Episode 6 - Good Grief
The holidays are not always Hallmark-card-perfect. Sometimes they are just as much a reminder of who we have lost in our lives as those we are grateful to have. Laura and her mom Mary Ellen openly share their story of grief and hope. After the loss of her father, Laura naturally begins to face difficult questions about death and dying and how to make sense of it all. Laura shares just how long it took her to begin her grieving process and despite the best efforts of her loved ones, how the natural human discomfort with death made it harder to connect with the well-intentioned support that they were offering. Laura talks about how death gets “absorbed into your story” and just because people stop asking about how you’re doing after the funeral doesn’t mean that you aren’t still interacting with the grief daily.
Ellie Pike: [00:00:00] Hello and welcome to this special holiday edition of mental note podcast. I'm Ellie Pike. We all know that being a teenager is hard. People constantly asking you what you want to do, who you want to be, all while you're just trying to figure yourself out. Navigating dating and testing boundaries. What if in the middle of all that, the person who you most like [00:00:30] in your entire family, your dad passes away unexpectedly just weeks before Christmas. How do you deal with that?
On today's episode, we dive into grief and loss. Especially the feeling of loss we experience around the holidays when reminders of our loved ones are everywhere. We'll talk about how grief impacts us. How to honor those feelings and talk about them, and the ways we can remember and process with others who feel a similar grief. We're bringing you this episode [00:01:00] out of the awareness that holidays aren't always Hallmark-card-perfect. Just as much as they're a reminder of who we have in our lives, they're also a time we're reminded of those we don't have. Grieving is a difficult and beautiful process. Thank you for walking with us on this special edition of Mental Note.
Our [00:01:30] episode today views grief through the story of the mother-daughter combo, Mary Ellen and Laura. I'll let them introduce themselves.
Laura: I'm Laura I live in Denver, Colorado. I like traveling a lot, I like cooking and reading. That sounds boring.
Laura: [unintelligible 00:01:51]
Mary Ellen: I'm Mary Ellen. I live in Highlands Ranch. Things I like to do, swimming, [00:02:00] playing guitar and cooking, reading.
Laura: Growing up, I'm trying to think of how to describe our family growing up. We moved around a ton when I was younger for my dad's job. We lived in four different states in about a six-year span.
Ellie: That's a lot of moving.
Laura: It's a lot of moving, yes.
Ellie: A little more info that's helpful about their family. Laura's dad John was a pastor and [00:02:30] counselor, that's what kept him on the move. John is also the name of one of her brothers which might get confusing as you hear them talk about two different Johns.
Also, their family was well acquainted with grief long before Laura's dad died. Two of Laura's siblings were born with an extremely rare genetic disorder that landed them in the hospital on a regular basis. Thankfully, treatments evolved and now they're doing much better, but it was very rocky for a number of years. Okay, back to their story.
Laura: Most of my childhood [00:03:00] memories are around especially in Colorado, hiking camping. My dad really, really wanted to live in Colorado his whole life because he used to drive through it on his way to Wyoming every year. As soon as he got here it was like we had to absolutely maximize every day, which is annoying when you're a kid.
Ellie: Let's dive into you had a story about the holidays. Maybe paint the picture [00:03:30] of what were the holidays like and things you just remember looking forward to.
Mary Ellen: Intense.
Ellie: Oh my gosh, intense. That was Mary Ellen.
Laura: Holidays were intense in our family.
Ellie: [chuckles] That's such a funny word for the holidays.
Laura: It is a funny word.
Ellie: I'm intrigued.
Laura: My dad was really, really into decorating for the holidays. He liked decorating outside of the holidays too. He had a real eye for interior design and he loved that, [00:04:00] and so the holidays not only had to be decorated, but it had to be very elegant decorations.
Mary Ellen: Ralph Lauren-ish.
Laura: Yes, he wanted it to look like a catalog. It wasn't just like tacky stuff, he wanted it to be really beautiful, almost to an obnoxious degree intense.
Ellie: What's happening while you're decorating? Do you guys have like Christmas music on, food, drinks?
Laura: Yes, it was Christmas music, and all of us complaining.
Mary Ellen: We were all trying to [00:04:30] run away, but he wouldn't let us.
Laura: When I got older, I had a lot of work shifts and homeworks suspiciously on those days.
Mary Ellen: We sometimes wondered why he worked so hard at it because he didn't seem to enjoy it. Because he would get pretty upset if the lights didn't look just right or work correctly. He threw the Christmas tree out the door one year he was so upset. He picked the whole thing up and threw it out in the front door and then he made [00:05:00] Laura go and get it.
Laura: I was furious an I refused.
