“Good Grief” – Jeana Cost
As Director of Admissions, Jeana Cost spends her days helping patients with eating, mood and anxiety disorders receive the care they need. She speaks with them during some of their darkest moments, when their pain feels insurmountable. In addition to their illness, many of her patients are also struggling with tremendous loss and trauma.
Earlier this year, Jeana suffered a tragedy of her own – the loss of her father. As part of her healing process, our very own Dr. Weiner suggested that Jeana write about her grief. She is graciously allowing us to share her words in recognition of National Grief Awareness Day.
Mourning can be a very lonely process. Jeana’s words remind us that — despite the isolation which can accompany a great loss — there are also great opportunities to honor our loved one and gain a greater perspective about our lives as a result of our loss.
Grief, as Jeana points out, can be good grief.
Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to get through this thing called life. - Prince
My dad passed away earlier this year.
There, I said it.
I’ve spent the past six months avoiding any situation where I’d have to talk about this. Public exposure opens up a risk for me to feel vulnerable; vulnerability cramps my style.
As a therapist, I see this is hypocritical of me. We therapists tell our patients every day to allow themselves to be vulnerable — and here I am, avoiding it.
Vulnerability is a slippery slope in our society – there is a fine line between being vulnerable and coming across as needy. [God forbid I ever need anyone!]
My dad was a stud. He was hilarious and fun and adventurous. Through all of his jokes and stories, he was always there for me. He supported me in a way that still allowed me to learn lessons and figure things out for myself. He and my mother helped me become a happy, goal-achieving adult and I couldn’t be more thankful. I am lucky.
I have to admit that recently, for a split second, I actually wished that my father would have been absent or unsupportive, just so this loss wouldn’t be so painful. [Ridiculous, I know.]
In my years, I’ve heard hundreds of stories about how grief has triggered or affected one’s mental health. Intellectually I know that grief can cause or exacerbate depression, anxiety, eating disorders, substance use and a whole host of other issues. Thankfully, I’ve never experienced this in the past.
But, I get it now. I never before imagined that it was possible to feel such an intense heartbreak; I can’t help but think about the millions of people that came before me. How long did they grieve? What did they do to get through it? What type of support did they find helpful?
As with most hard times in life, I’ve learned a thing or two about who I am and about the world around me from this loss. I’ve learned what my true coping skills are, how wide my support system is and most importantly, I’ve gained perspective.
I recently read a People magazine article featuring Sheryl Sandberg that said:
“Grief is a crash course in perspective.”
Out of all the “cliché” grief quotes that have been thrown my way, this is the one that resonates the most.
Perspective is everything to me now.
Since I lost my father, I’ve spent the past several months thinking about who I want to spend my time with, what I want to be doing, how I want my kids to grow up and how I can be a better person. I’ve evaluated what I’ve been through, how I handled it and what I’ve learned. I’ve noticed several major “themes” emerge throughout this time:
1. Losing a loved one sucks
"You can drive all night looking for answers in the pouring rain." - Cage the Elephant
A friend of mine recently gave me a hug and said “I’m sorry. I lost my dad two years ago and it sucks. There is nothing else I can tell you.” It was one of the most refreshing and true statements I’d heard. You really can’t say much more than that and when you try it comes off as cliché. For example, if I had a nickel every time I heard the phrase “time heals all wounds,” I’d have a lot of nickels. If you can’t already tell, this phrase annoys me. Does time really heal all wounds? I’m not far enough in – or out - to answer this question, but I do know this: over time I have been able to manage my anxiety better. I’ve been able to pull myself together and function like the mother, wife, friend and clinician I need to be. I’ve been able to find coping skills that make the pit in my stomach go away. But I still hurt, I still cry and I’m still surrounded by constant reminders of what I lost: songs on the radio, Harleys on the highway, inside jokes, pictures, his favorite food – these are all constant reminders of my dad in my day-to-day life. Knowing these reminders will never go away, I have to wonder if the wound will ever go away. I have been known to be a Negative Nancy from time to time so I’ll make an effort to stay positive about this one. But I do think there is power in being realistic about things – if you set realistic expectations than you aren’t setting yourself up for disappointment but rather giving yourself the opportunity to prepare for how things might end up or how you might feel. So, should I expect complete healing? Or should I learn how to change the bandage?
