Perspectives on Grieving
The Roller Coaster of Grief – a Father’s Reflections on Loss, Love, and Life
By Andy Davis
Death can throw you for a loop. Well, I guess that is the understatement of the year, but hey it is true. Yet the grieving process is the real roller coaster; just when you think you’ve finally gotten a grip, you hit the next curve as you track forward. Close your eyes and scream if it helps (sometimes it actually does), but better to hold on tight with eyes and mind wide open. It is a challenge to be sure, but you will be amazed at the perspective you will gain and what you come to learn about yourself and those around you. I did…for sure.
Carol, my wife and the mother of our two sons died on July 17th, 2006, two days after her 51st birthday and not even a month after we’d celebrated our 25th wedding anniversary. No warning, I woke up one morning and she didn’t! Heart issue…yes. Devastated…yes. Shiva zombies…yes! Siege quantities of roast chicken, brisket and rugelach …naturally! Oh and let us not forget the inhumane quantities of “Edible Arrangements”; there really ought to be a law. In due course, all of that “food as a surrogate for love and support” ends. It sort of sucks and yet it doesn’t; that is unless you have multiple large freezers and adore fruit salad. When all but the inner circle decamps, the real grieving begins, but so does the opportunity for self -knowledge and growth.
I think the first real eureka moment for me was realizing that for a least awhile collaboration would be a thing of the past. Every decision with respect to my path forward and the near term lives of my sons now rested squarely on my shoulders. It was and still is, a daunting position in which to be. No more repartee about how to handle a given situation. No co-parent backing you up and helping you stare down a precocious 13 year old. No more avoiding stepping into the fray by shouting, “ Just do what your mother says!” (NOTE: You may have thought that this was just being supportive of your co-parent when in reality it was avoidance and a way to place all the responsibility for possible bad outcomes on your “other half”….CHICKEN!).
Hire a nanny; how, when, whom? What’s the strategy for parent/teacher conferences? Do I punish, lecture, chill, or give them that “one word and you are dead meat buster” look that Carol so adeptly employed? Do I help the older with physics first or the younger with Latin? Wait …I don’t speak Latin. What ’s for dinner tonight, tomorrow, and the next night? I think you get the picture. Hmmmmm….and no, you can’t just go to your room with your adult beverage of choice and a pint of Hagen Daz, tempting as it might be. Besides, you’ll likely be too tired to eat it anyway and probably wake up face down in a bowl of rum raisin.
Here I was an executive at a major pharmaceutical firm, one who makes huge decisions all the time and yet I was just sliding by. My decision making prowess deserted me at home. Was this part of the grieving process? It wasn’t in any of those “helpful” books that were dumped on my lap and undoubtedly yours too. But damn it, it is part of the process and you cannot retreat. Take this as the perfect opportunity to regroup, take back the control and regain your confidence.
The classic advice of one day at a time certainly applies to the days and weeks after the death of a loved one. Well, so does one decision at a time. I learned that not every decision has to be made at once. Hell, you are grieving. People naturally are going to give you a pass for a bit; take advantage of it. Then make the one decision with which you feel most comfortable. I tackled meals. I had been doing the grocery shopping and cooking every other night for 25 years. My sons were old enough to make their own breakfasts; I just needed to make sure we had the supplies and that they got out of bed. I quickly figured out how to add funds to those wonderful school cafeteria accounts and made a weekly menu plan before I food shopped on Sunday morning. Dinners needed to be good, nutritious and prepared in less than an hour. No Michelin critics were likely to pop by. There got to be a flow and I began to get my groove back.
Once you’ve gained confidence in one arena/one set of decisions, the next ones are easier. Hire a nanny….every working mother at the office had an agency to recommend that would do the screening. Interviewing nannies isn’t really that much different than interviewing MBA’s. Well okay, the nanny candidates did have a much more realistic expectations regarding their career trajectories. Anyhow, decision made, next?
Of course, I have been talking about those large, discreet decisions that must be made in the early weeks of your unintended voyage into single parenthood. The harder part is the myriad of constant small, yet no less important, decisions about your kids that you will make every day. The point I am trying to make though is that if you go slow and get a grasp one at a time on the bigger issues, you’ll have the confidence to plow through the every day ones.
You may not even realize it, but a year will go by and then you will recognize that you’ve gained back a semblance of control over your family’s life and yours. Your kids and you may still need support and guidance formal or otherwise; that is totally cool. Yet, I needed and you need to acknowledge how strong you really are. How much you really can handle. Just accept that you are totally awesome and who cares if nobody but you realizes it.
For me, the realization came at that oh so fateful moment when someone said,” I don’t think that is what Carol would have done!”. The passage of time has a bit blurred the exact words of my response, but here is the gist of what I said, “ Well Carol is no longer here, but she always trusted me to do what I think is best and that is what I am doing.” Write it down, it is a pretty good script. And you know what the best part was? After I said it I had the distinct feeling that Carol was smiling and saying, “You’ve got this Andy. I always trusted you would.”
Twelve years have passed now and I can tell you that the roller coaster ride never really ends. Though I’d take her back in a heartbeat, the good news is that you may get to appreciate the ride and even like it. I did.