Celebrate we will
Because life is short
But sweet for certain
We're climbing two by two
To be sure these days continue
Things we cannot change...
Dave Matthews Band
On January 2 my childhood best friend's mother, Jan, passed away. Sadly, I had not seen her in years; I never got to say goodbye. Though it had been years since I'd seen her, the loss of her still hit me. It hit me harder than I realized it would. Growing up, she was like a second mother to me -- very different than my own mother and, in many ways, more like me. There was a sassiness, a sarcasm, to her that I connected with. Like me, she had the tendency to be moody, controlling, to always seek perfection. She often hid behind these things, but so many parts of her were transparent: her love for her daughter and husband, her determination to help those in need, her never-ending quest for knowledge. Over the years she supplemented the things my parents taught me with her own ideas and ways of doing things. She always has been -- and always will be -- a part of the person I turned out to be.
I'm not sure I've fully dealt with the loss yet. I went to the celebration of life service (a beautiful and inspiring alternative to the traditional funeral). I cried alone in my room, rotating the ring she once gave me on my finger. I wrote down a list of memories that came to mind when I heard the word "Jan." And still I don't think it's really had a chance to sink in. Grief is funny that way... It doesn't always happen when it's expected to. But I know it will -- and I know that so many others are grieving the loss of this wonderful woman. The tips below are for them -- and for anyone dealing with grief and loss.
How to Cope with Grief + Loss
1. Find support. There is nothing worse than being alone when you are in pain and grieving the loss of a loved one. Finding support from friends and family members -- and/or outside support from a therapist or grief group -- is absolutely critical. I cannot tell you how wonderful it felt for me when I told the news to my boyfriend and he immediately stopped what he was doing and embraced me. I thought I was okay, but when I felt his arms around me, I knew that I'd been in desperate need of that hug. It's important to grieve in your own way -- and sometimes that means being alone -- but especially in the initial stages of loss, it's essential to surround yourself with people who love and support you.
2. Look after yourself. When you're grieving, it can be hard to remember to take care of yourself. You're dealing with pain and stress and a myriad of emotions that you may not have experienced before. Accept that you are hurting, but don't allow yourself to stop caring for your physical body. Get as much rest as you possibly can. Eat food that will make you feel energize and healthy. Spend time meditating, walking, or taking a long bath -- anything that will leave you feeling more relaxed. It's easier to let things slide when you're upset, but being in an unhealthy, exhausted physical state will make your emotional pain much more magnified.
3. Let yourself feel. If you're anything like me, it's tempting to shut down when hard emotions come along, pushing them to the back of your mind and plowing through life appearing unaffected. Clearly this is not a healthy way to do things (believe me, I know!). It's important to let yourself experience all of the emotions you feel -- anger, hurt, loss, pain, etc. -- and fully experience them. Don't let others tell you how you should or shouldn't feel. Embrace your emotions and remind yourself that it's perfectly okay to feel the way you do. Dealing with loss, I've found, really brings up some odd feelings, but that's okay. You're allowed to feel however you want to feel (now, how you act on those feelings is a different story...).
4. Seek an outlet. I really believe you are entitled to feel whatever the hell you want to feel whenever the hell you want to feel it. That being said, you cannot always act on those emotions. Just because you are angry that a loved one has died doesn't mean you can lash out at loved ones that are still alive. Which is why you need an outlet. Whatever you love to do -- writing, painting, biking, soccer, bowling, etc, etc, etc. -- do it. Find a way to take your emotions and express them in a positive, healthy way. For example, writing's kinda my thing so I'm going to use that as an outlet (see below) to express how I feel about the loss of Jan. Writing really helps me to express my emotions in a positive way. Find what works best for you and do it.
