Have you ever flipped over a colorful seashell that was wedged in the wet sand and examined its other side? You were probably first attracted by the reflection of the flashy hues of the exterior. But the smooth, concave inner surface of the vessel, which once protected life with a mirrored piece, also has a subtle beauty of its own. Now tossed up on the shoreline by the turbulent sea, it is half, not whole. The mollusk is gone along with the other matching section of the shell, making both sides exposed.
There is a new purpose for it now in its own right. It can bring joy to the beachcomber on an early morning walk as she stoops down to retrieve it and take it home for her collection. Or delight a young child decorating a sand castle. The half, empty shell has a new value.
I have discovered that grief has multiple sides too. I was introduced to grief in 1993. Before that, it was just a word. After the death of my husband, it became a part of my life.
For the past twenty years I have learned how to co-exist with my grief and I have figured out how to live my life differently. Not better, not worse, differently. The void left by the death of my beloved husband has now been stocked with a new found source of resilience and strength. I have done things that I never imagined that I could do. I have said things that I never would have thought would have come out of my mouth! But previously, I had been only focusing on the obvious outside of grief and its personal impact. I never noticed another side, until now.
This past year, two days after Christmas, my soon-to-be 86 year-old mother died. Although previously in relatively good physical health, dementia was starting to rob her of her short-term memory in the final chapter of her life. She had become frail and less active. In the months prior to her death as I tried to understand her condition, I learned to accept her present forgetful moments. Instead, we reminisced about the past, the good old days. Fortunately for both of us, these were vivid mental snap shots, so as mother and daughter, we easily leafed through the colorful scrapbooks of our minds.
As I listened to my 85-year-old father’s tentative voice on the phone delivering the sad news, I sensed the inception of my own grieving process for my mother while resisting the familiar undertow of my former grief. Mom died peacefully next to Dad’s side so he was able to kiss his partner of sixty-four years good-bye, just as I did with my spouse two decades before. Two branches on the same tree were now broken.
When grief first barged into my life, no one in my immediate family could identify with what I felt. They tried to be supportive, but it was hard to imagine what I was really going through since no one had experienced it. However this time, I could reach out and put my arms around my Dad and truly share in his journey because the road was familiar to me. We could do it together.
After Mom’s death I made a vow to myself to call my father every day. I didn’t set an ending time, I just started. My sisters had provided a similar form of comfort for me when I lost my spouse and I looked forward to their calls so I was inspired to pay it forward.
“Hi Dad, how is it going?” I usually started.
I wanted to focus on the present momentum of his life. His voice was quiet at first, but slowly it became more animated as we talked about family and events in the world. I listened carefully and tried to take his lead. It is difficult to switch from present to past and I waited until he was comfortable mentioning Mom’s name. It is important to remember. It is important to acknowledge a loved one’s existence.
Now each day when I come home from work I dial up his number. I am in Pennsylvania and he is in Florida but I feel him next to me. Some days have been good days for him and some have not. He easily tells me that and I assure him that is okay. After all, he is a new traveler on his grief pathway and the trip is unpredictable.
“Today is not such a good day” he sometimes says with his voice cracking.
“I understand Dad. Maybe tomorrow will be better,” I say with a tone of encouragement while feeling my own sadness.
As the calls progressed, I started to realize that I was actually on the other side of his grief. It is a warm and tender place. I am experiencing a new exchange of unbridled emotions with my father that has never been expressed before. Our relationship has risen to a different level. Although we are two grieving adults sharing the loss of the same loved one, I am feeling a spiritual windfall.
When I was a child, my father gave words of encouragement and support from time to time. However, as a typical parent in the 50’s, they were not wrapped in sentimental paper. A kiss on the cheek at bedtime sealed the day and a pat on the back after a job well done after a high school basketball game was all that was offered and expected.
On my wedding day when my father walked me down the aisle I could see a look of pride in his eyes and when we danced our father and daughter dance he beamed. There were no extra words or mushy love talk to explain the moment. I could simply read his face and did not need anything else.
“Thanks for calling, hon, I appreciate it,” he says now. His sincerity is palpable.
Since he is so far away I cannot see his expression so his words have become all the more powerful.
“I love you Dad. I will call again tomorrow,” is my standard response.
I sign off with my confirmation of love leaving the door wide open for the next call. I look forward to hearing his voice again and feeling his long distance new-found, unabashed affection. I look forward to talking about Mom and sharing memories.
Grief is a game changer and can temporarily pull the plug on living and allow a little bit of love to drain out with the pain. But on the flip side it can be an opportunity to fill the coffers with new found affection.
Each one of us will encounter our own grief one day. But it is important to know that there is another side that you may be called upon to share in too. I hope that you can recognize it when it arrives, and embrace it like I did.