Loss of a Loved One

No. 55
Posted on 1/29/2018 by Mark Hutchinson
"I still miss those I loved who are no longer with me but I find I am grateful for having loved them. The gratitude has finally conquered the loss."
- Rita Mae Brown

"The sorrow for the dead is the only sorrow from which we refuse to be divorced. Every other wound we seek to heal - every other affliction to forget: but this wound we consider it a duty to keep open - this affliction we cherish and brood over in solitude."
- Washington Irving

From the moment when the neighbor told me over the phone that Ann's car was still in the garage and she wasn't answering the door I knew she was gone. My mother-in-law didn't miss appointments. Her routine and steadfast adherence to a correct schedule of things was as constant as the sunrise. She was gone.

A few minutes later the frantic, distraught voice of my wife echoed on the phone and pleaded with me in three short words: 'She is gone.'

Shock and disbelief. A pervasive sense of unreality. Yet, in the first moments, as we respond to the knowledge that someone that we love dearly is gone, is the seed of the answer as to how life will still prevail. We do what must be done and let everything else fall along the wayside. Necessity and function drive those moments while our hearts and minds reel from such a tragedy. The feelings of despair and of a gaping hole that threatens to swallow us up entirely are descending while we continue to walk and talk. It seems wrong. Everything is wrong. We wonder if anything will ever be right again. It hurts.

When the emergency is over, when there is time to make plans and to reflect on the new world we are living in without our loved one there are also opportunities to make internal choices. What we choose in those moments can aid or delay our healing. An analogy may help illustrate the type of decisions that happen during this time.

Sometimes it is helpful to think about mental, emotional and even spiritual loss and grief as if they were physical, actual bodily, injuries. So we are not talking about a splinter in your hand or even slicing your finger accidentally while cutting a bagel. This is more like a large knife falling off the counter and piercing directly through your foot. I cringe even at the writing of it, but the severity is necessary for this analogy.

How would you respond to this accident? What would you do first? How would you triage the situation?

Naturally we would all respond quickly, some with more explicatives being uttered than others, but there would be an immediate response. We might remove the knife, work to stop the bleeding, call for help, and generally assess how critical the damage appears to be.

At the point where the immediate crisis is managed and now we are going to decide what to do next, many people start to treat mental and emotional injury much differently than a physical injury. Maybe we believe we should just be more sturdy and able to handle the hardship but if you just, moments ago, had a knife sticking out of your foot you might not believe that you can just heal that because you are a sturdy person. You can see the cause and you can see the effect and that makes it real enough to treat it with respect. I suggest that the loss of a loved one (or any loss really) is just as real. There is a cause. There is an effect.

In our foot-wound story we might expect the person to seek additional medical care, have the wound evaluated, decide if a tetanus shot is required, clean and treat the wound, re-bandage it and discuss a plan to care for the wound until it heals and then come up with a plan to rehabilitate the foot so we can use it again without pain. Doesn't that make sense? Do we follow similar steps for our mental wounds? Shouldn't we?

Often, almost like a solider on a battlefield, we believe we should just slap a bandage on it and keep fighting. Of course some people do take that approach for the foot wound but we know what ends up happening. They limp around in pain for weeks, they just put more bandages on top of the old, the take pain pills and hope that it will just heal on its own. Maybe it will. But we know that ignoring deep wounds generally leads to bigger problems. Staying busy in the moment, operating in triage mode for long periods of time, does help us ignore the pain of our wounds, but it isn't necessarily going to let us heal fully and may end up doing us more harm in the long run.

A deep wound needs attention and care. The doctor would tell you to keep it protected and take it easy but that you would need to change the bandages periodically and review it carefully to make sure it was healing properly. Haven't we all heard that before? They might add advice like: don't poke at it all of the time; rest more; eat well; don't ignore symptoms; keep doing normal activities but try not to walk on that foot until it has had some time to mend. Can you give that advice to yourself?

Many people will naturally triage their wounds but it is that desire to just move on to avoid additional pain that actually leads to more suffering. They stop the bleeding, wrap the bandage tight and don't want to look underneath.

You will need to remove that initial bandage, look carefully at the wound, gently clean it, and then put a new, fresh bandage in place. Yes, there will be a scar. Yes, it will take time to heal. Yes, that foot may never be exactly the same as it was. These things are true. However, the care and attention you give to the wound itself, be it mental, emotional, or physical will speed the healing process and help you get back to functioning again.

If you had a knife sticking out of your foot, there wouldn't be any question about needing to go through this type of process. Why should it be any different for our invisible wounds?

I have learned, painfully I might add, that I should not ignore such wounds. I have treated this injury to my heart with respect. I have taken the time to look at it, feel it, clean it and pay attention to it as it heals.

I love my mother-in-law deeply and I miss her a lot but when I look underneath the bandage today I can see that the wound is mending nicely and the tragedy of her untimely death will not impair my heart. The pain is nearly gone. The scar remains. My love keeps growing.

I miss you Ann.

~ Mark
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