June 4 – Working through the pain

June 4. “The best way out is always through.” (Robert Frost)

I love a good quote from a poet, they are so economical with words.

Life hands difficulties to people every day. And an enormous amount of time and energy is often spent trying to figure a way out of a difficult situation. Often, it would be far better to just own it, experience it, and move through it. I think there is no better example of this than dealing with a loss.

I have experienced loss in my life. Some of my close relatives have died, including both parents, one of my sisters and a niece. Each of these four losses came at different times of my life, and found me in different circumstances. I handled each very differently, and as a result I have learned a great deal about dealing with loss.

When my dad died, I was a small child of 6. I had no real concept of what death was. I was told I would never see him again in this life, and that he was in heaven, but these were difficult concepts to understand at that age. When he died, we had a puppy. We had just gotten the puppy at Easter a few weeks before. It was still not house broken, cried at night when we were trying to sleep, and peed often in the kitchen. But, that puppy was quickly becoming my best friend. When my dad died my mom knew she’d have to go back to work full time to support us, and so the Animal Protective League was called to come pick up the puppy and take it away. I remember standing at the front door seeing the white truck with the funny doors on the side as Taffy was removed from our house.

I knew I would never see the dog again and I cried, just as I cried at my dad’s funeral. Not really understanding the concept of the loss, but knowing that something was very wrong.

Some years later I remember waking up in the middle of the night, with my mother sitting on my bed. I’d been crying hard in my sleep and she asked me what I was dreaming that made me cry so hard. I told her that I’d been dreaming about the puppy being taken away and how much I missed her. I was eight years old, and I believe in retrospect that my brain was trying hard to deal with the loss of my dad the best way it knew how, by dealing with the loss of the dog.

When my niece died I was a 16 year old High School student. She was less than two years old, and was my Godchild. She had been born with heart issues, and was small and frail for her age. But she had a lot of spirit, just as any toddler would. She loved playing with me, and I with her. The last time I saw her was a Friday night. She, my sister and my nephew had come over for a visit. I wanted to go to a baskeball game, and my mother and I had argued. She didn’t want me to go, and to stay instead to play with my niece. In my youthful naiveté I believed there would be thousands of opportunities to play with her, but only limited opportunities to go to a basketball game of such importance. As I was putting on my shoes at the back step, she was banging into the door with her roller seat, crying my name. I left anyway, and regret going through that door to this day.

At her funeral I cried hard. I thought that my heart was so broken that it would never heal. That was 36 years ago, and to this day, when Valentine’s day comes, there are at least a few blue minutes for me. But, in the years immediately after her death, I tried to ignore the pain. I pretended that it didn’t hurt, and that I wasn’t carrying guilt over the last time I was with her. It was only much later, well into my adulthood, that I finally decided to make peace with myself over that Friday night, and allowed the memories of her to be of the happy times, and not the pain.

When my sister died, I was an adult in my 40s. She and I had not spoken much in the last 10 years of her life. Our relationship had been strained for a long time. But, she was my oldest sister. I had to be strong for my family, and I put on a stoic front. I grieved only privately, and don’t remember crying at her wake or funeral. Her death bothered me for years, in part because I kept denying that it bothered me. It wasn’t until after the death of my mother that I really dealt with the death of my sister, and then the floodgates of emotion came flying open.

My mother died two years and a few weeks ago. I have written here of my feelings about the circumstances of her death. She died alone and lonely, with her lunch tray in front of her, and the hope that she might have visitors that day. She died on a Sunday, and was buried on the following Thursday. On the days in between I wept hard for the loss. I fully embraced the sadness I felt, and the sense of loss. I nearly insisted that I give the eulogy at her funeral, and it was the hardest talk I have ever prepared. In the days leading up to the funeral mass I had practiced it a few times, and never got more than a few sentences in before the tears flowed freely. At the funeral mass I mustered up all the courage I had, and delivered the eulogy in a way that I know would have made her proud of me.

In the months after my mother’s death, I had bouts of depression. I would be coming home from work, and suddenly would remember that in the car was my favorite time to call her. I would reach for the phone, and stop, knowing no one would answer, and the tears would flow again. But through that grief I never fought against the pain. I didn’t try to squelch it, or push it down into my inner recesses. I let the feelings flow.

It is two years later, and there are still times when I want to reach for the phone. Even though I know that the conversations in her later life weren’t of high quality, and she often would not even answer when I called, I still miss trying.

I have tried it both ways when dealing with the pain of loss. I have tried ignoring the pain or pretending it wasn’t there. And I have tried just letting the feelings flow. I lack the poetic sense of Frost, but I can surely attest in my own life that through is he superior way out of the pain. I have learned the hard way, that there is no easy way out of the pain. The surest and only way is to live through it, embraced by the love of family and friends.

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