I thought I was ready. I thought I had said my goodbyes. I thought I was strong enough. I knew it was coming. I thought I could readily move on.
I was dead wrong.
Until now, I am getting over the loss and the pain. Albeit there are good days where I last 24 hours not thinking about it, the bad days still come. And when they do, it envelops me with profound sadness and grief.
I had thought they were invincible, the heroes of my youth. They could do no wrong. In my eyes, I adored them. In my heart, I loved them. In my mind, I accepted their truths (even when I realized later on that some were not).
It happened in a matter of a few years, almost one after the other. First, my Tito* Ben in Dec 2010. Just a few weeks after, right after Christmas and her birthday, my Tita* Belita. Both gone, those who I considered my second parents. A year and a half later, in May 2012, my father. And finally, in January 2016, my mother. I am left feeling orphaned. Shortly after, other uncles and aunties died. And I felt a greater void. Save for one auntie who I also consider my second mom, the authorities and guides of my youth have practically all gone.
Suddenly, an era has passed. I became the full adult, with no one to ask parental advice from. Even at 45 years old when my mom passed away, I was not prepared. I have been an adult for a long time. I made my own decisions and stood by their consequences even during my teenage years. I may or may not have heeded their advice. But I still needed the conversations with them, their opinions, the constant sounding board, the ever-loving conscience and wisdom that their experiences bring. How can I erase the voices in my head? The waves of memories so real it feels as if these are happening in the moment? An urgency to talk so strong I forget that I can no longer just call or message? How?
I tried to deal with it like any change. After all, I marvel at changes, and actually have organizational change management as one of my expertise. I am a believer that staying in the status quo is retrogressing. And I deal or seek changes quite clinically, using the change curve principles as a means to get to the next level. And I espoused that.
But this change was different. I could not go over the problem solving and moving on stages. It was a vicious cycle of self-blame, doubt and uncertainty. Coz how can I solve a problem called death? The deaths were expected, at least in theory, for they all died of illnesses at a ripe enough age, and have lived full lives. And I wonder, how much more difficult is it if the death was sudden? If it happened when I was too young? What if it’s a death of a spouse? Or a child? A suicide? What if it was a senseless one like a school shooting that just happened in Florida?
Over time, I realized that death isn’t a problem to be solved. It’s not a change that can be fully rationalized. Acceptance comes not by forgetting but in remembering. And moving on is not by being without but in being with in a different way.
When I denied the grief, the void became deeper, wider. For months on end, I moved on seemingly okay. The grief manifested itself differently. I had relationships I shouldn’t have gone into. I didn’t find joy in my work, when it used to give me such fulfillment. My health suffered despite my constant running. Even running didn’t feel as good. At some point, I realized I was on a road to self-destruction and looked deep into myself to find meaning in life again. I had no other choice but to acknowledge the grief and the hollowness I felt. I let the tears flow. I started to make sense of my feelings and identified each one. I prayed, I meditated, and practiced mindfulness so I can be more present in the now. Looked at what I still have, rather than what I’ve lost.
When I denied grief, I didn’t make sense. I was confused. I denied the conversations in my head with my mom. I stopped myself from remembering so I wouldn’t cry. And I felt stumped. When I just gave up denying the grief, I felt comfort in remembering. I learned to have the conversations again, even the funny ones. I recalled anecdotes and stories, I found solace in knowing certain things in my day would have been a great story to tell my mom, a meal to share with my aunt, a walk to have with my dad, a debate with my uncle.
I let them into my life again. I wore my mom’s clothing when I felt sad and wanted an embrace. I’d purposely enjoy a buffet for my aunt. I’d read a management book I knew my uncle would appreciate. I’d hold and cradle dogs like my dad taught me how.
Acceptance came in knowing it will never be the same again and that is fine. Acceptance came in believing that somehow, they will always be a part of me and I was truly blessed by their presence in my life. Acceptance came when I moved on not alone, but with them in my heart.
The waves of grief continue to come and go. There are certain days and events that are particularly hard. But every time it comes, I recognize it like a familiar friend. It’s a part of me now. As much as they were part of me. As much as they remain a part of me. The happy memories I treasure, like the conversations in jest I have with them now.
I never really said my goodbyes. There is no need to. They are with me still, guiding me in so many ways even when they are here no more.
* Tito / Tita: filipino term for uncle / aunt
About this post: I wrote this Feb 20, 2018 thinking about the many conversations I've had in the last few weeks with a few friends who were likewise coping with the death of their loved ones. Helping them helped me and perhaps writing this may help others as well.