Part of life is dealing with death. Even the loss of people we don't know can affect us deeply. To face the knowledge that someone is gone forever can be very difficult to do. When the one lost is someone close to you, it is even more devastating.
There are well established stages of grieving. You go through periods of denial, anger, guilt, pleading, sorrow, acceptance. Some weep, some face death dry-eyed and somber. But each has their way for dealing with what is a natural part of life.
People's beliefs of afterlife (or not) may govern their ability to grieve, too. Those who believe that death is the absolute end may have more troubles getting through the grieving process than those who believe that death is just a transition to another stage. Personally I have come to believe that the energy that gives us life travels on to a new spot when we die and eventually gains yet another body. I can't explain it exactly, but I have had enough things happen in my life to believe that there is a spirit world that we can't entirely understand or know.
I've found that dealing with the grief of death and the stress involved with having a love one go through a long illness can affect your life in many ways. It can make you less tolerant of others. It can open your eyes to your own faults, and push you to do things you might not have otherwise. It also can make you more sympathetic to those who are dealing with the dying process. I am now going to a nursing home on a regular basis, to share my dogs and my music with those who are ill. Many of these people will not be here much longer. It's tough to do - but it's worth it.
I've included here some words on those I have lost .. while this may not interest anyone else, and may indeed be tough reading, it has been cathartic for me to put this all down. It gives some insight into how these losses have affected me, and also on how my family and I dealt with my father's long illness.
.. My Losses ..
The year I graduated from high school, my grandparents were killed in a car wreck. They lived locally. I remember what a shock it was - and yet it was somehow not "real". We had no funeral, as my family believes in cremation. And the whole concept of their actual death did not hit me until one day I was going through some things stored in the basement, and I came across the 2 meter ham radio that had been in their car at the time of the wreck. Splashed across the front of it were streaks of dried blood.
That's when it really sunk in that they were dead. My logical mind had known it all along, but my emotional mind had blocked much of it out. I sat there on the floor and bawled.
Since that time of my first real interaction with the concept of death, I've had more than my share of emotional realizations. In college, a friend and I were walking late at night when we heard gunshots. Heading home, we came across the body of a murdered man. The entire event is still surreal in some ways - the giant pool of blood surrounding him, the frantic scramble to find someone to report it to .. waiting in the cop car as we had to go downtown to give statements .. and the knowledge that whoever murdered him may have thought we'd seen something. The remainder of that year on campus, we were both in a constant state of fear.
My brother died the next year, another car wreck. It happened in the middle of a cold Alaskan night, and his car went off the road. When he didn't show up for work the next morning, my Dad went looking for him and he is the one who found him. I can only imagine how terribly hard that had to be, for a father to find his dead son like that. The family was in shock, but we stumbled through as families do. But for the first time, I found how death could bring anger. My Mom and I, while clearing out my brother's house, had the worst argument we have ever had. I still don't remember what it was about. It was an argument brought on by the anger at death.
My family has always been a group that includes animals as part of our lives. These animals become part of the family structure and are emotionally bound to us, and we to them. It's a difficult thing in many ways - dogs and cats and horses do not have the lifespan we have, and so you take them into your heart with the full knowledge that someday you will have to face losing them.
In 1997, I lost the horse I'd had for 17 years. A horse, you say? Most people are unable to understand the relationship I had with Fireweed. We had a trust established to a point that I used to do demos on him, with no saddle or bridle or halter - nothing. With nothing but the trust between us, I would ride him into an arena and lope circles and patterns, showing the true bonding a horse can have with its owner. Using leg and voice cues, I'd bring him to a halt in front of the audience and then talk about developing honesty and fairness between animal and human. We were very close, and shared 17 wonderful years. That same year, I lost an Australian shepherd I'd had for 10 years - amazing dog. In 1999, my old German shepherd had to be put down, at the age of 11. And more recently, November 2002, I lost a cat who spent 16 years by my side. Each loss brought its share of memories and tears, and continues to do so.
But the two most devastating losses I've dealt with, are the suicide of my friend Travis in 2001 and my Father's death in 2002.
Travis was my soulmate. We met in 1997, online, and met in 1998 r/t. I have never shared love with anyone in the way I shared with him. To say it was incredible is to barely touch what we had. Our time together r/t was exquisite. While the emotional ties between us were amazingly strong, there were circumstances that kept us from being physically together, and we accepted that it could not be that type of relationship. It was difficult at times, but our friendship and love remained strong. To the last time we talked, we still said "I will always love you" .. and meant it.
