me to confront the person I used to be and to grieve for that former self. As a result, I became someone new, someone stronger and more resilient. How did the pandemic change your life? Have you been able to grieve those changes?
TIROC Blog Series
This blog is part of a series that focuses on being Trauma-Informed and Resilience-Oriented as part of the Library's efforts to embrace the TIROC principles in our interactions with you and with ourselves.