How to cope with death and dying
Part 1: The Loss
If you’ve ever lost something, be it a person, place or thing, you know that grieving is not a Kübler-Ross checklist.
In fact, the Kübler-Ross stages of grief is a theatrical simplification of the range of emotions people feel. More recent studies on bereavement suggest that how we process and cope with loss is varied and ambiguous. Their common critique: there are no set stages or tasks we must complete so that we can be model mourners.
Despite the enormous sense of confusion that incapacitates us when we lose someone, grieving is not Herculean. It is something many of us have gone through, and will continue to go through while still being able to thrive.
My personal experiences with losing loved ones shed an anecdotal spotlight on to the messiness of grief.
Two years ago, an ex-boyfriend died in a car accident a few months after our breakup.
Our relationship, like many first loves, was tumultuous. He was my first long-term boyfriend, and the first person I met who truly lived up to the saying “larger than life”. An Irishman who had relocated to Toronto to escape the 2010 recession, I was wooed by his poetic injustices about leaving the motherland, British colonials and the drink. His non-stop witticisms delighted me. His lavish lashings about the general state of the world were fascinating.
I raced around the world to be with him – first to Ireland to meet his family for Christmas, then to South Korea where he taught English. Which is why the breakup felt like a personal failure. “If only, if only” and “what if, what if” chirped the parrot of doubt in my ear.
When his mother called to tell me that he was gone, I was still very much still embalmed in my own post-breakup grief. When I look back and try to piece together the initial moments after that phone call, it is like trying to recall the beginning of a dream.
The tone of his mother’s voice – piercing and calm at the same time. A haziness that engulfed my thoughts as I walked towards his old house. The abruptness in the text messages I sent to friends – “James is dead.”
I should have been a textbook case for ‘complicated grief’. Instead, I oscillated between being resilient and experiencing acute episodes of simple grief.
Complicated grief, or prolonged grief, is the inability of the bereaved to accept the loss of a loved one, to move on from the painful emotions, and eventually to be able to resume a functional life with new relationships. It contrasts “simple grief” where the acute emotional, physiological, and social responses that immediately follows loss – deep sadness, loss of appetite, changes in sleep patterns – eventually get better. But for those experiencing complicated grief, it never does.
This oscillation is not uncommon for the bereaved. According to Stroebe and Schut’s ‘dual process model of grief’, the bereaved often oscillates between confronting grief and avoiding it. The ability – or the necessity – to repress grief is part of Bonanno’s research on resilience in trauma and loss. In his book The Other Side of Sadness, Bonanno shows that most people can effectively process grief on their own. Unlike common representations of grief that pathologizes the bereaved, Bonanno found resilience in the most common responses to traumatic loss. Bonanno, Stroebe and Schut criticize Western society’s therapeutic obsession with “facing loss” as the source of this increased pathologization of grief and of the bereaved. Some mourners may not need or want intensive grief work. In fact, Stroebe and Schut discovered that re-focusing on everyday obligations in school, work, and family is a healthy relief from grief.
The few friends I had confided in often remarked on how well I was doing.
For me, I didn’t feel as though I had any choice but to carry on with my life. I could continue on the path of sadness and regret, but where would that lead me? If it was only towards unhappiness and suffering, then I didn’t want it.
In the months following his death, I rushed through life as I tried to rebuild my life.
I started practicing mindfulness techniques in earnest and meditated daily. I was intentional and purposeful in almost every aspect of my life. I cultivated a path of gratitude, compassion and forgiveness that led me away from the caterwauling of anxiety and depression in my head. On that path, I encountered teachers and healers in the form of old friends, new friends, and new lovers. I reached out to my ex’s family who I had hastily disconnected from after the breakup. I reached out to his friends as well, many of whom I had never met. And I reached out to some of my old friends who I had taken-for-granted while I was so aggressively self-absorbed in sadness. I went on dates. I fell in love (and then out again). I threw myself into my career like a Puritan.
