I am a grief expert. It’s somewhere on my LinkedIn page. I wrote a book about widowhood, have spoken internationally on the subject and even Hoda and Jenna and Katie Couric have been interested in what I had to say.
But my grandmother, Emma James, died last week. I am experiencing what I now recognize as the unmistakable, unstoppable markers of grief. The shock. The sneak attacks of panic. The eye that just starts leaking out of nowhere. I asked a few other so-called grief experts about their experiences, and we’re all in agreement: No amount of expertise makes this hurt any less. It’s a reminder that no matter what your résumé says, pain’s not impressed with your credentials.
“As someone who works in this field, I often feel that ‘I should know better’ or somehow be less vulnerable to loss, but that’s just not the case,” said Angeline Thomas, associate director of programs at Soaring Spirits International, a support organization for widowed people. “As someone who has also experienced multiple losses, each loss has felt even heavier than the one before.”
And this one weighs as heavy as a boulder on my chest. My grandmother, who was 96, was my family’s matriarch — a soft-spoken and kind church deacon who was kind and generous, but could subtly tell you about yourself in the sweetest of ways. She was a wife at 19, a mother at 21, and a divorcée in her 40s who went into the workforce for the first time in the lingerie department at the former Hecht’s store in Landover, Maryland. She was a giant in a tiny, well-dressed body who buried a child, dealt with disappointments and triumphs, and kept smiling, but she never lied about how much these losses hurt. We’ve been expecting her transition since the winter, but that knowledge and all of the grief work doesn’t blunt the impact of her loss or the space in her room where her hospital bed was.
“When you’ve dealt with grief, you think ‘OK, this is really hard,’ and you can figure out how to manage it, but in the back of your mind, the universe keeps reminding you that it doesn’t give a flying fig about that,” my friend Rebecca Soffer, co-founder of the website Modern Loss and author of the best-selling “The Modern Loss Handbook: An Interactive Guide to Moving Through Grief and Building Your Resilience.” “That’s not how it works. Loss is the most natural thing you can experience, but it doesn’t make it any easier when you face the initial stages of grief over and over again.”
Rebecca knows about the rinse, repeat nature of grief. She used to be a field producer for “The Colbert Report,” but got into the grief business after the sudden deaths of her parents just a few years apart. Even though she’s literally written the book on navigating such losses, she knows that doesn’t mean she can’t be there again with the loss of friends and other relatives. Each loss is different. Each sucks. And remembering that, at least, helps her forge a tentative but steady path back through the muck.
“Even working in the field of bereavement in a professional capacity, you’re a human being in the world,” she said. “The logical brain struggles to remind the raw feeling part of you in those early days that you have learned coping mechanisms. There are things you have tried and learned. You can move through them.”
Deb Turnow, another friend, found the mechanisms and methods she learned as a death doula — a person who helps people and families through the death transition — when her own father passed away earlier this year after a diagnosis of liver cancer.
“We had beautiful, deep conversations, from a place that was beautiful, and in his last couple of days, I was able to usher him and his partner and my brother through it,” said Turnow, who lives in York, Pennsylvania. “Having a general education in these things helps take away some of the fear, because this is a process we’re all gonna go through. But it’s different when it’s somebody that you love.”
I have to, once again, give into that bereavement and the weight of the emptiness and figure out how to work it, though I’ve been through this before. But Soffer reminded me that the loss of my grandmother hits different than the loss of my husband, or my father, or of my other grandparents, because those relationships were different, at different times in my life, when I was a different person in that moment. However that pain comes — and it will — “it’s really important to cut yourself a break. … If one thing doesn’t work, try another one. Baby steps,” she said.
So far, those baby steps include taking time to do yoga, watching dumb movies, and hugging all the people who loved my grandmother and will miss her. It’s also looking at pictures and telling Grandma stories, like the one where she politely and distinctly gathered a nosy family friend on a 1999 cruise who asked me why I bothered buying a whole house as a single 28-year-old when maybe my future husband wouldn’t like it. (”Leslie has followed THE LORD’S TIMING and if God says she should buy a house, she buys a house,” she said. Using Jesus to shut up sexists. My girl.)
The truth is that it’s not going to stop hurting, and she won’t be the last person I lose. But I accept that truth, and give myself space to navigate it in my own time.
“Sometimes I’m just here living my life, and all of a sudden, there’s a wave that smacks me up,” Turnow said. “So that’s what I do. I ride that wave, because it means I need to remember and celebrate and be present with my dad in that moment. And when it subsides, I’ll move on and wait for the next one.”