My birth name is Neibrandt. Every summer our family holds a Neibrandt Family Day. We started the tradition of gathering as a family the year following the death of our youngest brother Kirk. Kirk was 50 when he died of cancer.
During his illness Kirk teased our daughter. He suggested they should name the child they were expecting Kirketta. As things sometimes go, Molly (a.k.a. Kirketta) was born on Kirk’s birthday. And, as you hope things will never go, on July 12th we celebrated her first and what turned out to be his last birthday at Kirk’s home. He died on August 11th of that same summer. We honour Kirk and our departed parents and grandparents with this family event and a rather silly trophy for winning an even sillier tournament.
By now you are probably wondering why any of this would merit being written about in a blog, so here it is…
What is it about loss and why does it matter?
This past year, by chance, Family Day landed on August 11th. That fact launched me into a few bouts of sadness and tears, a place I have been many times over the years. During those times I thought a lot about what it is that makes the death of a person different from other challenging losses in one’s life. I would like to share some of those thoughts with you today.
Loss as it pertains to death is defined as “the state or feeling of grief when deprived of someone of value”. The loss of a special person in our life is truly profound. It is difficult to fathom or understand. Often even difficult to believe.
Profound losses evoke deep-seated feelings we are not regularly in touch with. Those feelings can take our breath away with their suddenness. They can rob us of joy for lengthy periods of time. They can blindside us when we least expect it. They can remind us of our own mortality. They clarify for us what we had and in turn what we have lost.
At the moment my brother let go of his last breath, my immediate thought was that Mom and Dad were gone and I was supposed to take care of him. He was the baby in the family. I was the oldest. It was an absurd thought. I could not stop cancer. But when you care deeply for someone, the grief you experience drills down to the very core of the relationship you had.
Loss is about relationship. It is about what you thought about one another, felt towards one another and how you treated one another. Loss is about the hole that exists when that person is no longer there to call for whatever it was you called them for. It is about the shift in roles within your family or your friendship circle when they are gone, along with the angst of figuring out who you are as a family or as a circle of friends the day after you say good-bye. It is about mourning the things you will miss and the things they will miss, like Kirk’s youngest daughter’s first child, or the graduation of his oldest daughter from engineering.
Loss by its very nature pushes us in the direction of acceptance and adaptation. Depending on the magnitude and circumstances of the loss, a grief journey can be anywhere from difficult to seemingly impossible.
Why? Because we are wired to feel and deal with things in different ways. We heal at different speeds. The circumstances surrounding individual losses are different. Not all relationships are the same. Loss does not come with a handbook.
Some relationships with a deceased loved one are more complicated than others, and no relationship is perfect. Death is sometimes ruthless in its suddenness and always in its finality. It can leave us with no time on earth to take back unkind words or repair broken relationships. It is about lost chances to do things you intended to do or make up for. Some relationships cannot escape the bitterness that haunted them in life, even in death. Sometimes grieving includes forgiving past wrongs. Sometimes the person we need to forgive is ourself.
Some deaths are more complicated than others. Sometimes we are robbed of the gift of ever knowing our special person, as in the case of a parent or sibling who dies prior to a child’s birth, or a child who is miscarried or still born. Sometimes losses occur because of the actions of others, or because of the decision of the person themselves. Sometimes we are torn apart by decisions we made at the time or the notion that we should have done more to prevent the death. Grief entwined with anger, guilt or regret can be difficult to resolve. It takes extraordinary support and sometimes professional help.
Some losses are beyond comprehension. But there are heroes among us. Ordinary individuals who somehow have the capacity to manage their own grief, while at the same time supporting the rest of us with a steady hand, a soothing tone and a reassuring but honest message. We have only to look as far as the Humbolt Broncos to appreciate them.
So why does any of this matter?
Because no matter how difficult or painful the circumstances, we should not avoid the hard work of grieving, even if it means getting professional help. For as long as it takes.
Because the healthy road for us to follow for our own well-being is to make peace with what we need to make peace with, and let go of what we need to let go of. The Netflix series “This is us” captured this idea beautifully, comparing the things we are unable to let go of to taking a single breath we hold too long or in some cases forever.
Because losses multiply over the years and pile one on the other. They also take on different forms, like the loss of one’s physical or mental abilities, or the loss of one’s independence and home. If we fail to make peace with each one as we move along life’s path, we place ourselves at risk of losing our joy, our enthusiasm and our desire to stay engaged in a positive way with the world. In equal parts, grieving is both something completely outside of our control, and something we can develop skills to assign to its rightful place, so we are able to go on with our lives.
And then there are the children in our lives. As adults we need to try hard to be the heroes in their lives. Children deserve to learn from the experiences of those around them that it is natural and normal for people to have extreme and conflicting feelings and bewildering questions when someone they love dies. They need to know that it is OK to cry and it is still OK to laugh in the midst of grief. They need comfort and honesty and perspective. They need to know that it is normal for grief to come and go, quietly or with a bang, sometimes many times. They deserve to hear that information from someone who has worked their way through the messy experience that is grief and emerged, changed, but with a fuller understanding of the experience of loss.
Why? Because they need to recognize that sense of loss for what it is when it hits them in the middle of a movie or a classroom or a piano recital or a sporting event. They need to soak up the pain and the confusion and the anger. They need to give themselves up to it, honour it and the memory of the special person they have lost. They need to know and believe that they can have the strength to feel and remember and be OK.
I believe we need to keep special places in our hearts for the special people we lose. We need to spend time in those special places when that feeling comes.
But we also need to remember and teach our children that the person who died is happy when we visit that special place, but they absolutely do not want us to permanently move in.