On the other hand, grief and loss, like unconditional love, is an enigma. We can feel it at certain points in our lives, but it is often too complex to be understood or explained in technical and clinical terms. As human beings we share the emotion, the feelings that come when we know we are giving and receiving love, but in grief we are often lost for words, especially if that grief is the outcome of the reality that the dead can never ever be replaced by anyone or anything material.
My personal experience of grief had been varied – from the loss of a pet in my childhood, of old relatives and some distant acquaintances, also of lost crushes and young loves and the loss of lifestyle in my birth country and of the presence of family members and friends after my migration to Australia. The grief experience then, though challenging, was very much tolerable and over a period of time was even almost forgotten.
However, April 3, 1996, is the date I wished could be totally wiped off the calendar and from my conscious memory. It was the date that our much wanted and only child, Mary Jo, died. People are touched by grief in so many ways but my first-hand experience of losing our child is a kind of grieving pain so intense, I could not wish it to happen to even my worst enemy.
Mourning is a natural reaction to the loss of a loved one. Most people, no matter how intelligent, and regardless of status in life, are never prepared emotionally to just let go and continue living after the death of a loved one. After our daughter died, our world was totally upside down, a living nightmare, as if my whole being was gripped with emotional paralysis. Everything had lost its meaning.
Dr Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, in her book, Death, the Final Stage of Growth, mentioned the five stages people go through – namely denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. In my case, these stages did not come in a linear fashion. Feedback suggests that most grievers can identify with all of the stages, but others can get stuck and never accept the finality of death.
Often, just when the last stage of acceptance seems apparent, grievers can be back to stage one again, literally feeling the loss and desolation as though the death had just happened, even after many years of attempts to recover. Special events like birthdays, anniversaries or even simple tasks like arranging one’s closet and finding an item, like toys of a deceased child, can trigger an emotional upheaval.
Our daughter, Mary Jo, was everything we had hoped for to make our life complete – so we thought then. When I got pregnant at the age of 39, I was advised to have an amniocenteses test to ensure the baby was normal. I did not consent, as I knew too well that, whether the baby was normal or with abnormalities, I would never consent to an abortion. This was not only because of my Catholic faith but also because, even before she was born, I already experienced the kind of love most parents must have known – a love for the unseen newborn which is so deep, so different from any other kind of love we have ever experienced before.
What do we do, then, in handling grief? There are many professional advisors now on how to cope with grief and research shows that supportive family, friends, and counsellors can help a lot in our recovery. Personally, grief has taken its toll on me physically, emotionally and spiritually. During the first few months after our daughter’s death, I was crossing the street unmindful of whether the lights were green or red. I only wanted to be with her. It is almost a miracle that no cars or buses hit me.
I can fill pages and pages of my grief experience, but now I know the recovery stage is possible. For anyone who is still grieving it needs a lot of understanding from loved ones to realise that no-one can rationalise or offer a fixed formula to drive away grief. It is important to ensure that the grieving person does commit to self-care, proper nutrition, sleep, even personal hygiene, and seek professional help if possible.
I remember my husband, family and friends cooking dinner, fixing the house, spending hours talking and crying with me. Returning to faith can be challenging but this can be a tremendous support to some people. More than anything, the realisation that death is not the end to loving can be a life-giving support. We can continue to love our departed dead without their presence.
We also love the living ones all the more, including our own selves, and it makes us realise life is so short. It could not contain all the love we are capable of giving. We have to make every action and feeling matter. This can elevate our existence in a way no other life experience can do. In my case, I had taken up post-graduate study in counselling and am now a certified life coach, an aspiring author and have come to terms with the reality that dealing with my own grief can make me empathise and help others too.