By ALEXI VENICE
I’ve worked hard to bring light-heartedness and humor into my life after suffering sudden, catastrophic loss seven years ago, so I don’t usually post about grief. In light of what happened at the Las Vegas shooting during a country music concert, however, I hope my transparency and tips can help others.
You’re familiar with people saying something like, “He was never the same after his child died.” Right? I never understood that until my 12-year-old son died suddenly and tragically seven years ago. I’ll never be the same. I’m perhaps a better person in many ways—more compassionate—but I’m a little broken.
In the immediacy of loss, the pain in my heart traveled to the furthest reaches of my body, causing an overwhelming ache. I felt like I was pulling a 1000-pound sled wherever I went. I couldn’t move at my normal pace. I couldn’t walk as fast, ride my bike as fast, workout as strong or think as well. I was slower at everything—intellectually and physically.
Mentally, I wasn’t as sharp when grieving. My brain was preoccupied with processing loss and only loss. I thought about my son, and how much I missed him, maybe even envisioning him in Heaven, hoping he was/is happy. When he first died, my brain was 99% distracted by loss. I wasn’t capable of much.
To this day, a large chunk of my heart is still missing. This manifests as sadness and tears at unpredictable moments. I might cry over something considered mildly sentimental by someone else, and I cry uncontrollably two days per year–on his birth date and Heaven date. An acquaintance hugged me at my CrossFit box one day because she remembered that it was my departed son’s 19th birthday. Fortunately, I was finished with my workout and was on my way out.
I cried all the way home. I cried in the shower and on my way to work. Her hug and acknowledgement pushed me over the edge. I had forgotten what it was like to sob in grief while driving. For those of you who don’t know, your eyeglasses get splattered with tears, the front of your shirt gets wet, and your makeup washes away. I had actually cried for a full year (yes, every single day) after he died, so I thought I wasn’t susceptible to sobbing like that again, seven years later, but the love runs so deep and the loss is so great.
The other half of the emotional equation is extreme elation over events that would be considered “medium-happy” for someone else. If my daughter successfully accomplishes something—publishing an article, getting an A, or getting a job, I’m so happy for her my chest bursts with pride. I’m also proud of her boyfriend’s accomplishments and am thrilled to watch him play baseball, a sport my departed son loved.
Suffice it to say that my emotions are more labile than they used to be, so I have to work at controlling them—especially at work.
There’s a physical component to grief, too. (I never had a clue about this until experiencing it.) Lots of crying drained my energy, so I had to tank up on water to re-hydrate. Crying and missing the one you love is also an appetite suppressant. Who can eat while grieving? This further drained my energy and zest for life for a prolonged period.
Over the last seven years, however, I’ve regained an extraordinary amount of mental acuity, but I feel like I’m still not functioning at the level I once did. My ability to ramp up and dive into something complex, then pivot to the next complicated issue, has diminished. However, if I focus on a few things, I can still analyze the crap out of them and do an excellent job.
Loss of a loved one also impacts your soul. Previously, I experienced happiness or sadness as mutually exclusive events. If I was one, I wasn’t the other. Now, I have a baseline of sadness, but I can still experience the joys life has to offer. I never knew I had the capacity to carry grief but still experience pure joy. Catastrophic loss stretched my soul.
I had to learn how to be happy and light again—like smiling while water skiing. I was so sad for so long, then felt guilty about having fun, that my friends and colleagues had to bring me along gently. I finally gave myself permission to be happy again. And, I am, except when I see loss of life like the tragedy in Las Vegas.
I’ve learned that many people believe in afterlife. That’s where we’ll reunite and catch up on all the lost years. Hug again. Tussle his hair again. Stare into those brilliant blue eyes again. If our souls can’t reconnect in some way, our current quest on earth would be meaningless, wouldn’t it? Our religious beliefs carry us through these questions and so many more. I pray for the people in Las Vegas.
When my children were little, I sort of viewed myself as an intermediary between them and God. As silly as this sounds, I thought it was I who introduced them to God, bringing them to church, getting them baptized, enrolling them in Sunday school, answering questions about Heaven and hell.
When my son died, I abruptly realized that God had his own relationship with my son, and that relationship began long before I brought my son to church to be baptized. My son was mine for only a short time then returned to God. Introductions by me weren’t required. That realization was as comforting as it was surprising.
To sum up, I’ll never be the person I was. And, for certain, at least two days out of the year I’ll be broken. For those of you who’ve lost someone close, you know that we struggle just to get through those most difficult days intact, not expecting our emotions, physical being, mental acuity or soul to be normal.
Then, I’ve learned from experience, the sun will rise the next day, and I’ll be less broken. And, each day after that, a little better.
I offer the below practical grief tips for those of you who are grieving and those of you who are supporting someone through grief:
- Open yourself to love and support from those around you. There are so many people who love you and will help you.
- Go to your place of worship and meet with the pastors (or leaders) privately. Ask them the difficult questions: Where’s Heaven? Is my son there now?
- See a grief counselor, both individually and with your family. Get over the stigma of seeing a counselor. They’re educated (master’s degree) in how to help you through an acute crisis. They will give you a roadmap of what you will likely experience and empower you with terminology to understand what you’re feeling and why.
- Read some helpful literature. For me, reading the Bible helped, as did the resources written and produced by Allan Wolfelt and his Center for Loss and Life Transition. Website link here: https://www.centerforloss.com/about-the-center-for-loss/about-dr-alan-wolfelt/
- Wolfelt’s “100 Practical Tips” series is outstanding. Slim little books with tips that you can take or leave. Not all will apply to you, but some gems are in there. Order it for yourself or send it to a friend in need.
- Be gentle with yourself and your family members. All emotions are on the table and pretty raw in the aftermath of loss. Thus, you might be quick to anger. Try to be forgiving during this time.
- Don’t make any huge financial or work decisions. Put your life on hold. Allow your emotions to lead for a time.
- Make a plan for re-integrating into the workplace, being open and transparent with your close colleagues about what you’re capable of, so they can help and support you. Be mindful of your capabilities and patient in allowing your brain to recover and process again.
- Embrace life and live it to the fullest. Your loved one wouldn’t want you to become a second casualty as a result of his death. There’s so much to live for, so go for it, knowing you will reunite with all family and friends in Heaven someday.