This week it will have been five years since my sister died. I can hardly believe it.
Like every year around this time, this week on the calendar draws me back to that season of grief in my life. Five years ago was not only when I lost one of the people I loved most in the whole world, but also when I began my life as a grieving person – a life that I didn’t want, and wasn’t ready for.
I was scared of grief, I now realize. I was scared because I didn’t know if I could survive it. I was scared because I didn’t know how to do it. I had taken courses on grieving and walked with many people through loss, so I admit I felt like I had a leg up on things. In those first few weeks I remember working to tick all the boxes that would make me a “good grieving person.”
Read all the books about grief and loss I can find? Check.
Go to see a counselor? Check.
Join a grief support group? On it.
But when I read the books, my grief was so raw that I could barely process them. When I went to the free counselling session provided through work, it was, seriously, awful. And when I searched for a grief support group online, they were all winding down for the summer.
I remember beginning to feel panicky: If these things weren’t going to work, what would?
Five years later, I look back and see grieving Leanne, lost and broken, unable to share her deepest feelings, discovering everything she “knew” about grief was more complicated and tricky than she thought. I think about what she didn’t understand, and what I would tell her now, five years later.
“Grief is a Roller Coaster”
When I pictured grieving after a big loss, I assumed grief progressed like walking up a hill. It would start in a big valley, a pit even, and the task was to slowly get out of this valley, with things improving bit by bit over time. But grief isn’t like a hill where every day gets better. Grief is a roller coaster.
The roller coaster is a cycle of really bad, awful, can’t-get-out-of-bed days interspersed with “I-feel-normal-and-actually-kind-of-okay-today” days. I didn’t expect the latter, and they made me feel guilty. I remember about a week after my sister died saying to my husband: “Could it be possible that I’m over this already?” I was having a day where I felt kind of normal, and I figured maybe the whole thing was over. I shake my head when I think about it now. I didn’t understand that I was riding a roller coaster, and there were some really big dips to come. Looking back, I would tell Leanne that she was being taken on a ride, even though she wouldn’t have liked that.
But I would also tell her she was strapped in – strapped in by God, people who loved her, and resurrection hope, and she wasn’t going to fall out, no matter how big the dips got.
Which brings me to my next point…
“The worst time is two-four months after”
Yes, the time after a death is impossibly hard – especially a sudden, unexpected death. But there is also something that happens a couple months later – a deep drop in the roller coaster. It’s when the rest of the world has moved on, when people often forget you’re grieving, but you are still walking around with the weight of your loss crippling your shoulders every day and wondering “Don’t people care anymore?”
That’s why, if you know someone grieving, acknowledging their grieve a couple months later is a huge gift. For many that is when they are right back in the pit. And if you are grieving yourself, and finding these things to be true, first of all, know that you’re not crazy, regressing or doing something wrong. This is normal. Secondly, look for support in this time. This is when you take the people up on the “if you ever need to talk” offers. It’s a good time to get a counselor (yes, I tried a second time, and it was a gift from God). You may not have been ready sooner, when your grief was fresh, but now you may be, and your good friends are still ready to listen. And remember…
“It WILL get better”
There were days I thought “I can’t live with this grief. I will never get over this.” I would say to people “Does it get better?” and they would wisely say “It gets different….” This is true. You always carry grief. But five years later is not like it was five years ago, or even four years ago, or three years ago. It is not as unbearable. This does not mean that I’m “over it.” (Do we ever “get over it?”). It means that what my grief counselor told me was true: I DID find a way to live a new life where grief wasn’t at the centre. She also told me:
“You won’t forget”
Oh, how much I needed to be assured of that! You know what I worried about? That I would forget the sound of Roxanne’s voice. I would sometimes watch videos, not to reminisce but to assuage that fear that I would forget what her voice sounded like. What newly grieving Leanne didn’t understand was that you simply can’t forget. Your loved one is such a part of you, and who you are, that they will not be forgotten. Five years later, I can hear Roxanne’s voice in my head as clearly as if I talked to her yesterday. If you have feared you will forget the one you lost, be at peace. Your loved one is a part of you that can’t be lost.
So…what is loss like, five years later?
Five years later, my grief hasn’t disappeared, but neither have my memories.
Five years later, I accept that I haven’t “gotten over” my loss, but I’ve gotten to the other side.
Five years later, I can see that I didn’t fall out of the roller coaster.
Five years later, it still sucks…but it sucks less.
Five years later, this picture still brings tears to my eyes.
And it makes me smile.
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