When we think of death and dying, and the subsequent mourning of our loved ones, what typically comes to mind is the theory of the “5 Stages of Grief.” According to this model, we assume that, at the face of loss, we move on to experience these stages in a step-by-step, linear, chronological, and finite manner. Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and finally, Acceptance. Just the term “stages,” to me, connotes that these moods or affects exist in some designated quality of time, a phase in our lives that we move through and get over, until we reach Acceptance.
How I wish this were the case.
The truth about mourning, is that there are dosages of all 5 emotions (and more) in every moment of time. Fluctuating in different combinations in varying degrees of heartache or healing. And it is never really “over.” There is no cycle to “complete.” You don’t ever feel a singular, one-dimensional way in grief. While the general descriptions “sadness,” “exhaustion,” or “emptiness,” are often used to describe how we feel, these adjectives are merely blanket terms that somewhat embody, but do not aptly portray, the complex patchwork of emotions that really exist. A blanket that casts a shadow, be it overwhelmingly dark and blinding, or subtle yet quietly injurious, on your every day. Your every hour, minute, every second.
I volunteer for a hospice in San Diego, and upon the passing of each patient, I become more familiar with death. Not in a dark or morbid way, but in simply becoming more mindful of its existence in the context of the living. In Norwegian Wood, one of my favorite books by one of my favorite authors, Haruki Murakami writes, "Death exists, not as the opposite but as a part of life." I vaguely and incompletely understood it, at the time I first read it, but as I grew more intimate with loss and let his words extrapolate in my head, I’ve come to view life and death in coexistence. Further, I’ve come to see life as being able to transcend death. To me, what is more powerful than the unstoppable passing of time, inevitable withering of bodies, and the decaying of bones, is the impact you leave on your family, friends, community, that continues to resonate beyond your time alive. It’s the immeasurable joy and love we give each other that not even the conclusiveness of death can take away. Touch. Connection. Softness. Empathy. Compassion. Love. So when your heart feels heavy- know that it’s the weight of each memory. The tugs at your heartstrings- they serve to remind you of the density of someone’s presence, a presence that does not have to physically exist, to exist.
Sometimes the Universe can be cruel and merciless, taking the people we love away from us so prematurely. It is so harsh of Fate to dictate when someone’s time is up, while all we can do is shake our heads in disbelief and futile protest.
But even through my excruciating personal mourning, or maybe because of it, I learned to appreciate and celebrate life, life that I never considered a luxury or blessing before the confrontation of someone I loved’s being taken away.
But this is all in my head. Maybe there are 5 stages, maybe there is a way to be over and done with grief. But I’d rather have reminders of you, even if they hurt. I’d take missing you over you forgetting you, any day. I can bear this pain, because it has meaning. Rest in Paradise, all my late loved ones, and yours, and yours, and yours.