Anticipating Grief

In any good life filled with love there is an implied but usually not discussed acceptance of grief.

We grieve because we love.

No love, no grief.

The longer and deeper the love the more challenging the grief.

When we love someone, we implicitly accept that one of us will die before the other.

Grief is the final responsibility of loving someone.

When someone dies, the love doesn’t die.

We are meant to incorporate the lessons and memories of that love into our lives.

Grief is often seen as beginning, some number of stages we must suffer and pass through and a conclusion.

I see grief as a continuum of love, an ongoing expression and celebration of the love that we shared, and an ongoing proof and reminder that the only thing that survives our death is the love we build and share in life.

Grief teaches us the true value of life and love.

We have no education or preparation for grief when we first experience it, so we see and feel the pain and run from the love we shared. We often leave the love behind and feel hollow.

If you are anticipating grief, you still have time with a loved one. This time is about them and the last days, weeks or months of your shared love, not about the pain it will cause you after they die. This time is where you can come to understand how they would want you to grieve the loss of them. 

The death of our 20 year old son James in 2005 in a firefighter training accident and my lifetime path to healing has shaped my view of grief, of life and of love. When he first chose firefighting as a part time passion, I had a frank discussion with him about the risks of a line of duty death. Two years later, when he died, I knew how he wanted me to grieve the loss of him. That didn’t lessen the pain, but the path away from the pain was much better defined for me.  

I feel my love for our son every day not as pain, but as a deep and meaningful reminder of the great love we shared and the urgency to live and love while we are still living.

Cancer is a horrible war that families battle together. The point of a diagnosis of terminal and the point of entry into palliative care defines the timeline ferociously.  My father-in-law had less than two weeks in palliative care, but with his pain managed and a crushing timeline, he lived more in those two weeks of saying goodbyes and last visits than he had in the years of battling cancer before that.

My father battled heart failure. One day his doctor told him nothing more could be done. The surgery he needed would kill him. He had months, perhaps a year, or days, there was no concrete answer. He lived far away, and we had a family vacation planned.  I was ready to cancel to visit him, so I spoke to him  honestly and he did not want me to cancel the vacation, he assured me he felt like we had lots of time.

I decided that there were things I needed said, so I wrote what I call a Living Eulogy. Why waste kind thoughts about someone by waiting until after they die? I found a time I knew he would be alone, and phoned him to read my eulogy for him to him. We cried, we laughed, and in the half hour we talked a lot about his life as a father, and a bit about his impending death. It was cathartic, a wonderful sharing of mutual love.

A few days into our vacation, I got the call that my father had died at home after cleaning up from breakfast, quietly and peacefully napping on his own bed. It was exactly how he had wanted to die, and I had no regrets about not having seen him recently, because that is exactly how he wanted me to grieve this loss,

In life, we are all dying, we just don’t know when. If we know when, we have a window of opportunity to prepare. We can dread that, it’s natural to want to avoid it, or we can engage and involve the main character of our coming grief in what will be the last opportunity to express and share our love for each other. The gift of that time  should not be squandered, it should be used well and thoughtfully.

Love like one of you will die tomorrow, love like you will live another hundred years, but most of all love while you both can.

Be well and peaceful, may the passing you anticipate come to you with you as ready as possible for the inevitable end of a life that you have loved.

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