Ellie: Yes, just stop your homework and go get it.
Laura: Yes, to go get the Christmas tree. He was so angry about it. It was a very particular thing. One year he asked us all why don't we take it a little easier this year, and he put it up to a vote. [laughs] We got to vote who wanted to put up Christmas decorations and who didn't. It was five versus one. The five of us did not want to put up Christmas decorations, [00:05:30] he did and that lasted like three hours until he caved and he was like, "No we have to do decorations."
Ellie: Oh my goodness.
Laura: He loved the holidays. We all did. It was very much a family day.
Ellie: Fits of overblown Christmas spirit aside, John was the sort of person you just wanted to be around. The sort of guy that could get perks without even asking for it.
Laura: I remember because John and I used to joke that he got bumped up to first class a lot.
Laura: [00:06:00] Because he would go to the counter and just chat for a little while and he could be very charming. I don't think he was trying to get bumped up to first class. He was just one of those people.
Mary Ellen: He was just really friendly and--
Ellie: Would you say that you're like him?
Laura: Yes, not in every way, but I would say out of all of the kids, I'm probably the most like him which is why we could clash sometimes. We're both very stubborn, very passionate [00:06:30] people.
Ellie: As your teen years developed, what would you say your relationship was like with your dad?
Laura: It was tough in my teenage years. It was. I was so stubborn, he was stubborn. I think both of us had a desire to control the situation within our family. I think I really wanted to be independent from my family because there was so much happening. I really wanted to mark [00:07:00] my own territory.
Ellie: Like I mentioned earlier Laura's two siblings suffered from intense health problems that frequently landed them in the hospital. In many ways, her family was defined by that reality. Her dad described his grief about their situation in a talk he gave years ago.
John: We live in this illusion of control that if somehow if I could just figure it out, if I could be smart enough, if I could be strong enough, be kind enough, [unintelligible 00:07:25] enough, be good enough, adjust the seat belt just right, pray [00:07:30] enough, read my Bible everyday, then I can make my life accident, suffering, loss proof. Suddenly on a clear blue day, a thunderbolt comes out of the sky and disease and financial disaster, mental illness, loneliness, heartache, disappointment and darkness come. The security and control are gone. We realize this truth that life on this planet [00:08:00] is incredibly fragile.
Ellie: On December 7th 2006, Laura, Mary Ellen, and their whole family felt those words in an even deeper way.
Laura: It was the night of December 7th and I got a phone call from my mom. At that point he had already died. It was quick, which is the way he wanted it. He used to always tell us because he worked with people [00:08:30] that were dying all the time so he used to always talk about how he wanted to die of a heart attack because it's relatively quick.
Ellie: It came without warning. John was in great health. Mary Ellen recalls that John felt sick that day, almost like he had the flu.
Mary Ellen: I got on the phone to call-- I said we need to call the doctor. I need to take you in right away. He said, "No, no I think it's--" He had been painting all day so he thought his back was hurting from painting. [00:09:00] He collapsed and died in our bedroom.
I called 911 and I was confused. I didn't know what had happened. I knew he was laying on the floor, but I didn't know that he had died. The paramedics got there. I tried to do CPR and mouth-to-mouth and got no response. I was on the phone with 911 the whole time and then they got there and took over. I went to the hospital and that's when I called Laura. [00:09:30] I was confused. I didn't know exactly what had happened because the doctors kept coming out and saying, "We're trying everything," almost as if they're trying to help us absorb slowly what really happened.
Laura: I remember that the phone call was really foggy. I think you were confused, I was confused, but I knew you also did tell me at that point that he had had a heart attack and that he was dead. [00:10:00] Then I walked over from my dorm room to my sister's house and told her because my mom hadn't been able to get through to her on the phone. Then my friend drove us down to the hospital. By the time we walked in, there was 10-15 people there.
Ellie: What were your attempts to wrap your head around it? Did you talk about it? Did you journal or cope any specific ways?
Laura: Well, again, [00:10:30] this might sound morbid, but my dad had talked with us about healthy grieving.
Ellie: Yes, I remember one time you said, "He taught us to grieve well." I wrote that down because I feel like that's something most people don't talk about.
Laura: Most people really don't. I think it always sounds strange that we talked about this stuff, but of course, given the nature of his work.
Ellie: He was a grief counselor?
Laura: Yes, grief counselor, and that we had a lot of grief around our siblings so we were kind of always processing that grief [00:11:00] for my siblings. One of the things that I did was that I went to say goodbye to him in the hospital. There was something about going into the hospital room and saying goodbye to his body that was very important to me and my grief and something that he had told me that could be a healthy grieving thing to be able to say goodbye to what is still [00:11:30] there.