Part 2: Healing
The closing line of obituaries – “the deceased is survived by so and so” – has always struck me as strange. What does “survive” actually entail? I understand how it applies to family and close friends through clichés about undying memories. But what about the others? Colleagues, acquaintances, old schoolmates and past lovers; one life, despite the actual number of days that are marked off, touches so many people. How does the deceased survive through them all?
Klass, Silverman and Nickman’s “continuing bonds” framework provides one piece of the puzzle. In their 1996 book of the same title, the authors criticize the widely held belief that there is a goal to grief work. That goal is to learn how to “detach” or “get over” your loved one. Yet some people mourn by continuing a relationship with the deceased. This enduring relationship helps them to reassess their world narratives and their sense of belonging in the world. It is not unhealthy or abnormal. It’s not an obsessive relationship where the loss or memories consume the bereaved. In the same way, we re-define and re-negotiate our understanding of ourselves and our relationships with living people, we continue these processes with the deceased.
Even though my ex James has died, my relationship has changed with him in the last year and a half, in both obvious and unexpected ways.
Not only does James survive in our individual memories, but in the relationships his family and friends have with each other. In the initial weeks of his passing, the most common question in ‘James Jeopardy’ was “Was he happy?” We took turns asking each other this, like a roundtable inquiry. The answer, perhaps, was a small, but comforting token when faced with the suddenness of his death, or the undesirable image of him, alone in a foreign hospital, so far away from his beloved family and country.
On hallmark days, like his birthday or his death anniversary, we share our favourite photos and memories with each other. And even when there’s nothing to celebrate or grieve – it is nice to be reminded of his cheeriness and clownish character when scrolling through Facebook’s newsfeed.
Rituals like these – from funerals and memorials to simple acts of thoughtful connectivity – are necessary for grief work. In the chaos and confusion that follows death, rituals are opportunities to remember the dead, and to help us heal through our connections and reflections. They are powerful tools to help us repurpose our relationships with the deceased.
I wish I had known this in the first year. I didn’t attend his funeral in Ireland, and I didn’t want to publically speak about his death. So I focused on detaching myself. I avoided bringing him up in conversation, and I adeptly navigated questions from acquaintances about the relationship with feigned nonchalance and rapid misdirection.
“Oh him? We broke up. So, I saw on Facebook that you started a new job?”
Truthfully, I was one-part doubt and two parts fear; I was scared of my emotions and vulnerability, and doubtful that I was ready to honestly deal with the pain. I chose to not talk about it because I was afraid of how people would react. I didn’t want to be seen as playing the victim card, or that I wasn’t over my ex. I didn’t want to face awkward conversations full of pitiful brows and uncomfortable silences. I built a barrier between my emotions, and I justified it by telling myself that people did not want, or deserve to hear my story. Besides, it didn’t matter because the past is the past, and that’s that.
But the nature of grief is cyclical, and life events or the smallest reminders are introspective triggers. The smell of Spring air, oddly enough, takes me back to the mild January evening when we met. For a period, I became keenly interested in underground hip hop music, something that I was always the novice to his expertise. When I attended a friend’s grandfather’s funeral last year, I sat in the middle aisle and cried uncontrollably into my sleeves; the grandfather’s funeral became a proxy for the one I hadn’t been able to attend.
In Buddhist teachings, the first step on the Eightfold path – the path to end suffering – is to acknowledge that suffering exists. When we acknowledge that suffering exists, we understand how it is interlinked with happiness, and we understand the great utility of suffering in our lives.
In the same way, we must acknowledge death and the inevitable pain to follow. We must choose to be open to what death can teach us and what we can cultivate on scorched ground. When a loved one dies, it does not automatically negate the significance of the relationship, nor does it negate the significance the relationship has in your life. When we stop disengaging from others, when we stop disavowing our relationship with others, we can begin to heal. We can learn gratitude for the things and people we do have. We can be more honest about who we are and what we want.
Our rejection, our shame, of what is essentially a significant part of life – death, loss, and pain – is what denies life itself.