5. Remember the good times. What always bums me out about funerals is all the black, all the sadness, the wet eyes and the sniffling noses. Of course, it's okay (and necessary) to be sad, but focusing on the loss instead of the great life that was lived has always seemed like a bit of a downer practice. Jan's friends and family put together a wonderful celebration of life ceremony, complete with uplifting poems, laugh-out-loud stories, and touching memories. Yes, there were certainly some tears shed, but I left the service thinking, "Wow, Jan had a great life filled with amazing memories and loving friends and family." It was so nice to celebrate her life -- remembering the good times -- instead of mourning her loss. Focusing on the positive makes such a difference.
6. Celebrate life. One of the things we can take away from a loss is a reminder to celebrate our own lives. As death reminds us: life is short. This is something we easily forget when we're healthy and living and going about our day-to-day lives. Take time when you're grieving to remind yourself that life is pretty awesome -- and it's also not infinite. Times of grief should also be times of celebration -- for the lives others have lives, for the lives we're still living. It might seem selfish or unfair to celebrate life when someone has recently lost a life, but it's not. It's most likely exactly what he or she would have wanted you to do.
Below, I've chosen to celebrate Jan's life by documenting some of the memories I shared with her and celebrating all the wonderful things that she was. For most of you, these won't make any sense, but perhaps this will serve as example of something you might want to try if you ever experience the lost of a loved one.
A Celebration of Jan
Jan was a lot of things in her life -- mother, daughter, friend, spouse -- and she was a lot of things to me, a staple in my childhood and teen years, a second mother figure that I looked up to, argued with, and loved. Without her, I would not be who I am and I'm so grateful that she was -- and always will be -- a part of my life. Though the list of things Jan was would be endless, here are a few of the things she was to me:
A patient hair-brusher, slowly untangling the knots from my gnarled hair
A gorilla-spotter, finding them even in the unlikely Central Park
A supporter, always encouraging and believing in her daughter (and me!)
A crafter, turning the most boring white sweatshirt into an xmas masterpiece
A red convertible driver, cruising me and her daughter all over town
A kindred soul, adhering to my odd childhood quirks (shower at 7!)
A Mac lover, introducing me to what would become my favorite brand
A researcher, finding anything and everything online (back in the '90s!)
A home-renovator, always tackling a new project with gusto
A beach-goer, taking me year after year on family vacations
A business starter, launching her own line of stationery (which I still have!)
A costume-creator, dressing up me and her daughter like twin babies
A scientist, taking on science projects with my mom (milk? soda? water?)
A rescuer, soothing my bloodied lip when I fell off my bike (still pissed, Monk!)
A friend, cheering me (and my mom) with the daily gifts in Denver
A Nordstrom-lover, lunching with us almost every Friday afternoon
A firework-watcher, taking me with them to the Pike every July 4th
A colored xmas light-user, awing me, who had only ever had white lights
A s'mores eater, enjoying a simple treat Eloise-style in The Plaza
A generous gift giver, surprising The C.Factory with mounds of gifts
A hot cocoa maker, warming us after hours of sledding at the park
A chatter, keeping me entertained on the softball sidelines
A relaxer, showing me that it's okay to relax on a Saturday morning
A comfort, letting her daughter and me crawl into her bed during thunderstorms
A rule-maker, telling us when to be home (but letting us sneak boys in the yard)
A dog-finder, locating the perfect breeder for my first pup, Pooky
A house-finder, finding the perfect spot just a few blocks from her house
A cheerleader, always celebrating the odd parts of me (8-year-old organizer)
A worker, hosting me on Take Your Daughter to Work day like I was her own
A roller skate rink maker, entertaining us kids for hours and hours
A Hippo-finder, buying them for me whenever she spotted them
A friend, asking me about my school, my boyfriends, my latest hobbies
A mother, welcoming me into her home when my mom was hospitalized
A beautiful soul, the best second mom I could have asked for...
She was all these things and so much more. Not everyone is lucky enough to have someone like this in her life -- a kindred soul, a mother figure who is so different from her own mother but just as loving and supportive. I was so fortunate to grow up having two families that loved me, two families that celebrated and encouraged me. Jan was so many wonderful things, and though all that she was will always be with me, her presence here in this world will be missed.