Stage Left

In the days after my mother’s funeral, I thought maybe it would be easier if I just thought mom was at her apartment. That’s all. She’s not here, she’s over there. That worked for about four hours until I thought, gee, I have to call mom and see what she’s doing.


By nature I am a doer. The type of person who identifies an issue, learns about it, and tries to adapt to or fix it. I bought four books and a workbook on grief. I’ve read multiple articles and even listened to podcasts and you know what? The answers are the same - be where you are, for as long as you need, do whatever feels right to you. Just be.


In 1969 Elizabeth Kubler-Ross introduced the five-stage grief model in her 1969 book, “On Death and Dying.” The stages of grief she speaks about - denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance - were devised for people who were terminally ill and dying, NOT for those of us who were grieving the LOSS of a loved one. When you look at her research, it makes sense someone who received a terminal diagnosis would go through these stages.


Somewhere along the way, no one is sure when there was a switch from these are the stages of DYING to these are the stages of GRIEVING. Even Kubler-Ross before she died expressed regret that people view grieving in this linear way now so much so that before her death she co-wrote a book with author, public speaker, and death and grieving expert David Kessler.


In their book “On Grief and Grieving: Finding the Meaning of Grief Through the Five Stages of Loss,” Kubler-Ross and Kessler recognize how validating grief is so important to our mental health, and working through it at our own pace without focusing on an end or if we are “doing it right,” because grief is not a process. They write, “Grief is not just a series of events, stages or time lines. Our society places enormous pressure on us to get over loss, to get through the grief. But how long do you grieve for a husband of fifty years, a teenager killed in a car accident, a four-year-old child a year? Five years? Forever? The loss happens in time, in fact in a moment, but it’s aftermath lasts a lifetime.”


While that makes sense to me in some ways, it also leaves me unsettled, rails against my doing nature, and leaves me feeling adrift and uncomfortable. I tried to do something I felt would help me. Cleaning mom’s room.


Megan Devine, psychotherapist, writer and grief advocate, has something she likes to call the vomit metric. “If the thought of doing something makes you feel sick, now is not the time. It will never feel GOOD. But if it makes you feel sick, now is not the time.” That spoke to me.


I didn’t want to clean all of it though, just baby steps. I thought removing the hospice supplies would bring me some peace, or at least change my thought pattern. Her room has remained unchanged, minus the hospital bed, and walking in there brings me right to those last moments. Part of my issue is her room is the only place in my house I feel comfortable. How to balance that feeling between comfort and sadness is the question.


Being stuck in those last days feels wrong to me, though. Those last days don’t define our relationship, our partnership, our love. The feeling happens when I sit on her couch in her room, it’s almost palpable. Remove the physical representations of that night, the medicines, the hospice supplies.


By removing those items, will I remember the positives and not only that night? Will it help part of my sadness and her leaving? It’s worth a try. Our relationship was more than just that last night. It was one of unconditional love, of sacrifice yes, but of love at its very core. I can move forward because she is still with me. I feel her. And I believe she is in that feeling that won’t leave me alone, those words that pop into my mind, “clean that up, move that away, put it to rest.” It’s that feeling that holds the key to moving forward.


Not to be a cliche but I am taking one day at a time. I am trying to move through my days feeling whatever comes my way. Some days I feel okay. Other days, not so much. The difference is in cutting myself some slack. Not judging how I feel. Remembering grief is not linear, I don’t have to do anything with it. While simply being and not doing is not my comfort zone, I’m learning.