I remember just a lot of planning the funeral, that's what it was immediately. I really wanted to be involved with that, I wanted to help. I wanted to pick out pictures for the slideshow. I didn't end up speaking, my sister and brother did, but I wanted to be involved. That was the initial. The whole first year was so bizarre that it was almost like something was happening to me, but I wasn't in it. That's when I feel like I really started reconciling with what it meant to [00:12:00] create a life without my dad or make space in my life for sadness in a way that I hadn't before.
Because that first year, it's all first. It's just you're trying to survive, I would say. Like that first Christmas was just about surviving. It was only a couple of weeks later, a couple weeks after he died.
Ellie: Wow I can't even imagine, especially since it was so important to him. Did you guys even- I imagine it'd be hard to even celebrate.
Mary Ellen: It was [00:12:30] probably the standout day in that whole year for me because we all just wanted it to be over Christmas Day, we just wanted to be done with. We were all together the five of us, and we knew that we couldn't have the same meal or eat in the same place or do the same thing, so we did different things, which was good. We didn't eat in the [00:13:00] dining room. We couldn't bear to go in there, but we felt like we should do something because at some point there has to be a first.
John, Laura's brother, he cooked steaks on the grill because we couldn't bear to do a turkey which is what we normally did, and it just seemed like we wanted the day to be over and I hear that from lots of people that.
Laura: Really in those first months, it's an odd experience. [00:13:30] I had this disconnect. My mind felt foggy, my body felt terrible. I was so low energy, I struggled with sleeping. I think you did to mom right? It was awful sleeping. Even just bizarre things that I had never thought about like my hair falling out and being really brittle and it just all these your body goes through.
Ellie: Your body took on so much stress.
Laura: Yes, exactly, like all these bizarre kind of reactions to things. [00:14:00] For me, I don't feel like my grieving really started until like a year later.
Ellie: After the shock wore off is when Laura says that she really had to deal with her dad's death, because the questions and check-ins from friends and family trailed off, but the pain remained. It was made worse by the fact that events kept happening in her life. Things like college graduation, birthdays, relationships, but her dad couldn't be there for the transitions.
Laura: It was a lot around starting to process [00:14:30] my dad not being there if I ever gotten married, or my dad not being there when I graduated, or when I wanted career advice, and what the loss of my dad would mean to me, both as an individual person but also in role of a father. I still think one of the hardest things for me was that people stopped asking. I'm not putting that on other people, but there was the sense of kind of, "It's over now, [00:15:00] you've had the funeral." To this day, people don't really ask me very much about my dad. If they say, "What do your parents do?" I say my mom and they say, "What does your dad do?' I say, "Well, he died, but when he was alive, he did this. It's, "Oh, I'm sorry," and it's conversation ender.
Ellie: People get really uncomfortable?
Laura: Yes, they do. I get that, I do.
Ellie: What do you wish people knew? If you had to coach someone on what to say, even to your 18-year old self when he lost your dad, [00:15:30] what do you wish people knew?
Laura: I wish that people weren't afraid to talk about death and grief and pain. Certainly, I'm not necessarily talking about a stranger on the street [laughter] asking me what my views on death, although I would probably talk with them about it. Even close friends didn't know what to say. I wish people would ask me who my dad was, and what my favorite memories were and what was still sad. [00:16:00] I wish people would ask me how he died and how I handled that and what that was like, for me. It's hard because he's still such a part of my life and who I am, but he doesn't get to be a part of my life in any way.
Ellie: Hearing Laura and Mary Ellen share, it's easy to feel like grief will be forever overwhelming, but Mary Ellen says that's not the case. In fact, expressing grief gives us a way to find hope again.
Mary Ellen: I also happen to be chaplain and grief [00:16:30] counselor. What I hear more than anything else, in the probably hundreds of grief groups that we've now facilitated, is that that person who's lost someone to death wishes that other people would ask them about that person who died. What were they like? What things do you miss about them? [00:17:00] Remembering their birthday because they don't get to say the name anymore. They don't get to talk about their personality. When they're asked, you can just watch them, watch their countenance completely change and get to talk about their precious loved one, get to tell stories. The beautiful thing is when you have experienced grief now like I think Laura does this, I know I do, I run toward people-
Laura: Yes. [00:17:30]
Mary Ellen: -who have experienced a death or loss. Someone that I know obviously, I'm not going to insert myself in somewhere that- someplace I don't know the person, but if appropriate, I do the opposite, because I know how good it feels to me if someone would run to me instead of running away.
