Nathan Daniels tells his story of experiencing multiple deaths in his family and shares ways to ease the grieving process.
I Didn’t Stand a Chance
Losing someone you love is one of the most difficult things a human being will experience. Death and grief aren’t easy things to deal with at any age. However, I believe adults are better equipped and prepared for it, and younger children tend to adapt easier than teenagers. I was seventeen when I suffered a string of death that wiped out half my family. Now, I want to share some hard lessons I learned about battling through death and grief.
When my parents died, I’d already survived a variety of abuse at the hands of my father and sister. I endured a vicious divorce … lives threatened … holes punched in walls, and my father became an official stalker. I had been uprooted from my home and friends, to suffer social isolation for years on the other side of the country.
It was there, that my insomnia and propensity for self-abuse would escalate to new heights. It was there, where the seeds of severe social anxiety and agoraphobia, already planted in my sister’s long-ago bedroom, would begin to blossom. My psyche was damaged at a young age, and I wasn’t equipped to deal with the loss of my best friend.
Too Much Pain
If you stub your toe, it hurts. If you spill boiling water on yourself, it hurts like hell. Now, if you get your hand severed in some kind of accident, chances are you won’t feel a thing. Our minds can only register so much pain, before they’ll employ certain mechanisms to protect us from it.
We might pass out, or go into shock. Either way, our brains won’t allow us to feel the full extent of such agony. I’ll venture to say that’s a good thing, but if you’re not careful, your mind can apply similar devices to extreme emotional suffering. I don’t have to venture here … that’s not a good thing!
The hard truth is we’re supposed to suffer when someone we love dies. That’s human, and forcing yourself to go through it is detrimental to your mental health. I didn’t know that when I was seventeen years old, and nobody filled me in. I found out on my own that grief is a stubborn, tricky thing with infinite patience.
The Death Coach is Coming
I was twelve when they diagnosed my mother with breast cancer and seventeen when she died, after fighting bravely for five long years. My mom was my best friend, at times she was my only friend. I didn’t think anyone else on the planet ever really loved me, and my heart found the idea of letting her go impossible to accept.
In 1993, I knew it was coming. My mother’s brain … ravaged by the spreading cancer, didn’t even recognize me anymore. Everyone around her knew she was on borrowed time. I started smoking marijuana, finding solace in sedation, as my life darkened under the shadow of the grim reapers scythe.
“Politely, I used to go my separate way when my friends decided to “light up”. More and more, however, solitude proved to be a formidable enemy. One I could no longer bear to face. I also hated being home with what was left of my mom, and the invisible clock ticking over her deathbed mercilessly discarding the final moments of her life as quickly as it did the ones above her crib. Tick. Tick. Tick. I swear I could fucking hear it!
—Excerpt from, Surviving the Fourth Cycle
Prelude to Suffering
I got to taste of death and loss the day before my mom passed away. My grandfather died en-route from Texas. Defining tragedy, he was coming to visit his daughter and say goodbye to her before it was too late.
He was one of the few relatives I liked. He was a beekeeper, who made hand-carved wooden mazes for marbles to travel through and Tabernacle Puzzles out of steel that would boggle the mind. He fascinated me. I loved him and felt the sadness from his loss … bracing myself for the devastation of what lay ahead.
It was impossible to imagine losing my best friend, and for the first time in my life, a jagged thought ripped through my mind, fleetingly, but unmistakably —I don’t think I want to be alive anymore. I can’t handle this much pain!
I Don’t Feel a Thing
I didn’t shed tears at my mother’s funeral. It wasn’t because I was brave or strong, and it certainly wasn’t because I knew everything was going to be all right. I had gone emotionally numb. I had been that way since I came home, days before, to my mom’s empty bed.
I had imagined how bad it would be. The pain, enormous, would overwhelm me like a tidal wave. It would force me down into the depths of despair. It would flip me upside down, disorient me, and rob me of my ability to breathe, but … The pain didn’t come.
I felt like I was suddenly impervious, but I didn’t like it. It felt unnatural, and I thought there might really be something wrong with me. I wasn’t happy, but I was able to fake it for the most part, so that’s what I did for the next several weeks until reality hit me — hard!
I woke up from a terrible nightmare, something childish—a monster with too many eyes and teeth perhaps. I had a childish reaction too. I wanted my mommy! She wasn’t there to console me, of course, and pain sunk its teeth into my heart. It’s as if I just learned, at that very moment, that my mom was gone.
I was frantic and sick … gasping. I was crying in guttural bursts and I lurched out of bed, stumbling. I was dizzy and couldn’t see through several weeks’ worth of tears. I tore through the front door, barefoot and shirtless. I ran out into the pouring rain, toward the cemetery, indifferent to the asphalt ripping at my feet and the raindrops mingling with my tears.
When I reached my mom, I collapsed hard into the earth that separated us and screamed. The enormity of my suffering was immeasurable, and I screamed and cried until I passed out beneath an uncaring sky. When I woke up, I wanted to be numb again, so I went home and disappeared behind a thick plume of smoke.
A couple months after my grandfather and mom died, I had a brief period of clarity. I desperately wanted to save myself from the downward spiral I was clearly experiencing. I knew I was going to be homeless in a matter of weeks, and I knew if I wanted to stay alive, I needed help.
I reached out to my father, who I hadn’t spoken to in a long time. I wrote him a long and emotional letter, telling him I could forgive the abuse he put upon me, if he could finally be a father to me. I sealed that letter with the last shred of hope I could find within myself.
My father died, just over two months after my grandfather and mother—just two days after I put the rest of my hope in the mailbox with a twenty-nine cent stamp on it. I found out later, he died suddenly from complications of bronchial pneumonia. I don’t know if he got my letter or not … I never will.
Overcoming Loss and Grief
As difficult as it is, you have to accept death when it happens, and you have to say goodbye… not necessarily with words, but in your heart. You have to allow yourself to experience the plethora of emotions that your mind needs to sort through. I turned my back on these feelings and ran away from them, because I didn’t think I could survive.
Don’t convince yourself it’s the end of the world as I did. It’s not, but thinking like that can create a self-fulfilling prophecy, that can be difficult to undo. I was just a kid. I had no school, job, family, or friends left. I lived in my dead father’s car, and constantly felt my sanity slipping and sliding in my mind. Still, this was not the end of the world.
Don’t stop thinking about your loved ones either. When I found myself thinking about my mom, it hurt, so I would slam the door on those thoughts like uninvited guests. I should have practiced steering my thoughts in a more positive direction, celebrating her life instead of lamenting over her death. This certainly won’t happen overnight, but it will happen.
When I did tattoos, years ago, almost half my work involved memorializing the life of a lost loved one. One client even provided a little ash from their father’s urn to mix with my ink and imbed in their flesh. Branding these people with their personal tributes helped them find closure, and move forward with their lives. I think you need that to heal completely from any serious trauma. For me, writing letters has always helped.
Due to my own unique experiences and psychological development, it took me twenty years to battle through the death and grief I experienced in 1993. I was all alone, with no guidance at all. This undeniably had a negative effect on my life, and added depth and strength to my psychological disorders.
That brings me to my final thought on surviving loss: help and support. Most people can turn to another family member but, if you’re as alone as I was, there are plenty of support groups and community services that are easy to find and more than welcoming to those in need. A qualified therapist can provide excellent guidance too, and I highly recommend that.
There are also some numbers you can call:
COMPASSIONATE FRIENDS: 877-969-0010 (Support for the loss of a child)
SHARE: 800-821-6819 (Support for the loss of an infant)
Photo credit: Flickr / zanten.net