But Travis had a past that would not let go of him. He was tormented in so many ways .. emotionally .. mentally .. and he could not find his peace in this lifetime. During an especially low point, he chose to leave this life and move on. I think I always knew it would happen .. for when I received the news that he had committed suicide, it came as a shock but not as a surprise. He just couldn't handle what this life had given him. I hope and pray that his soul has found its peace and is healing at this time. I will always love him, and miss him more than I can say.
Three weeks after Travis died, my Father was diagnosed with the worst possible type of lung cancer. He had been having some trouble with shortness of breath, and I was fully expecting a bacterial or viral problem. He had gone out to Seattle to have tests done, and I called him at his motel. His voice was somber as he told me "the news isn't good" .. I can still remember him saying "it's lung cancer, Mel .. they say I have maybe 4 months." I was devastated - not only at the news, but that my Dad was alone in a motel in Seattle with no one to comfort him at that point. His concern was my Mom though .. he asked me to go over and be with her as she heard the news.
Dad chose to go through treatment. Chemotherapy. There's something evil about that very word. Chemo destroyed his quality of life. The year between his diagnosis and his death was so very hard on him. The treatment gave him great pain - it attacked his joints and made him unable to walk or get around on his own. He ached constantly and the doctors blindly prescribed oxycontin and oxycodone. These are extremely strong medications, and he was on them daily.
By Christmas he was unable to function at all, and the first week of January we took him to the hospital. He was incoherent at times, could not recognize us, didn't know where he was or what year it was. His hands were constantly in motion - he had lived his life as an electrician and his hands were busy building electronic devices. He would pick up tiny imaginary pieces and bring his fingers together, connecting them. Sometimes he would tell us "hand me that, over there!" and we would, although there was nothing there. His mind was in its own world.
The doctors were pretty much useless. One of us (my Mom, brother, sister or I) stayed with him at the hospital 24 hours a day. He was dying at that point, wasting away. One of the doctors actually had the gall to say, "Old people just sometimes get this way." I hated her.
My brother and I sat by his side on a Saturday night, after he had been there a full week, and chose a new plan of action for him. We felt that the pain medications were causing his mental dementia, and so told the nurses and the doctor that we wanted him off of the oxycodone and oxycontin, and onto another medication less mind-altering. The physical therapy people had been useless to this point. They would come, take him by the arms and stand him up, then put him back into bed and leave. There had been no exercising of his limbs or body in any way. Jeff and I began exercises with him that night - leg and arm exercises. While Jeff had him doing some isometric type exercises (and bless Dad's heart - he tried so hard), I rubbed his feet and legs to bring circulation back. He had no feeling in his feet, and hadn't had all week (the doctors did NOTHING for this).
By the end of that first night, Dad had perked up a little. By Monday (two days later!) he was recognizing us and had some concept of where he was. It was incredible. Dad was BACK. He started showing interest in the newspaper again, and could carry on a reasonable conversation. I can't say again how powerful those pain drugs are - and doctors are blind to it much of the time.
It took nearly a month before he gained enough strength to return home.
The chemo - after nearly killing him - did not help much. There was a temporary lull in the growth of the tumors, but by April the CTscan showed they had grown larger. At that time, the specialist looked at him and said "Prepare for the end of life." ... she gave no options for further treatment at that point. I was incredulous. I looked at my Dad, who was fighting back tears (and this was a STRONG man) .. and he said "isn't there ANYTHING we can try?". She finally said there was an experimental drug that had had some success. It still shocks me that she didn't give that option to my Dad immediately. This whole experience has made me realize that doctors give up easily and are not nearly as well educated as we tend to believe.
Dad went on the experimental drug. But he continued to weaken, and was in and out of the hospital. He began to see spirits more often .. his parents, long since passed over .. his sister, who had died of cancer some 30 years earlier .. my brother came to him too. This man, who had never seemed to believe in any sort of afterlife, turned to Mom one day and said, "There IS life after death!" He was seeing proof in those who visited him.
Dad died quietly at home on August 1, 2002. We all visited him that day .. I had been coming on a very regular basis, to sit with him and talk. But that last day, we knew. He was unable to talk to us or even react strongly to our words or touch. But I know that he heard us .. and each of us, in our own way, told him it was okay to leave. We assured him that we would take care of Mom, and that we understood that it was time.
I miss him very much. I know we all do.