Thursday, March 27, 2014

Finding Joy Again Is Not a Betrayal

Today would've been my brother's 46th birthday. They say time heals all wounds, but don't say that to someone who has recently lost a loved one. Believe me, I know. Still, the words are true although there are all kinds of "healed."

Every kind of wound has a different healing process. You can do a head-first flip of your bicycle, on a dirt road, wearing shorts (yes, experience speaking here!) and your knees will look like something that came out of a meat grinder. In a few short days, the scratches heal and soon there is no sign they ever existed. Or, you could decide you're old enough and big enough to use your father's chainsaw. The resulting gash will be deeper, bloodier and take longer to heal than the bicycle accident abrasions. You may even end up with a scar from that one. But probably a scar is all you'll have. Sometimes a wound isn't as obvious but lasts longer. In high school, I reached for the right-side handle of set of double doors, using my left hand. Someone came through the left-side door at the same time, whacking my wrist pretty hard. It swelled and turned a really nasty shade of indigo-black. It hurt. Slowly the bruise healed, yet the spot is still tender even all these many, many years later.

When someone you love dies, whatever the circumstance, it's a wound that cuts deep. If the death is of an elderly person or someone who has been ill for a long time, some of the healing process has already begun. As much as no one wants to think about it or face the truth, we all know our parents are going to die. My grandmother was 90 when she passed away. Though I was prepared for the eventuality, it still hurt to lose her but moving on took less time than losing my brother. His death was a shock. He was 23, full of life, the future wide open. Then he was gone. In the blink of an eye. As painful as it was for me, I can only imagine how hard it was for my parents.

Losing a child is every parent's greatest fear. It's like that gaping, blood-gushing wound that looks too horrific to ever heal. With proper care - consideration, compassion, empathy - the wound can be stitched and the repair process begins. At first, it hurts beyond words. The body's defense mechanism tries to block the pain, which for an emotional injury often leaves a person in a kind of psychological numb state. Be patient, please, with those who are numb and if you are the numb one. As recovery progresses, the wound scabs over - figuratively, yes, but it's just like a "real" scab...pick it, and the wound bleeds. Sometimes it looks like the wound is all better, then it reopens. That happens with grief, a lot. A picture, an inadvertent question, hearing about a similar loss, it's hard to predict what may set off the grieving pain all over again. For me, breaking a glass and disrupting a "set" sent me into tears - because that broken glass was too shattered to be saved much as my brother's bodily injures made him too broken to fix.

Years pass. You don't "get over it," you "get on with it" - it being life. The sorrow doesn't go away, you simply learn how to live with, and often how to compartmentalize, the grief. The agony and anguish fade to an ache. That doesn't mean you love the person less or that you don't miss them. It means you are still alive and your brain knows you need to function whether or not your emotions want to. If you're going through this now, as a recent or not-too-distant loss, please accept this bit of advice: don't be afraid to find joy again, it is not a betrayal. My brother had been growing into the attitude that he was my "big" brother despite being 3 years younger. I know he would want me to be happy. He wouldn't want my mother to spend her days crying. He would probably have been the kind of uncle parents hate and kids love (admit it, Billy, you would've been!). He would not begrudge me a smile or laughter.

So as time goes by, focus on the happy memories. Laugh and smile again. In your mind, share the joy with the one who is no longer physically with you, like I did up there in that sentence about my brother as an uncle. Live life to the fullest because that's what your loved one would want for you.

Happy Birthday, Billy!