Grief over time

President Biden’s recent address about the more than 530,000 lives lost in the COVID-19 pandemic echoes feelings I know well. Nearly four years ago, my only daughter Abby died at eight months old. A year later, I wrote about my disdain for the stages of grief model.

What an oversimplification and misrepresentation of a complex concept. A gamut of emotions ran through me at any given moment. The next year, I found resilience in grief and strength in my unconditional, everlasting love for Abby.

Today, I don’t typically feel the intense peaks and valleys of emotions I once did. Instead, my joy at having experienced her life is most prominent. That doesn’t minimize my loss. Never a day goes by that I don’t think of her or wonder what life would be like with my fiery, red-haired almost five-year-old toddler in tow.

Incredibly, I found I had the capacity to cope with this sorrow, this deep suffering, and fold it into my daily life without it breaking me. For a time it was excruciating. A fully soul-shattering, splitting into bity bits, visceral pain that, at times, I did not know if I could come back from.

I’m eternally grateful that a dear friend gave me a book – Getting Grief Right by Dr. Patrick O’Malley – that helped me understand how I could cope. It wasn’t easy at first, to put it mildly. I braced myself for so-called “secondary losses,” and, with every new issue, I worried that the bottom would drop out and my life would fall apart again. It felt like it did, and I did.

Shortly after Abby died, Hurricane Harvey hit. As the levees overflowed and flooded Houston, so did my anxiety and worries. The next year, our family cat of 10 years, Buzz, died. Then my beloved sister-in-law got cancer (and beat it ultimately!). I floundered at work, despite being productive and finding value and purpose in it. I struggled with many of my closest relationships.

My marriage was challenged while riding our own rollercoasters of emotions, even though we have endless love and are best friends and confidants. Then the pandemic hit, where even the most solid of us have been tested in unimaginable ways. Each time, I fell apart. And then picked back up to keep going with a world that doesn’t stop.

Eventually, I found my old strength, changed and fortified by Abby’s life and love. Because she understood what it meant to fight for life before she could even understand what she was fighting for, I carried on and made that my mantra. Live life to its fullest because that’s what we’re here to do. Writings by Buddhist monk Pema Chödrön also helped me find perspective to let go and cherish what I tried to control.

Recently, I shared that my overall outlook on Abby’s life is positive. How could that be? I think – how could it not? Abby brought love and joy I didn’t know was possible. I trust these feelings and memories will never fade because they’re such a part of my fabric. Sorrow and suffering are part of the human condition and, although they affect me (I’m not a robot!), they no longer cripple me. Time wasn’t magic, but it gave me space to mourn and cope.

In a similar vein, President Biden’s compassion, undergirded by his own tragic experiences suffering the loss of two children, reflects our expansive capacity to cope over time. Our culture and societal narrative around grief needs to change to help illuminate that we have the tools to do this, we have just forgotten so.

Share your stories, fears, tears and love with your support system. Seek help if you need help. Dr. Patrick O’Malley said we need to “create a better culture for those who mourn.” I view my story as one more voice that may help add to this needed shift.

I pray for all those who have lost loved ones. I pray for their suffering and that self-kindness fuels their strength over time, buttressed by the love of their beloved.

Hold tight to your loved ones for though they may be gone they are with you always.

-By Jill Oliver Robinson, M.A., research manager in the Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy at Baylor College of Medicine

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