Grief is an inevitably. Loss is a natural part of life. No matter how religious, spiritual or prepared we may seem, when someone we love dies, grief can slice at the core of us like an enemy’s dagger. It is sudden, sinister and somehow unexpected, even though death is one of life’s only certainties.
While I had suffered some loss of extended family growing up, my first intimate experience with death was when I was 28 years old. My 38 year old brother passed away unexpectedly after a day-long bout with an illness none of us knew he had. I remember standing in the hospital when we lost him and feeling somehow catapulted out of the functioning world. Everything around me was still spinning, but I was standing painfully still. I, like so many suffering from grief, had the audacity to wonder how death could have happened to him… to us. As if my knowing him and loving him somehow made him immune. At the time, my eldest, and then only son was two years old. He and my husband had stayed behind when I traveled to New York for what I thought was a quick trip to check in on my brother. The next morning, my brother was gone. As I lay in the crook of my arm, my face wet with hours worth of tears, I waited for my young family to arrive at my childhood home in Queens. Every thing about our happy life seemed so far away, and I wasn’t sure I was strong enough to parent my son without crumbling from the weight of my new reality. For me, motherhood was strong, hopeful and fearless. I felt weak, hopeless and afraid.
In the months following my brother’s passing, I tried my best to be everything I thought I should be – pushing aside my fear and any perceived weakness. I was the dutiful daughter, tending to my mother’s and father’s needs; a supportive sister, helping my other brother as we took the lead on arrangements and other matters; and doting mother and wife, trying my best to remain strong, present and hands on. In truth, I was caring for everyone but myself. It wasn’t until over a year later that I took the time to confront my own neglect with the help of a therapist that I realized how carelessly I had treated myself. I had months worth of pain bottled up inside me and it manifested itself in ways that were affecting my physical and emotional health. The pain of grief is arguably one of the deepest pains of the human experience. It can’t be stuffed away. No matter how hard you try. Here are a few things I learned are essential when confronting grief:
1. Let other people help you.
After my brother passed, my mother’s house had a revolving door of visitors. I categorized them in three ways: 1) the spectators, those who just came to stare and watch as we grieved, 2) gift bearers, those who dropped off food, hugs and gift baskets and 3) the doers – those who were ready to help. While everyone has their role, these doers are wingless, walking angels. The thing about these angels is that they don’t always come in the form you expect. There were friends and family I had expected to be there for me who just didn’t know how. However, there were people that emerged in my life who were there for me in such profound ways that I get emotional even thinking about them. Like my aunt, who was constantly cleaning and washing dishes at my mother’s house when I didn’t have the strength or my mother’s best friend who checked in on me when I so desperately needed a parent and my co-worker, who I now consider a dear friend, who would sit with me at lunch for hours each week as I shared memories of my brother in the months following his passing.
As a self-sufficient person, it has always been difficult for me to ask for or accept help. However, when you’re grieving, you have to have respect for the fact that you need help. No one can do it all. Let someone else make calls for you. Let someone else cook for you. Accept the offer from someone you trust to watch your children. Allow yourself time to feel the loss without busying yourself with all that you think you need to do. If you can’t do it for yourself, think of it as a way to honor the person you lost.
2. Be mindful of your emotional health.
Packing my feelings away after my brother passed generally made me feel numb. However, there is one emotion I felt unmistakably and that was anger. I was so angry. I was angry at the doctors and nurses for not saving my brother. I was angry at the funeral director for existing. I was angry at some friends and family for not saying the right things. I was angry at myself for not realizing he was so sick and saving him. Anger for me was the easiest emotion to feel. Luckily for those around me, I wasn’t lashing out. However, I was spending a great deal of time seething and stewing. I was bubbling up and ready to boil over. I was lashing inward which can sometimes be just as bad.
The best thing I did for myself during that time is seek professional help. Even before I made my first appointment with a therapist, I purchased books on grief and read essays online about other people coping with sibling loss. While I ultimately made the personal choice to seek professional help, I know it is not an easy thing to sit down with a stranger and unload. I know it’s particularly hard when you are a private and/or prideful person. What I have learned is most professional therapists are trained listeners. They have been taught to ask the right questions so you can formulate the right answers. It isn’t so much that they know more about you than you, they are helping you learn more about you. Seeking help was one of the best things I did for myself.
3. Eat, sleep, breath and see a doctor.
Just as grief can be emotionally harmful, it can be physically harmful. I am a migraine sufferer. In the weeks following my brother’s passing, I had a migraine every single day. This was complicated by the fact that two weeks after he passed away, I found out I was pregnant with my second son. I was constantly functioning on ‘E’, barely sleeping, barely eating. I was worried about burdening my amazing husband. I was worried about my mother, father and brother; and I was worried about how everyone’s grief was affecting my nephew and sons. Something in my body was always aching, and I was constantly exhausted. I realize now I was feeling the physical effects of grief. My unborn son saved me in many ways because I was forced to see the doctor for prenatal care. However, our physical health is one of the things we neglect the most when grieving.
Broken Heart Syndrome is very real. According to the American Heart Association, stressful events like grief can trigger cardiomyopathy leading to severe chest pain. It is important to eat, sleep and breath when grieving. For my mother, who naturally took the loss of my brother the hardest, we were constantly reminding her of what she had to live for: my brother and I, her grandchildren, her sisters and countless nieces and nephews that would be devastated if we lost her. Journaling helped me a great deal during the grief process. Not only was I able to work through my feelings, I was also able to remind myself of all the things I had to be grateful for including my own life and the lives of the people I loved who were still with me. It is so easy to get lost in the darkness of grief. Everything good can get sucked into its core and it can feel like nothing positive remains. It is important to remind yourself of all you have to live for and make your physical health a priority.
4. Be vulnerable… even with your kids.
While I don’t recommend crying into the lap of your two year old, if age appropriate, it is important to be vulnerable with your children. This spring, my father in law passed away unexpectedly. My children, 5 and 8 at the time, were old enough to be aware of the complex emotions of the adults around them and they had questions. Although my husband and I believe in God, we are not particularly religious. We didn’t have definitive answers for my children when they asked where Grandpa went or whether he was with Uncle Tommy. We are generally honest with them about our own existential questions and our own uncertainty. What we could convey was the emotional burden of loss. They knew their Grandma, Daddy and Aunt were very sad, and they watched them shed tears as an expression of that pain.
Had I not experienced losing my brother, my first instinct probably would have been to shield them from the pain. However, it was important to me that they recognized that it was okay to grieve. I wanted them to know that our worlds had stopped momentarily and that was natural. What would have been unnatural would be to pretend everything was okay. I also wanted them to have a lesson in empathy. Had they been the only ones outwardly expressing pain, maybe they would have thought they were the only ones feeling it. When you see other people in pain, it makes your world bigger. Although my children shed their own tears, I couldn’t have been prouder of my eldest when he chose to embrace his aunt and grandmother after the funeral after witnessing them in a moment of deep pain. He realized he wasn’t the only one suffering, a lesson at the center of building empathy.
What are your thoughts? I know this is a difficult subject, family, but if you have any tips of your own, please feel free to leave them in the comments.
About The Author
Faye McCray is an attorney by day and writer all the time. Her work has been featured on My Brown Baby, AfroPunk, AfroNews, For Harriet, Madame Noire, Black Girl Nerds, Black and Married with Kids, and other popular publications. Faye also has a number of short stories and a full length novel available for purchase on Amazon. Most importantly, Faye is a proud wife and mother to three beautiful and talented young boys who she is fiercely passionate about raising. You can find Faye on Twitter @fayewrites and on the web at fayemccray.com.