Seeking comfort and grace, not depression and sorrow
January 27, 2015 1:16 PM   Subscribe

The last of my grandparents just passed away (it was peaceful and expected) but I'm struggling to hold myself together. I think my grieving is normal since it just happened but I'd love to hear advice and techniques to think of his life and death in positive, comforting ways.

I have a child who is too young to understand anything except that I'm sad and I want to better support myself and eventually him when other sadness comes in the future.

Things that are helping include writing down my happy memories, and reminding myself that he's no longer in pain. I'm not very religious or God-oriented but all my grandparents were and it helps to know that they're very happy and at peace in their heaven with their God and other loved ones.

I'd especially love advice on how to think of his physical body now, since this is the source of my least comforting thoughts, and causes emotional turmoil with all the deaths I've had in my life, human and pet. And also how to avoid obsessing about all the future deaths to come in future years... :(

Thank you.
posted by wannabecounselor to Religion & Philosophy (10 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
I know what you mean about his body; I had the same reaction and dread when my dad died. But eventually I came to think of it as returned to the earth, as just a collection of atoms slowly transforming itself into something new. The person is gone, the shell becomes dust again, to someday be a tree, or part of another animal, or part of a rock. Who he is lives on in your memories, and in those who knew him, like a drawing or a photograph. Not as good as the original, but a reminder you are glad to have. He left marks on the world, in you and in what he did. And someday even those marks will be gone, because the earth recycles everything and nothing lasts forever and that's a good thing. Change is beautiful and necessary. And painful. But would you give up any of your time with him so that you didn't feel this pain anymore? Of course not! It's a price worth paying to know someone even a little while.

Best to you. Be kind to yourself!
posted by emjaybee at 2:01 PM on January 27, 2015 [9 favorites]

I know you said you're not religious but there's a passage from Corinthians which says this life is preparing us all for "the weight of eternal glory ".

Your grandparents have gone on to that awesome destiny and one day you will too. You can be sure they'll be watching out for you and your children from above.
posted by BarcelonaRed at 3:10 PM on January 27, 2015 [3 favorites]

I got married at age 19 to another 19 year old. He wanted an army career and his family was not supportive and he couldn't understand why I was. I wanted him to be happy and to be doing something he loved and he couldn't understand it. All he could see was his family's objection that, for example, he could die young. And I told him one day that I would rather have a few years with him as a happy person than a lot of years with him as an unhappy person or with someone else that I didn't actually love.

I was big on the "til death do us part" thing. I was very semper fi in some ways. But if he died young, I wanted it to be the worst thing that had ever happened to me. I wanted it to tear my heart out. I wanted to feel like I would never love again.

We are divorced in part because the marriage came to a place where, on days when he was late and hadn't called and I was worried that he might be dead, I was sort of halfway hopeful that this was true. I felt terrible about that. I did not want him to die and leave me widowed under circumstances where I would feel that, in some mystical sense, his blood would be on my hands because I kind of wanted him gone. So I left in part because I only want to be widowed if it breaks my heart and not if it's a relief to me.

I think if you love deeply and someone is a treasure to you, then missing them and mourning that you cannot have them in your life anymore is just evidence of how much they meant to you. Not all of us get to have that. I did not know any of my grandparents. I can't understand why anyone would mourn a grandparent. That's alien to me. And it leaves me a combination of mystified by your grief and somewhat envious that you had something I have not had and that you apparently valued it highly enough to be heartbroken by its absence.

And I hope that thought helps you feel more okay about your heartbreak. Your heartbreak is a testimony to the high value the relationship had. You lost a treasure, but that means you once had such a treasure and many people just don't get such things to begin with.

And I wish you peace and comfort and grace.
posted by Michele in California at 3:15 PM on January 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

I just lost my father at the end of September, and so I do understand some of the pain that you are feeling. We cremated him per his request, and I choose to think of him as returning to the earth and elements from which he came. When my mother-in-law died I was one of the ones to scatter her ashes in the ocean, per her request, and doing this for her was sad, but she had had a long life and we were honoring her passing, so that made me feel better. Are you able to do anything specific to honor your grandfather? It can be small and personal or more public, as long as it is meaningful to you. We have planted trees to honor family, and donated to their favorite charity or cause in their name, for example.

I have found this poem to be of some comfort to me during this time:

So Many Different Lengths of Time
by Brian Patten

How long does a man live after all?
A thousand days or only one?
One week or a few centuries?
How long does a man spend living or dying
and what do we mean when we say gone forever?

