Taking Care of Grief

Photo by Mitch Lensink on Unsplash

I have a large green leafy plant growing in my living room. I affectionately refer to it as my Grief Plant. The plant came into my life right as my mother’s life ended, March 24th, 2016. It arrived at my parents house amongst a flurry of beautiful flower arrangements from, what felt like, everyone we ever knew.

The devastating thing about condolence flowers is that most of them die in a week or two. I found this particularly ironic when I was in the deepest part of my grief and had to throw away sad dead flowers. “Why do people send these when they are just going to die!?” I cried in anguish as I dumped yet another vase full of once vibrant flowers in the trash.

To be fair, I don’t actually blame or resent my amazing friends and family for sending flowers. In fact, I still remember receiving flower deliveries from close friends during the first few days my mom was in hospice care. With each note and bouquet I wept with sincere gratitude. It’s just an unfortunate fact of life that both flowers and humans have, what feels like, a very short life cycle.

At first I was reluctant to deal with the Grief Plant. I had taken it home with me knowing my dad had much bigger things to deal with at the time. Part of me hoped it would fizzle out along with all the other flowers and I could use its pretty blue pot for some trendy succulents or something a bit more upbeat. Another part of me couldn’t bare the thought of something else dying, so I begrudgingly brought it home to live on my coffee table.

 

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on UnsplashI’ve never fully appreciated the phrase, “one day at a time” until those first few months after my mom’s funeral. Friends and family would ask, “How are you?” and, not wanting to be rude or depressing, I would have to reply, “Today, I’m doing ok” and keep it at that. Because truly, I couldn’t imagine how I would feel the next day. A typical day seemed to comprise of at least five emotions before lunch, which was hard to explain when asked the casual “how are you?”

I was also nervous to tell people how I was really doing. “Well, I cried in the bathroom at work and in my car on my lunch break. And then I came home and cried on the couch.” Or “I felt good today. I laughed and went running and even grabbed some drinks with friends.” Either of these scenarios would be uncomfortable for some people to digest. It might be that I’m too sad or “should you really be back at work if you’re crying in the bathroom?” Or “jeez, you sound pretty upbeat, are you sure you’re really dealing with this? You know it’s ok to cry, right?”

The answer is yes and both. Yes, I’m sad and being at work is both horrible and healing. Yes, I had a good day so I’ll both cry and have a large glass of wine. Either way, I had to roll with it one day at a time. 

Much to my surprise, in the blur of living one day at a time, the Grief Plant somehow managed to stay alive. At first, I couldn’t remember to water it. All of a sudden I would look over and see every stem completely wilted, the entire plant on the edge of demise. I’d hastily add water and hope it would come back to life.

My emotional state seemed to be mirroring the Grief Plant: My day would start out as normal as it could, then out of nowhere I would hear a familiar song, see a friendly face, or even notice a beautiful cloud. Suddenly I too would be completely wilted, consumed by sadness, my body flopping on the floor in tears.

Unlike taking care of a plant, there aren’t straightforward instructions for wilting humans. Sure, there are some great books that walk you through the stages of grief. And, of course, there are those friends who have sadly had to walk this path already in their lives and can share in your emotions or give advice. But at the end of the day, we still have to find our own light through the tunnel, our personal version of healthy soil, water, and sunshine. 

So I tended to my sadness; I let the tears flow, I sobbed and talked out loud to myself, to my mom. I looked at old pictures and wore my mother’s clothes so I could soak in her smell. I took care of my most basic needs: I slept, ate, and exercised. I drank lots of wine.

A few more months past, and I noticed with a shock that the Grief Plant had grown beautiful white blossoms. They were only a few inches tall, and seemed to be hiding among the larger green leaves of the plant. I couldn’t believe it! I had barely managed to keep this plant alive and here it was growing these stunning white blooms.

Had I also been growing without realizing it? For so long I felt stunted, numb, disconnected. But when I looked around at my life, I saw how far I had come in a few short months. I was laughing, traveling, cooking meals, taking time to go inward, and learning how to tend to my newest emotion; grief. I don’t know if I could describe myself as “blossoming” during those months of deep grief, but the plant certainly gave me hope; hope that I could continue to grow even amid the ups and downs of loss.

Now, a year later, the Grief Plant’s scars are visible. Some leaves have brown singed spots where they became too dry to bounce back, and some have shriveled and fallen from the pot. But even with those scars from the past year, more fresh green leaves continue to grow; little hopeful leaves that have sprouted up in between the older, tattered ones.

My healing scars aren’t visible like the Grief Plant, but my process has been uncannily similar: I’ve kept growing too. Despite setbacks and bouts of sadness, my life has continued, evolved, and unfolded in ways I never expected. Don't get me wrong; I don't think that at the one-year mark grief and healing are magically over. But I do think that this year has taught me how to care for my grief for years to come.

I’ll continue to cry when I need to, and share memories of my mom unabashedly. I’ll remember how she taught me to be brave, to love, and how to make a top-notch gin and tonic. I’ll strive to keep growing into a woman she would be proud of. And, most importantly, I’ll honor my grief because it honors her and her beautiful time she spent here with us.

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