Working Through Grief

Sunday, November 17th, 2013
Richard on the Big Sur Coast, California Richard on the Big Sur Coast, California

You're working too much.

I was headed home after spending the morning in a contentious three-hour planning meeting for a local land management agency.

I was tired and hungry, never the best time to receive advice graciously. Even from a dear friend.

(Of course I work too much: I'm a freelance writer, a career that suits my stubbornly independent nature but doesn't offer much financial security.)

He continued, "Life's what happens now. Not after you finish work."

I could feel my inner redhead's temper rise.

No sh_t, I thought. You think I don't know that? In one single year, I managed my mother's hospice care through her death in February, and then walked with my beloved Richard through his death from brain cancer in November. If I hadn't known to appreciate my moments before 2011, I certainly do now. 

Mom, celebrating her 79th birthday with high tea at Denver's Brown Palace Hotel Mom, celebrating her 79th birthday with high tea at Denver's Brown Palace Hotel

I said as mildly as I could, "We all grieve differently. I'm working through mine the best I can."

He looked at me with surprise. "It's been two years."

I took a deep breath. It didn't help.

"Actually, it's been one year, eleven months and 14 days. We were married almost 29 years; I'd been by his side more than half my life when he died."

I took another breath. "Excuse me." I turned away.

The walk home wasn't nearly long enough to work off my mad.

Which probably explains why it took me less than an hour that afternoon to wrestle two 8-foot-tall crabapple trees from their pots, dig holes for each and plant them in my new front yard. (My neighbor Bev and her friend Jack drove all the way to Cañon City to fetch those two trees--thank you!)

And why even though I was still sore from tree-planting, I threw myself with perhaps more enthusiasm than was advisable into a session of front-yard boulder-work yesterday morning with my trail-building buddy Tony Boone.

My street-side yard with two new trees planted. My street-side yard with two new trees planted.

Hefting rocks that weigh half of what I do (which admittedly, isn't that impressive), raking cobbles out of the stony soil, wedging them into dry-laid "pavement" to hold the slope, and planting 70 or so daffodil bulbs in each tree-well was very satisfying.

Hard work is soothing and cleansing, whether wrestling trees and boulders or wrestling words. If I immerse myself in my work, it's because that's what I need right now.

Yes, I'm grieving.

No, there's nothing wrong with that.

In a span of nine months, I lost two of the people I loved most in this world. I served as primary caregiver for each of them, feeding, cleaning, changing diapers and sheets, and administering medications; I was there with each one until they left this life for whatever's next.

My front steps taking shape, aiming for the deck that isn't there yet.... My front steps taking shape, aiming for the deck that isn't there yet....

That's intense and grueling work on all levels. There's also a grace to "midwifing" that difficult and inevitable passage. It's just not something you get over quickly.

Nor should you.

Grief takes its own time. It's life's way of honoring loss and love. How can we predict how long that process will take?

How we each deal with grief is dependent all manner of unpredictable factors: gender and age, finances and daily life, physical and mental health, our ability to be present with emotions, the vagaries of any given moment in any given day....

So if someone you care for is grieving, respect that while it's not comfortable for you, that's okay. Be with the discomfort--yours and theirs.

Listen to them.

Photograph of love, couple, Carpenter Ranch, The Nature Conservancy Sunset at Carpenter Ranch on our last trip together....

Sympathize.

Don't offer advice. No matter how well-meaning, you actually don't know what they're going through. The path is different for each of us.

Don't try to cure or rush their grief.

If you think they're hurting themselves, say so directly. "I'm worried about you because of [insert specific here]. I care about you."

Don't try to fix it (unless they actually ask you to).

Offer a hand, a tissue, a shoulder to cry on, a piece of really rich dark chocolate.

Don't vanish. Stay in touch without intruding and without judgment.

And if it's me, please don't tell me I work too much.