2. Guilt overflows during a time of loss
“Make sure my sister knows I love her. Make sure my mother knows the same. Always remember, there was nothing worth sharing like the love that let us share our name.” – Avett Brothers
For me, guilt looked like this: I should have called him more. I should have told him I loved him more. I should have made sure he knew how appreciative I was that he was my father. I should have told him how much the farm meant to me. These were all typical thoughts I expected to have (although that didn’t make it any easier). What I didn’t expect was to feel guilt for going on with my “normal” life. I felt guilty for smiling and laughing, for being able to work, for being able to have normal conversations with friends and family. Somehow, I felt like every time I acted “normal” it meant that I wasn’t appreciating the loss I had experienced. Even though I’d still crash and cry at night, I still felt bad for how well I held it together during the day. Crazy, right? This really made me think about the unrealistic expectations we place on ourselves and how there is never one “right” way to feel or act.
3. We can dwell too much on society’s expectations
"Underneath this fragile frame, lives a battle between pride and shame." - Macklemore
As with most people these days, I felt like I was expected to act or talk or feel a certain way and I was at times preoccupied with this. I constantly thought about what society’s expectations were and whether or not I was meeting them. I’d wonder, am I supposed to post on social media about what happened and how sad I am? If I don’t post, will people think I don’t really care? I mean, if it isn’t on Facebook it didn’t really happen, right? I chose not to because sharing this experience on social media wasn’t important to me, but that doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t be important or therapeutic for someone else. Another struggle I had was the expectation around when I should go back to work. People were telling me how much time they took off and what I should take off and I was stuck trying to figure it out. Work can be really therapeutic for me – I’m passionate about it and proud of it but I had to make sure it was providing me a healthy distraction and I wasn’t using it as total avoidance. You may never know when you are officially “ready” but you can trust your gut and ask for what you need.
4. It’s so important to have a strong support system
"Catch my hand, I'll be fightin' for ya." - Grouplove
If you face a painful loss, I bet you’ll have more people that will rally around you then you think. I was overwhelmed by the amount of people that reached out. People I haven’t spoken to in years reached out. People who also lost their parents reached out; we were now somehow in this club together. There were people who asked if they could do something and people who just did things for me — I appreciated all of them just the same. Looking back, I would have never expected those around me to do what they did. It really makes me think about how I want to be there for them and whether or not I have been there for them. Again, grief is a crash course in perspective.
5. We must find our release, our catharsis —
“If I am lost it’s only for a little while.” – Band of Horses
This weird thing happened to me after my dad passed where every time I’d be in my car, I’d start crying. Without fail, this would happen. At first, I thought it was because I was alone, but there were other times I was alone and didn’t have this same reaction. Then one day I couldn’t get my Spotify to connect to my car and therefore didn’t have my music and I found that this was the first day I didn’t cry in my car. I realized that the reason I was crying was because of my music. Music is very cathartic for me – it makes me happy, it makes me sad, it makes me motivated, it makes me love and apparently it makes me cry. This actually felt really good once I figured it out. Music was an outlet I could count on ‑ one that was important to me and one that I, for the most part, could control. It is important to find your release every day. Bottling it up inside and pretending to be “fine” will eventually catch up with you. You can’t always schedule your release, and that is ok, but making time for it is important.
6. Make a bucket list, and then do it
“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.” – John Lennon
This past Christmas, my dad told me he wanted to boat down the Amazon River. I told him we were doing it and that I’d plan it for the following winter. I can’t stop thinking about this. While I’m guessing my dad didn’t think of it as a big deal like I do, I still really wish he would have gotten this opportunity. I’ve thought a lot about what else he didn’t do and what is on my bucket list. Some things are more important than others, but all are important at the end of the day. I want to play in a band (Do I have any musical talent you ask? Not really, but I think I could rock a tambourine), I want to write a book, I want to be a concert critic, I want to live in the mountains and own a goat…. the list goes on. I’m determined to really think about my goals and how I can do them and so should you.
At the end of the day, I can’t move on until I find some level of peace with what happened. While my father’s death was a complete surprise to me, I think he knew it was coming and I think he had found peace with it, and so must I. He spent his final night doing one of his favorite things, winning on the pool table. I like to imagine that my dad is playing pool with David Bowie and Prince right now, listening to Bob Segar and making everyone roll on the ground with laughter.
So, here’s to my pops, to writing a book, to eating that cake and to finding what makes you happy.
In memory of Joe Dekker