Adrift in such preoccupations, we seek clarification.
We can go to the philosophers
but they will weary of our questions.
We can go to the priests and rabbis
but they might be busy with administrations.

So, how long does a man live after all?
And how much does he live while he lives?
We fret and ask so many questions –
then when it comes to us
the answer is so simple after all.

A man lives for as long as we carry him inside us,
for as long as we carry the harvest of his dreams,
for as long as we ourselves live,
holding memories in common, a man lives.

His lover will carry his man’s scent, his touch:
his children will carry the weight of his love.
One friend will carry his arguments,
another will hum his favourite tunes,
another will still share his terrors.

And the days will pass with baffled faces,
then the weeks, then the months,
then there will be a day when no question is asked,
and the knots of grief will loosen in the stomach
and the puffed faces will calm.

And on that day he will not have ceased
but will have ceased to be separated by death.

How long does a man live after all?

A man lives so many different lengths of time.
posted by gudrun at 3:29 PM on January 27, 2015 [5 favorites]

It's been comforting to me recently to think of something anitanola wrote: "The love is more important than the loss."
posted by mcduff at 3:31 PM on January 27, 2015 [3 favorites]

Badger's Parting Gifts, by Susan Varley. It's a picture book on loss and the great gifts that an elder has left us. "Mole was lost, alone, and very unhappy...tears fell down his velvety nose..." Winter of loss and sadness. And gratitude for spirit and memories.

Ruby Dee reads the book on Reading Rainbow here (fast forward to 2 mins in).

another thing, an excerpt from Remote Control

After we expire
Our atoms
Will break apart
One by one
To live in trees
In bugs
Rogue particles will float on the breeze
And drift in the sea

They will be present as the sun explodes
Before drifting in the vastness of space
Farther and farther
Deeper and darker

Consciousness is fleeting
And before you know it
Part of you will be dancing at the center of a star
A billion years from now
posted by xaryts at 3:33 PM on January 27, 2015 [4 favorites]

I have had a couple of deaths in my immediate circle in the last 2-3 years, and I am anticipating another in the near future. I rely on some Buddhist ideas to get me through. First of all, the past is only memory and the future is only imagination. I try to engage as full as I can with people in the present moment, partly so I can know that I really lived with them while they were alive. That way, I don't regret the past (even if I am sad that they are no longer around). Secondly, I believe in cause and effect, the reality of karma (which, at its root means that actions affect the world). So, even after someone I loved is dead, their actions still echo all around me. The parts of me that they affected continue to resonate with me, and will continue to do so as long as I keep creating this self moment by moment. And all this time, my actions, influenced by their actions have echoes in the world, and so it continues, and nothing is ever lost, only passed on.

Not entirely sure if that's philosophically sound, but that's what I think when I think about my dead friends and family.
posted by GenjiandProust at 3:36 PM on January 27, 2015

I want to add that the reason anitanola's comment is comforting to me is that I tend to want to shy away from loving and connection because I'm afraid of the pain of losing. Reminding myself that it's the love in life that's more important to me than the avoidance of grief has released me to more fully feel both love and grief.
posted by mcduff at 3:41 PM on January 27, 2015

I love what emjaybee wrote above about his physical body. It's what I would have written if I were as eloquent.

Think, too, about what would happen if we were immortal. First off, there wouldn't have been enough room on the earth for your child, and probably not for you, and maybe not for your grandfather, either, because it would be too crowded. But even more important to me is that death makes life important. If everyone in your life were to live forever, you'd forget to say "I love you" because you'd have forever to do it.

When we really get it that everything ends, we stop procrastinating about everything and we never waste a minute. It makes every moment precious. I'm an atheist myself. I don't believe in an afterlife (but I always say that could just be wishful thinking) but I do believe in not wasting a minute, having no regrets, and living life to the full. I really believe that the idea of immortality/eternity/afterlife are just misunderstood metaphors for fully experiencing our life. Death's deadline reminds you to be fully with someone when you are with them. Time stands still and gives you so much to savor.

Also, this book has been very helpful for me in grieving various kinds of losses. You may find it helpful, too.
posted by janey47 at 3:46 PM on January 27, 2015

To be my dad and then not be my dad anymore -- I had never in my life known more clearly that there is something in this world that surpasses understanding. I had to give it to G_d. There was nothing else big enough to give it to.
posted by macinchik at 9:09 PM on January 27, 2015 [3 favorites]

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