Friday, September 10, 2010

Four truths about grief

My Briefing column today is here and here:

Four truths I've learned about what happens when we grieve

I am not a grief expert, but I am an expert on how my family of three has handled grief. A year ago Tuesday, my husband and the father of our two children died after fighting brain cancer for 20 long but not-long-enough months.

Our grief didn't begin the moment Steve took his last breath. It actually started when we first learned of the mass in his brain stem.

During Steve's cancer journey, we were constantly adjusting to what we had to do to attack the tumor (chemotherapy, radiation, blood checks, transfusions, supplements) and what we couldn't do because of the tumor (for Steve that meant driving, lifting more than a few pounds, shopping on his own, running and eventually even walking and talking above a whisper).

With all that adjusting came grief – over what was lost and what we feared we would lose.

The biggest wave hit the morning of Sept. 7, and waves continue to wash over us, sometimes with a merciful pause in between and sometimes in such succession that you're not sure if you'll catch your breath.

Cooper, Katie and I made use of counseling to help us cope. I visited a counselor by myself. I briefly met with a support group. Cooper met with his guidance counselor two to three days a week for the duration of the school year. Steve's hospice agency provided two counselors who worked at our home periodically until this summer. Cooper attended a bereavement camp for children.

With all that help, a whole lot of reading and daily experiences, I've compiled some truths about our grief.

Nothing is out of normal. Valerie, one of the hospice agency's counselors, told me that I might wonder, "Is this feeling or reaction normal?" The answer would always be "Yes."

That gave me permission to cry at unexpected times, to be angry without specific reason, to ignore what wasn't absolutely essential for survival, to focus on something that really didn't matter but made me feel better.

I don't worry when 5-year-old Katie talks about Steve as if he's sitting next to us. I don't worry that 9-year-old Cooper would almost always rather read a book than talk about his beloved Daddy.

My reactions and theirs are our normal.

Don't grade yourself. I don't get an A for getting through a day without crying (a rare occurrence) or an F for sobbing for 30 minutes after watching an episode of The_Office or hearing a Taylor Swift song with the lyrics "you'll never have to be alone." (Please don't judge me.) I don't need the added pressure of evaluating my days as "good" or "bad."

I'm proud of myself for getting out of bed every single day since Sept. 7. For having clean laundry and home-cooked meals. For finding joy even on the hardest days.

Emotions are going to get out some way. I've learned with whom I can share and how much they can handle. If there's no one to talk to, I write – sometimes for others to read and sometimes just for me.

Katie expresses her grief all day, every day. She hugs the air above her in an effort to "touch" Daddy. When I ask, "Who loves you, Katie?" she points at me and then above her – words aren't necessary.

If she looks blue, I ask why. Her usual answer: "I'm always sad about Daddy. And I'm always happy that we're alive."

Cooper holds on to his daily grief and lets it out not in dribbles but bursts. They come less frequently and with less intensity these days. When he does speak or write about Steve, it's with the soul of a poet. He expresses his fear of death and war and sincere hope for nothing more than life and peace.

There is no timeline. A year of grief sounds tidy and organized – perfect for someone like me. But there's nothing orderly about grief, and it follows no schedule.

As Cooper and Katie mature, they'll hit new milestones and understand our enormous loss in different ways. Their questions and recollections will change. They'll probably require more counseling.

I expect that waves of grief will wash over me for the rest of my life – with varying degrees of intensity – though I don't fear drowning.

My constantly honed expertise in our grief has strengthened my faith in our ability to survive.

Tyra Damm is a Briefing columnist. E-mail her at

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