Grandpa’s brown eyes used to gleam against the golden lights of the plastic reindeers he would meticulously set next to a wooden Santa sleigh. Our home was lined with red and silver tinsel, and glowing striped candy canes framed our driveway. His white hair swayed as his fingers glided across the keys of his piano, playing his favorite song. This year, the driveway is barren, the house is silent, and the warmth of Christmas is gone. The grief that surrounds people who experience loss is as heavy and cold as the winter snow.
Grief can be a challenge whether or not you have experienced it before. Processing the emotions associated with grief helps people move forward. The five stages of grief play a role in how people process their feelings and ultimately conquer the emptiness the loss of a loved one can bring. Grief is not a straight line; understanding the process with which someone grieves can aid in the first steps of not only coming to terms with death but moving forward from it.
Grandpa snores softly in his bed most of the day and pushes his alphabet soup to the side when he sits at the table. The blood sugar machine beeps loudly, telling me his blood sugar is too high to get a proper reading. He throws his pills at me and tells me I am trying to poison him before refusing his medication altogether. Soon, grandpa became a regular patient at the hospital. Grandpa always came home, and when he finally didn’t, it was almost impossible to believe.
Though you might think his prolonged illness might make it seem like accepting his death would be easier, that wasn’t true for me. My grandpa was scheduled to return home the day he died. My cousin’s screaming and crying filled the neighborhood. I stayed silent, twirling a daffodil in my hands before looking up at the sky. I experienced the news differently than he did. As he broke down into tears, sobbing on the floor begging to see his dad, I simply did not understand how someone I had spoken to only a few hours before was no longer with us.
I was in denial. The hospital staff had discussed recovery options for my grandfather, including hospice, but somehow, death never seemed to be an option. As far as everyone was concerned, he would survive and be sent to rehab to regain mobility. He was supposed to leave the hospital and come home, but he never made it. Grief is such a subjective process, and as the fog of disbelief faded, it gave way to emotions that had been suppressed by the initial shock.
My mom clutches her Samsung phone in her hands with my cousin beside her. I peek over her shoulder to see grandpa in his hospital bed. He breathes heavily, barely aware that we can see him through the flicker of a dimly lit screen. “Grandpa, can you hear me? You gotta do what the doctors tell you so you get better so you can come home, okay? We miss you. We love you.” I wait for his response, with every breath sounding laborious and moist with phlegm. Every word he manages to mumble fades quickly against the beep of the hospital’s heart monitoring machine, so much so that I plea for him to repeat it. But he can’t muster the energy any longer. “I love you, grandpa,” I remind him before passing the phone to my mother. That is the very last time I see him alive.
I am not angry at the hospital staff for doing their job. COVID-19 has hospitals stretched to capacity and I know that doctors and nurses have other patients. But we were never given the opportunity to say goodbye. We didn’t get to tell him we loved him or hold his hand to comfort him. They never called us. My grandfather died alone. I was mad about how the hospital staff handled his final moments. I was mad that he died a few days after my birthday. I was mad because he died a few days before Christmas, his favorite holiday. The timing and circumstances of his death were devastating.
Anger about the circumstances of a death and demand for answers is a normal part of the process of moving forward. Sometimes, anger looks like acceptance, if you know someone will not come back but still want to understand how your loss could have been prevented. Many people look for answers to make sense of how their loved ones did not make it home. Some look for a creative outlet for their anger. Finding an outlet or way to cope is important because anger can quickly give way to guilt and blame. Some blame a higher power, some blame human error, others blame themselves and others blame the person who is no longer here. Some people get mad at themselves, those around them, and even the person that left them behind.
My grandma pressed a small cassette tape into the radio and sat at the coffee table. Her hands were clasped together, her head nodding to a piano piece our household is well-acquainted with. Grandpa used to spoil us. The live music that once drifted through the air with warmth and soul is now replaced with a prerecorded static. It’s a slow song. It’s their song. The song is missing its most vital presenter. Grandma stared blankly at my grandpa’s place at the table, the pad of her thumb running along his picture that she clutches tightly. “Why was it him instead of me? I would give anything to have a few more minutes.”
When someone passes away, those left behind are forced to reconcile the pieces that make up their new reality. They reason that their loved one’s time was cut short and that somehow, begging for more time will reverse the tragedy. It’s not a matter of what-ifs or why something occurs, but instead, an attempt to barter for time that they no longer have.
There is no amount of wishing that will bring your loved one back. Begging for more time distracts from addressing the reality of losing someone. Bargaining can manifest in guilt when people focus on things they wish they could change. This behavior, while comforting, distracts from the reality the loss of a loved one presents. Though this process of grief can take on a hopeful form, bargaining shifts blame from self and instead focuses on the aspects that cannot be changed. It often masks the overwhelming depression that can take hold after a crippling pain or loss occurs.
Mom shuffles her feet out the door every morning with fresh makeup. As she walks in at the end of her day, her mascara is runny. The slight sound of sniffling rattles in her nose when she watches “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” As the smell of pine and the familiar Christmas jingles ring through the home, mother seldomly watches a holiday special or places ornaments on the tree. Instead, she shuffles her feet from the couch to the bedroom, sighing heavily as she climbs into bed. She clutches her pillow tightly, tears streaking down her cheeks. “I just want my dad,” she mutters between sobs before falling asleep.
Depression from grieving can be different than other kinds of depression. This depression stems from understanding how someone will no longer return and how the reality of loss truly sets in. Some don’t get out of bed, while others cry a lot. This phase is learning to live with the reality of someone no longer being there, and how to find ways to live with the new normal.
We dry the tears that fall from our cheeks and exchange pictures, sharing more than just hugs and heartache. For now, we reminisce on the memory of the blind date that started a 56-year marriage, the sticky handlebars of a bike-riding lesson, the cheers from the sidelines at every baseball game and the music that once filled these hallowed halls. We know now that we couldn’t have asked for better. We miss him. We miss him so much, and even if we aren’t okay with it today or tomorrow, perhaps one day, we will be. Raul “Willie” Soto will persist in the memory of those who knew him and those who learn from his example of love and compassion.
Some people wear ashes as a necklace to keep the person close. Others make arrangements to give life back in other ways, such as using ashes to aid trees or plants. While some listen to loved ones’ music, others do things the people who were lost liked to keep their memory alive. Though the loss of a life is hard, the end of someone’s life doesn’t have to be the end of their impact on others.
Acceptance is a process of coming to terms with someone’s absence and how to move forward from it. Grief is an on-going battle. Every day you find a new way to be okay with the loss, and this individual process through the pain that can be daunting. This acceptance doesn’t mean you’re okay, but instead that you are learning to deal with grief in a more constructive manner. For some, remembrance helps. For others, self-exploration and reflection ease the pain. In whatever form it takes, grief reminds us that while life may not feel the same after a loss, acceptance and learning to live with the pain of life can teach us to appreciate the beauty of life’s short but memorable gift.