Tor Constantino shares insights learned about grief while coping with the loss of his parents.
The one certainty in life is that life is loss.
By that, I mean we all will or have experienced the loss of a loved one that will profoundly shape and impact our own lives going forward.
A few weeks ago marked the 10th anniversary of my mother’s death in a single-car crash caused by a dislodged blood clot to her heart, and this August will be the 8th anniversary of my father’s death by heart attack.
Both were in their early 60s at their respective passings—too early by every measure.
I was in my mid-30s—a grown man—but their collective loss had a profound impact on me that continues to linger.
I know there are five formulaic stages of grief, but here are five things I personally experienced that don’t fit nicely within those labeled stages.
It’s difficult to explain but for several weeks after my dad’s death, I wasn’t really sad per se but rather had a profound sense of disorientation—like when you wake up logy from a deep sleep on a summer afternoon, not knowing where or who you are.
The disorientation was compounded by the list of things that needed to get done in death’s wake.
The obituary needed to get written, probate of the estate, coordinating the memorial service and burial, bickering about things not addressed in the will, selecting a coffin, vault and headstone, sorting through the deceased things, listing their home for sale … etc.
These are surreal situations you don’t typically face each day that need attention when a loved one dies, but simultaneously keep you off balance and out of sorts. This state was most pronounced once it sunk into me that both my parents were gone.
Life Continues Around You
When you lose a loved one, it’s difficult to reconcile the fact that your personal moon has fallen from the sky but everyone around you continues to go on with their lives—strangers are riding buses, eating at restaurants, going to work or getting Starbucks.
I wanted to stand up and scream at people to stop and pay attention to the heart-breaking reality that a meaningful life had ended and was not coming back.
It wasn’t anger or fury, it was just a disconcerting sense that this world-altering event had occurred but seemingly only for me.
My Grief Was Episodic
This was the most surprising lesson because as I said, I wasn’t really sad or crying for the first several weeks when either of my parents died—and that wasn’t denial. I didn’t try to deny their deaths but consciously strove to accept the truth as quickly as I could.
But the grief wasn’t a constant burden that I felt. Rather it was more like a bomb that was unexpectedly tripped by the mundane day-to-day events.
Specifically, the first time I cried after my mom died was several weeks after her burial. I was driving down a road and I passed a restaurant where I had lunch with her two days before she died—I glimpsed at the restaurant and subsequently burst into tears.
So much so, I had to pull over and stop the car where I sobbed for several minutes. Similar experiences happened a few times during the months following each of their respective deaths. While I carried the grief of their loss with me—it wasn’t a constant pain or sadness. That didn’t make it any less real. It took unexpected catalysts to trigger it.
Not All Comfort is Equal
Everyone wants to help, hug and encourage you when you lose a loved one. But honestly, when my mom died I didn’t want to hear comforting words from friends or extended family whose mother was still alive.
It got more pronounced when my father passed—if you had either parent alive—your comforting words were no comfort to me.
You could silently sit with me, I appreciated that—but I didn’t want to hear you talk to me about what I was feeling and how to cope, unless both your parents were already dead like mine.
That’s harsh, unfair, unjust and perhaps reflects my emotional immaturity at the time—regardless, it was the truth.
While that may have been unique to me, I’m much more mindful about what I say to the grieving and how I approach their pain as a result of my own experience.
The Importance of Siblings
I have three sisters and a brother. The death of our folks was tough on all of us but in different ways and we each handled it a bit differently. Despite our varying levels of sadness during the months that followed our parents’ deaths, there was something profoundly comforting about our collective history growing up.
When mom and dad died, just a word or a look or a gesture amongst us siblings conveyed meaning and understanding that even our respective spouses didn’t necessarily appreciate. But we did appreciate it and each other. Whether they know it or not, my siblings helped me a great deal—even though I never expressly told them so.
I’m truly grateful that I didn’t have to endure those deaths on my own. That’s why my wife and I consciously decided to have more than one child—we have three—so that they will have each other when we hopefully pass before them.
The point of this piece is to shed some light for those who are grieving, so we can provide the appropriate type of support, comfort and help they may need and appreciate.
I know that every family and death is different and these are merely anecdotal experiences for me.
But these five lessons have sensitized me to the common experience of loss that others will face. These lessons have helped shape the comfort and support I have to offer.
My hope is that they might do the same for you as well.
Get the best of the Good Men Project sent straight to your inbox! Sign up for the Daily Email here.