This article requires a cup of coffee, an armchair and a little time. Hopefully it will help you, or someone you care about to deal with the firsts in a way that is comfortable. Please share it as you see fit.
The passage of time and all the firsts
‘Only one week ago Cathryn was still with us,’ I thought. How slowly the days passed. Her room now lay dormant, bereft of the chatter and happiness in which it was enshrouded only a few short days before. The long winter nights held a gloom and despair that hovered over our home and our family.
A week quickly grew to one month and I began to fear that I may forget Cathryn and all her funny little sayings and mannerisms. From the time she was ten months old she had recurring bouts of tonsillitis. I had taken her temperature often to see how hot she was and whether it was time to administer the next dose of medication to reduce the ever climbing fever. I was now an expert and could tell what was dangerously hot by the mere touch of her brow.
Once when the insidious tonsillitis attacked this precious little girl, yet again, before I was even aware of her plight, she asked, ‘Shouldn’t you take my tempriest with the breeometer?’ I feared that with the passage of time, these quirky little Cathryn-isms may fade from my memory like a receding tide.
The long, cold, wintery nights gradually morphed into shorter spring nights.
Sadly, spring in Australia also meant Father’s Day. For the first time since Cathryn died we were to celebrate a special occasion with a family member missing. The anticipation of an extended family gathering, with Father’s Day presents and happy chatter amongst the relatives, made me cringe.
How could I ever be happy again when there would always be one daughter, granddaughter, niece and cousin missing, one table setting not required, one cheery laugh never to grace these functions again?
Once again my mind had been overtaken with grief, burrowing deep into my heart as I simply anticipated a significant event. Happily, what I’d anticipated never occurred.
With Father’s Day successfully conquered, the stores pronounced that Christmas was just around the corner. This of course meant Christmas shopping which was tainted with sadness, because this year I only had to shop for one child and not two.
But wait! Four days before Christmas was Cathryn’s birthday. She should have been turning five – time to start school after the summer holiday break. Instead that day came and went with just the sadness of a day filled with no celebration, no birthday cake and no birthday presents, no birthday party and no friends to celebrate.
With all senses on heightened alert, 21st December dawned, transpired and faded, without drama, tears or the expected foreboding. And so passed the second special occasion and I’d survived.
Christmas was anticipated in the same fashion as Father’s Day and Cathryn’s birthday and once again, was more bearable than expected.
Summer blazed and the long school holidays drew to a close, as Cathryn’s kindy friends prepared for their first day at school. This little girl who died halfway through kindy would never go to school, but rather than being traumatised by the event, I simply observed the milestones of her friends with a touch of sadness.
In my book, ‘Unscrambling Grief,’ there’s a chapter entitled, Expect the unexpected, in which I tell the story of something catching me unawares. I was interviewing a new patient in my dental surgery, about to examine her teeth. After our chat, I closed her case notes and caught sight of her date of birth. My eyes filled with tears, for here in my dental chair sat a beautiful blonde, ten year old girl, who was born on the day that my daughter died. I thought I’d worked my way through every situation that would cause the grief to resurface, but here was another. Something as simple as a written date had set me off again.
On the path of grief there will always be reminders that will awaken memories of the person who is no longer here. The waft of a familiar fragrance, the aroma of a favourite meal, the sound of a loved one’s favourite song, may cause emotions to come cascading back without warning.
Grandma died over fifty years ago, but I still can’t see or catch the aroma of a kitchener bun, oozing with cream and calories, without thinking of the wonderful walks that Grandma and I shared to the local bakery. How can a memory live that vividly in one’s psyche for a half century?
Creating happy memories is so important that I encourage you to grasp opportunities as they arise. Don’t wait for tomorrow as the person with whom you wish to share that occasion may not be there.
The memories that you have created with a loved one can cause happiness to flood back, but can also cause a tinge of sadness to creep in each time you experience an event that was once shared. The firsts are always the most difficult.
For couples the lists of firsts can involve Valentine’s Day, the anniversary of a marriage proposal, their wedding anniversary, their birthday or the memory of their first date. Being aware that a memory may trigger emotions may be the first step in being able to cope with whatever happens.
For parents the firsts may include their child’s birthday, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, Christmas, Christenings, Bar Mitzvahs and other such occasions.
For some, the emotions of the experience never lessen and they find that it’s actually beneficial to arrange to be elsewhere to avoid a celebration in which they are going to feel sad, lonely or uncomfortable. Many tour companies specialise in Christmas tours, to help lessen the impact for these people.
International author and speaker, Anthony Robbins, says that in order to move on from pain we must replace it with pleasure. For us, we were able to have another baby and whilst our new daughter, Heidi, didn’t replace her sister, the anticipation of a new baby, then the busyness of looking after her, replaced our pain with pleasure.
If you can find your pleasure and pursue that, you may find it possible to move forward in your grief journey.
