Each time I read another story of a loved one passing because of COVID 19, my heart breaks. Especially when they mention they didn’t get to say goodbye, or they are alone and there will be no funeral. Even more distressing are the statements from heartbroken parents who say they don’t know how to grieve. I want to reach out, wrap my arms around them and reassure them. I want to let them know that no one knows how to grieve…even if it isn’t your first time.
When my daughter Cari, was taken from me violently and without warning, I was trying to find something positive in this senseless tragedy. I called the hospital to see if I could donate some of her organs so that others might live or be well again. The nurse who took the call told me that her body was so badly mutilated they couldn’t salvage anything. Of course, I didn’t know that as I was not there when Cari died. Suddenly, it became imperative for me to see her.
I spoke with the funeral director, and, with tears in his eyes, he said he didn’t think they could make her presentable. I was with my best friend Sahmme, and we devised a plan we thought could work to allow me just a glimpse. I begged the funeral home to do what they could. We agreed that if they could make her look decent, they would leave the casket open for viewing. If they couldn’t, they agreed to keep the lid open, but put a gauzy scarf covering the opening.
I told Sahmme that she should go first, and if she saw the scarf, to somehow let me know before I went in. When we were getting ready to enter the room, something told me that the funeral home had done what they could so that I could see Cari. I shoved Sahmme aside so I could see my daughter. She wasn’t Cari, but she was good enough for me to feel somewhat comforted and to kiss her goodbye. The funeral director later told me that Cari reminded him so much of his own daughter that he worked on her all night so that I could see her.
After her death, I wrote a book called, "Giving Sorrow Words: How to Cope with Grief and Get on with Your Life". I wrote it because I was tired of hearing people say to me after 5 years that I should be over my grief. It has been 40 years, and I am not.
Here is something I shared: “The truth is, grief is messy. One phase overlaps the other, emotions we thought were gone for good can reappear for no apparent reason. Some people are overwhelmed by emotions others barely notice. Yet, although the concept of grieving in phases is not an accurate one, it does provide a way to think about the process. In my view, the simplest division is the best: “the beginning, the middle, and the rest of your life.”
Over the years, I have met with thousands of grieving mothers, wives, husbands, children, brothers, sisters, friends, and partners. I would like to share some of the things I have learned along the way that may be helpful to those facing one of the most (if not the most) devastating tragedies in life:
- Share your pain. Other than speaking with friends, there are many social media outlets that have been established just for mourners. They encompass all kinds of death and act as a virtual support system. Their members are usually very understanding and supportive, and can refer you to resources that could be helpful.
- Gather stories. Reach out to friends and family who knew your loved one, and ask them to share any special memories. I still love hearing stories about Cari 40 years after her death.
- Acknowledge and express your feelings. Did your loved one’s death make you feel angry, guilty or just horribly depressed? Maybe they didn’t get treated properly at the hospital, and you believe they should have been tested sooner. Maybe you feel guilty because you didn’t believe they were really sick. In my opinion, there is nothing wrong with crying your eyes out and/or screaming if it makes you feel better (I would suggest doing it in the privacy of your home where no one can hear you), and just blowing off a little steam. Even pounding a pillow can be very cathartic; just do your best to not take your feelings out on your loved ones.
- Write it down. One of my favorites is writing down your experiences and feelings in a journal, or perhaps in a blog for others to read. You can also write a letter to your loved one who has died. My girlfriend Pepper, wrote a beautiful little book about her son, David, after he passed away. It was full of touching stories, photos and quotes from his family and friends.
- Allow yourself to “experience” your loved one. According to one study in the United States, 27 percent of the people surveyed reported an “after death experience “of their loved one. I have personally heard many of these stories. And, while I am not religious, I experienced Cari the night of her death, and my family had their own experiences with her as well. Whether you are spiritual or not, these experiences can reassure you that your loved one is safe.
Start a tradition that honors or acknowledges your loved one’s life. Every May 3rd, if I am near an ocean, I take a dozen pink roses and throw them in the water. I actually love that they come back and wash away again. It reminds me of the cycle of life. This year I couldn’t travel to an ocean so I put my mask on, bought some roses, and stood on the bridge overlooking the stream across the street from where I live. While thinking of Cari, I dropped the roses from the bridge. They looked absolutely beautiful, floating merrily down the stream, past the sunbathing ducks, dodging broken trees and continuing on their journey to parts unknown. Perhaps reading a poem, or lighting a candle can be your new tradition. Even setting a place at mealtime with an empty chair might be helpful.
- Self-Care. I can’t overstate the importance of doing everything possible to stay healthy. Pamper yourself when you feel up to it, and don’t feel guilty - you deserve it.
- Church or Temple can help. Although you may not be able to participate in services at the present time, speaking with your priest or Rabbi is still an option, even if it is via Zoom. Your organization may have grief support meetings that are also conducted through the Internet. Although it might be too soon now, there might come a time when you are ready for the support of strangers.
- Get professional help if necessary. Not everyone needs a therapist but if you do, I know how critical finding a good psychotherapist can be. I recommend this Amazon International bestselling book that can help, At a Crossroads: Finding the Right Psychotherapist (Even If You Already Have One)." It was written by a top San Francisco Psychoanalyst, Dr. Linda Tucker, and will give you the guidance you need to find a caring psychotherapist.
There are many other ways to grieve, like starting a foundation, or donating to a cause in the memory of your loved one. I know some very talented people who made quilts that included pictures of those they have lost. Another friend made angel wing art for a Healing Garden. I planted a tree at Cari’s cemetery with a beautiful plaque bearing her name.
When Cari was killed, I dealt with my grief by launching MADD. I was focused on the terrible injustice surrounding her death and that of so many others. While I was probably dealing more with my anger than with grief, becoming an advocate gave me a way to keep myself moving forward through unimaginable loss.
“Death takes away. That is all there is to it. But grief gives it back. By experiencing it, we are not simply eroded by pain. Rather, we become larger human beings: more compassionate, more aware, more able to help others, more able to help ourselves.” Grief allows me to say goodbye a million different ways but it also allows me to say, “hello” by celebrating and honoring her life.