As someone who has experienced her fair share of grief and probably discusses the topic way more than the average person might, I often get asked some version of the following two questions:
How can I avoid grief? And how do I make it stop?
The answer to both questions is a resounding – you can’t.
Grief is basically the consolation prize we get for loving another being. The greater the love is the greater the pain that usually follows. And while I understand that is, in fact, no consolation at all, hear me out on this one.
I think we can all agree grief sucks. It’s one of the worst pains there is. It leaves us with a massive void at the center of our being, which can make carrying on feel like an impossible task. That emptiness acts as a black hole that seems to suck all the joy out of our lives, and we often struggle to believe that we will ever feel whole or happy again.
And while anyone who has ever experienced grief will most likely tell you that the pain does eventually subside, they might also confess that it never entirely goes away. Mainly because the love we had for whomever we are grieving never fully dies. That’s both the beauty of love and the agony of grief. The two sides of the same coin are forever entwined – love is grand, but grief is brutal.
But now for the semi-good news. Although you can’t evade grief, you can alter it to some extent.
Grief and the Art of Manipulation
My grandmother died at the age of ninety-three in her sleep, which was both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because she wasn’t sick and didn’t suffer, but a curse because I was plagued by regret. Regret that I never got to say “goodbye” nor tell her I loved her one last time. In its simplest form, regret is feeling sad or remorseful about something you did or didn’t do and ultimately wishing you could go back and change the situation or alter the results.
Grief isn’t just about losing someone we love; it’s also about losing the opportunities and experiences that a future with them would have held. We run out of time to do, say, or have something we were hoping to accomplish, articulate, or attain, which means that regret often rides shotgun with us on our grief journey.
While I’m aware that my regrets regarding my grandmother were minor in the big scheme of things, they still made my grief about losing her more painful for me. So six months later, when my father landed in the hospital, and it soon became apparent he probably wasn’t coming out, I set out to reverse engineer my grief about losing him.
I knew there was nothing I would be able to do to stop me from grieving his eventual death, but I was determined to eliminate all the regrets I could so that I wouldn’t have to contend with those suckers when the time came. I sat down and made an honest, heartfelt list of everything I thought I would regret when he was gone. I relived arguments, reread journals, and basically marinated in our past so that I could feel all the feels, both good and bad.
I determined what conversations I thought I’d regret not having. I concluded how many “visits” would make me feel I was by his side enough so I wouldn’t beat myself up about it later (for the record, I was living on the other side of the country and flew home every other week to be by his side, so apparently that’s how many “visits” it took). In the end, I had a bucket list of sorts, but instead of it being a declaration of what I was longing to experience, it was an inventory of what it would take for me to be “okay” in the end.
My father slowly expired in his hospital bed over the course of seven months, but in that time, I was able to sort through, release, and make peace with everything that would have plagued me had I not proactively set out to eliminate them. I was definitely heartbroken, but gratefully, I wasn’t full of regret. Unfortunately, while my father was languishing in the hospital, my mother started showing signs that something was terribly wrong with her.
The bad news was she had Alzheimer’s. The good news (if you could call it that) is that unlike the case with my grandmother and father, my mother and I had some time.
So once again, I set out to reverse engineer my grief over losing my mother, but this time, I had the added bonus that she was still ambulatory, which meant we could have a few last adventures before this cruel disease claimed her mobility and her mind. We were able to go on vacation, see a Broadway play we had talked about seeing, and have a couple fancy dinners that we were always putting off. By determining what I might regret once she passed away, I was able to transform those future disappointments into happy memories instead.
When we are caregivers to a sick or aging loved one, grief is always on the ride with us, but regret doesn’t have to be. And while there is no way to completely elude grief, by reverse engineering it, there is the potential for you to rewrite your ending with your loved one.