The Tale of Us Against the Monster: Waiting and Breathing

This is going to sound a bit weird, but grief is not always a bad thing. Okay, okay, I’ve heard all the platitudes: “grief proves you loved” or “grief is the price of love” etc, etc.  Yes, I know. Loving someone – that someone = grief.  It’s a life component so true it can be proven mathematically.  But one thing I have noticed since the Monster first entered our lives, is that I got so bogged down and stressed out that there seemed no time for anything else.  In fact, I was just telling a friend of mine earlier today that I haven’t been able to keep up with my normal activities, and I’ve had to refuse invitations. You see, my time has been consumed with being stressed out, busy with stressing, completing stressful things, and stressing out about stressing.  And when you have that much stress, it pollutes everything…every little thing.  So the simple question one asks oneself such as “should I get dressed before or after I make breakfast?” becomes something like this:

“If I get dressed now, then I have to wait to make breakfast because I should probably have a shower first before putting on clean clothes but then if I wait until after breakfast, then I should wait until after breakfast for my shower too because then I have to put on yesterday’s dirty clothes and then cook in them but then if I put on clean clothes before my shower then I will need to change again and isn’t that a waste because I’m not being careful with things, and this is how wastefulness becomes a habit and that’s how people lose everything they own and if I know this and do it anyways, am I not aiding my own disastrous consequences and for that matter do I then deserve those consequences because I am a wasteful person who deserves no better than they get and that’s why my life is falling apart because I can’t make the simple decision of when to get dressed in the correct way so that I don’t lose everything I have by putting on dirty—or clean—clothes.”

So, yep. Where was I? Oh ya…stress.  Stress is the most toxic thing I have ever known.  It can kill you and or drive you mad—and I’m not being metaphorical. Stress is pure poison, which is probably why the Monster wields it as his weapon of choice.  Not only does he want to kill you, he wants to make you insane first.  That’s what was happening to me for the weeks before my father’s death.  My husband and my personal struggle with the Monster aside, I have elderly parents, and in their vulnerability, my father also fell prey to the Monster.  So it became about dividing myself into little strips of me—some were left at home, some were left with my father, and some left with my mother who was so stressed out that she was confused and couldn’t remember details from day to day.

When my father first went into the hospital, we didn’t imagine for a moment that he could actually die. However, as the days turned into weeks and he was no longer able to care for himself, it became all too clear.  He was never coming home.  The pain of it settled in…the KNOWING that he would leave us.

The stress was mountainous then…just staying clear-headed enough to complete the ponderous task of preparing for him to die was, well, unbelievable. The settling of affairs while he was yet alive in order to make my mother’s transition from wife to widow as smooth as humanly possible, was wildly bureaucratic.  It is an expensive and complicated undertaking—to die in Canada.  It is much easier to be born, or married, or divorced, or anything else we Canadian humans do ceremoniously…and believe me when I say, there is ceremony to the dying process. All that was just the financial stuff and performing the hoop gymnastics required by our government on behalf of the ones we love when they pass away.  It’s rather a cold affair.  This, of course, speaks nothing to the emotional and spiritual stress.

It’s standing vigil during the last days of a loved one’s life and it is the ghastly duty most of us will complete at some stage in our lives if we are blessed to care for our dying parents. This involves much standing at a bedside, offering sips of water, or teaspoons of ice cream or chocolate pudding.  There is a lot of soft whispers at this time, hand-holding, tender kisses, hugs, and gentle caresses.  It’s tucking blankets around a body that is much thinner now, and reading aloud from favorite books.  It’s about involving them in conversations even though they have lost the power to speak.  Mostly, it’s about enduring a long, unspecified wait while presenting a positive and happy face.  And you wait, and you wait, and you wait…  His heart still beats, and you are already mourning him.  Believe it or not, this is natural.  You’re not a cold and twisted psycho hoping your parent will hurry up and die.  You’re just…weary.

Then the day happens. My father passed away on a Sunday morning, just as his family arrived and gathered at his bedside. We sat with him for a long time after as we waited on the coroner to come.  But now, the wait was no longer “waiting.”  I remember how my eyes burned as my mom shrunk into my sister’s side, my brothers wept unashamedly, and nothing seemed real as we followed Dad’s body down the hallway of the hospital, and watched the elevator doors close between us.  The nurses and staff were silent, and respectful, watching that long walk to the elevator of a newly bereaved family…they had seen it so many times before.  And then we went back into Dad’s room, and gathered all his things.

That afternoon, we all sat together at my mom’s and talked. We talked about Dad.  There were more tears, but there was also laughter.  Yes. Laughter.  Because our Dad’s life was not defined by the last three months of his sickness.  He had lived 80 years before that, and 58 of those years were spent courting, marrying, having a family, and living with my mother.  Believe me when I say that there had been plenty of laughter.  In fact, there had been more laughter than tears.  My father’s life with us had not been joyless, and as we remembered him with such an indefinable mixture of grief, love, and gladness, the laughter could not help but filter in.  With the laughter came the fresh air. We all began to breathe again.

That’s where grief becomes a good thing…and maybe I should explain that further. Grief brings the air, even though you feel like you can’t breathe at the time.  The thing is, you will breathe again.  I think the healing begins (slowly to be sure) as soon as we begin breathing, although it doesn’t feel much like healing.  There is, at first, too much sadness to consider that the waiting is over.  When introduced initially to the utter finality of death, it is always shocking, even though we waited on death, and knew death was coming.  Yet, death stays but a moment; it comes to collect the dying, and then leaves immediately…it does not tarry with the living. Death shuts the door behind itself securely, and this door is shut forever.  It is truly over.  Grief is the bridge we cross over on the journey toward acceptance.  And then life, somehow, goes on.

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