How one person deals with death, grief, loss or tragedy will be entirely different from the next person. With our own unique personalities, we will all handle this journey in our own way and time. We can be helped when someone offers a listening ear, with no advice.
And so, in time, the first anniversary of the death of our loved one may loom, like a raincloud overhead, threatening to drench us with soaking emotion. The anticipation may begin some weeks prior and when the day arrives one may find that it is way less traumatic than expected.
Whatever happens, let it be ok. Don’t beat yourself up for feeling sad and emotional, if that’s what happens when a special event occurs. That’s ok. Conversely, don’t beat yourself up if you sail through the day, just like any other day. Don’t feel guilty that you haven’t spent the day as a sad, forlorn wreck. Maybe ponder whether your loved one would want you to spend the rest of your life, emotionally stunted, because of your inability to move on. Enjoying an event doesn’t mean that you no longer care for the person who has died. It just means that you have now moved to a position where you are able to participate in normal life again and that’s absolutely fine.
As you prepare for this Christmas, possibly the first after you have watched a loved one slowly decline and die, don’t place any expectations on yourself. Don’t predict what may happen or how you may feel, what emotions you will experience or how other family members will cope. Just let whatever emotions arise be ok.
At Christmas if you actually enjoy the day and the family festivities, celebrate that you have survived yet another first and know that it’s likely that subsequent special occasions will become easier.
This life is your journey which only you can live, so accept whatever transpires, deal with whatever arises, then move on as you feel appropriate in whatever time frame suits you.
Assuming that you survive the Christmas and New Year season of festivities and I’m certain you will, it may be that you’ve had a tradition of joining with friends for an Australia Day bbq. So, only a month after Christmas you have another first to tackle. By now you may already be morphing into your ‘new normal.’
Once you finally emerge from the rawness of losing a loved one, you may gradually find that new routines and patterns are starting to replace some of the old and that the new is becoming more comfortable. This means that you are beginning to heal and that the pain is beginning to dissipate. Hallelujah!
If you have felt as I did, you may wonder if this day will ever come. It will arrive … one day. It’s so important that onlookers don’t judge the grief journey of another, pressuring them to move on before they’re ready. Although it may be difficult to stand by and watch someone plod at what we consider to be a snail’s pace through grief, please remember that it’s their journey and not yours’.
We all arrive in this world with our own personality and individual coping mechanisms, so even if two people of the same age, same gender, same religion and same culture are faced with the same loss, they will traverse the path of grief in a very different fashion, taking a different length of time. That’s just the way it is. We are individuals and there is no ‘one pattern fits all’ when it comes to grief, or anything else in this life for that matter.
Then here comes Valentine’s Day, for those who make an event of this, after which Easter approaches with stealth. For us Easter Sunday arrived and there was only one Easter egg trail, one quantity of eggs to buy, one happy little face when the chocolate goodies were placed in his basket? So now we could tick off another first.
It seems that the year is punctuated with events to keep threatening to traumatise our emotions.
As time goes by, I’m realising that death is a part of life and I’ve learned to accept that precious people in my life are going to die and I’m going to do the same one day, leaving a smear of sadness on someone else’s horizon.
As we move through autumn, Mother’s Day approaches. If your Mum has died then this will be the very first time in your entire life that you don’t have a Mum and there’s a confronting thought on its own. I’ve also had to experience Mother’s Day from the perspective of having lost a child and because that’s outside the natural order of things, with our expectation that a parent will die before their child, that was a tricky time to negotiate. But like all of these events, it has become easier with time.
And here’s possibly the biggie – the anniversary of the day your loved one died. Once again, approach it with the knowledge that you will get through it. It’s OK to cry, to feel whatever emotions surface and to relive the precious memories that you created together.
For us, that covered most of the firsts and we lived to tell the tale, having encountered each with more trepidation than necessary. I don’t recall a first where either my husband or I actually ended in a crumpled mess, so when the second of these occasions approached I felt the same uneasiness, but with less intensity.
Please approach this Christmas with the knowledge that multitudes have walked this path of the ‘firsts’ before you and have emerged unscathed on the other side. Be prepared with tissues and a friend with a listening ear and go into this time with a heart full of wonderful memories of the person who has simply moved to another realm where they no longer need their physical form.
Speaker, Mentor and Author of ‘Unscrambling Grief’ and ‘What we’re Wheelie like’
0408 013 371 firstname.lastname@example.org
PS ‘Unscrambling Grief’ is an easy 1 hour read with illustrations to lighten a heavy subject. It gives permission to walk the road of grief in your own way and time.
This may be an unusual, but very helpful Christmas gift for someone who needs to know that whatever emotions they may be experiencing are ok. See the links below the image.
http://www.amazon.com.au/dp/B014GV3VTU Amazon Australia eBook
https://www.amazon.com/dp/B014GV3VTU Amazon US eBook
http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B014GV3VTU/ Amazon UK eBook