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How Do You Juggle and Hustle Through Grief?

By September 5, 2014

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I lost my grandfather a little over a year ago. It was really more like the loss of a parent for me, as I had lived with my grandparents for ten years as a child. He had been sick with emphysema, diabetes and asthma for years and his quality of life had diminished to almost nothing. I was grateful he wasn’t going to suffer any longer, but that doesn’t take away the pain, does it?

My grandparents lived in a small town in Minnesota and I managed to visit about once a year. We would chat on the phone every couple of weeks and frequently exchanged emails. While in Minnesota with my family right after he passed away the sadness was consuming. I did nothing but think of him. Every street corner, every book in his office, every sugar-free sweet treat throughout the house, seemed weighted down with his presence. But after I returned home to Colorado, I found that when the person you’re grieving isn’t a part of your daily life, you can set aside your grief for a time. It returns at quiet and unexpected moments: when I reached for the phone to share something that I knew would make him chuckle, when I received a birthday card signed only by my grandma, when the song I danced with him to at my wedding was played at a little bar on the beach in Hawaii on his birthday. The tears come every time one of these small things happen.

The most difficult moment I’ve had happened one night when my husband and I were sitting at our synagogue at a panel discussion with some local rabbis. I spotted an elderly gentleman wearing a short sleeved button-down shirt, suspenders and a belt to keep his pants up under his big pot belly, strolling around the synagogue waiting to hear an interesting talk given by some interesting men, clearly in his element. We saw him at the same time and my husband turned to me and said “he reminds me of your grandpa” just as I was about to say it. The resemblance was stunning. He didn’t look like my grandpa, but he wore his outfit and demeanor, the manner in which he carried himself, the same wizened smile of a man who’s seen so much of life, a little smug, a slight twinkle in his eye, the decided air about him that he’d talk you to death if you dared to ask a question. It took my breath away and brought tears to my eyes. It was a shock to my system to be so blindsided by such a vivid representation of my grandpa in another person. During the discussion the rabbis were asked what they each think about heaven. One of them replied that he thinks heaven lives in the memories of the living-that we carry pieces of our loved ones with us and that’s heaven to him. I don’t think my atheist grandpa could have agreed more.

So what have I learned about grieving when you’re trying to live your life, raise your kids, be a loving and present partner in your relationship, and maintain your career?

Be gentle with yourself. If you don’t feel like going to that happy hour, the company picnic, the baby shower, your book club, the PTA meeting, it’s okay to miss it. Did you hear that? It’s okay to miss it. You have a free pass.

Express your grief using your creative talent. Paint, sculpt, design, photograph, write. I have a private blog of letters from me to my grandpa that I add to whenever I need to tell him something or just have a good cry. The medium doesn’t matter. Do whatever is comfortable and right for you. It doesn’t have to be perfect and you don’t have to share it with anyone. It is just for you.

It’s okay for your kids to see you cry. It was tough at first. I didn’t want my boys to witness the depths of this pain, but I quickly realized that I couldn’t hide it from them. And I didn’t want to either because I wanted to give them insight into how much he was loved, and how much they are loved too. My younger son landed himself in the ER earlier this year and was so incredibly brave while getting stitched up, we had to ask him how he stayed so calm. He said that while the doctor was working on him he thought about how much grandpa loved him. That floored me, because my son was 4 when my grandpa passed away, and was only 3 the last time they saw each other. Whoa.

Laugh. Share stories and pictures. It’s human nature to sanctify people who have died, and that’s fine if it helps you through. But it’s also fine to recall the times that your loved one was a pain in the ass.

Cherish those small moments when the grief returns. I can’t describe how overwhelmed I was at each of these times I’ve described. The tears come in like a tidal wave. But I wouldn’t want to live my life without the promise of more moments like those. Despite the sadness, they are so beautiful. They remind me of the rabbi’s version of heaven – some small part of Grandpa surely lives on in me.

This past weekend I visited my grandma. It was the first time I had been back since my grandpa’s passing. Gratefully, I found him again in those familiar small moments. Spotting his handwriting on a labeled drawer in his office. Seeing the gas station where we would always stop for gas when I was a child, which is just up the street from the Dairy Queen where I was routinely spoiled each summer. And finally, the cemetery. I went alone and started crying the moment I got in the car to drive there. Cemeteries force reality upon you. As I said before, when you’re not with someone every day, the grieving comes at unexpected (and expected) moments. So I dealt with a piece of grief this weekend and now it’ll probably be a while before I have another one. But when I do, I know I’ll cherish that small moment for what it is and let the tears come.

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