Things that would be hard to hear, there's some kind of fascination with, "When do you think you'll get over this," [00:18:00] or concern about that. Getting over are two words you don't want to use with someone who's had a death, because the truth is, there's not a getting over because the death is absorbed into your story, absorbed into your life. We'd want to honor the fact that grief and love are so closely connected because the reason you grieve is because you loved and it wouldn't make sense [00:18:30] to get over something because you never stopped loving that person. I like to think of it rather being absorbed into your life.
I'd say the things that are helpful would just be being there. A lot of times does nothing, saying nothing but just offering your presence and offering if it's an appropriate time, "Tell me about this person. I want to know more. I want to know [00:19:00] how you're doing. What do you miss the most?" Questions like that are very, very helpful. Sometimes the best thing to say is, "I don't know what to say, but I'm here. I don't have any words. I have no idea what to say," and, "I feel really inadequate right now." Those can be the most beautiful words because they're so honest, instead of trying to conjure up something to say,
Laura: One of my close friends actually, after [00:19:30] my dad died, I remember he called me and he was choked up and he just said, "I don't know what to say." It's one of the most memorable phone calls for me after my dad died because he didn't try to give any really well-intentioned platitudes. He didn't know what to say. No one knows what to say. There's kind of beautiful, shared humanity in that of been so wrecked by grief and death. [00:20:00]
Mary Ellen: Grief is what we feel on the inside after someone has died, and mourning is what we do on the outside. Someone comes with grief and it's all it's inside of them, it's important for them to mourn, to be able to give expression to their grief. What we hope to do, [00:20:30] when I work with someone, either one-on-one or in grief class, is let them express what that feels like on the inside and getting it out of here on the table. That's one of the healthiest things that someone can do.
Now, whether that's in a group, some people do really well in groups. Other people don't want to be in a group or don't thrive in a group. They might need the individual counseling. Whatever it is that they need to be able to give expression to [00:21:00] what they're feeling on the inside and a lot of times, that means talking or writing or doing activities that they used to do together. Whatever that is, it's important to get it out so that they can release that. The hope is after they have been able to process more, either individually or in a group, that then they can move toward hope a little bit more. [00:21:30]
Absorbing it like soil, what's that quote we like, absorbing it. It's like soil receives decaying matter, so is grief into your soul, and even grow from it. You don't want to offer that at the beginning, "Oh, you're going to grow from this.
Ellie: That's sounds awful.
Mary Ellen: That's another thing to stay away. You can see people grow and expand their souls through an experience [00:22:00] like this, if they are willing to and able to be able to talk about what pain they may encounter, what this has meant to them?
Ellie: Mary Ellen and I also discussed the role of depression and the grieving process, whether we should fear it, and how to manage our response.
Mary Ellen: If you think about it, why wouldn't we be sad and depressed? It doesn't make sense to want to run through this quickly and be in a different place quickly. [00:22:30] I think slowing down, is good. I think depression can be very valuable in that regard, to explore and discover, "Okay. Let's talk about depression. Let's talk about sadness." I think we can avoid those talks again, for fear of, "Okay. What does that really mean or is that going to send someone into a deeper depression."
Ellie: I also want to point out that there's a difference between everyday sadness and clinically diagnosed depression. If you think you're dealing with a more [00:23:00] serious situation, I recommend seeking out the advice of a mental health professional.
Laura: It seems like some of the differentiating factors might include isolation versus not isolating. Maybe even levels of depression, like the deeper someone goes into depression, they may be more isolated and more hopeless. When I hear you saying is, and that's the beauty of processing is moving into a place of processing with people and grieving with hope. I think that [00:23:30] that's what keeps people in my opinion, out of some of the secrets of depression.
Mary Ellen: I had one person who came in 12 years after his spouse died and didn't say anything for a while, for several sessions. Then the last two sessions, he opened up, started crying, and talked about his guilt and for not being more attentive while she was alive. It was just like the dam broke loose. [00:24:00] He'd been carrying around 12 years talking about his guilt but nobody let him talk about his guilt. When we finally gave him a place to say tell us about your guilt. We want to know more. It changed him. If somebody is telling you, "I feel guilty. I feel embarrassed. I feel ashamed," and we say, "Don't feel guilty. Don't feel embarrassed."
Ellie: I love what you're saying.
Mary Ellen: We don't want to promote-
Ellie: What you're told is that [00:24:30] what you're doing is wrong essentially, if you being told not to feel that way.
Mary Ellen: Just saying, "Going on. I'm here, I'm listening. Please tell me more about that. I want to more. I care about you." Those statements help draw people out. It's amazing
when we communicate what can happen.
Ellie: My takeaways personally are, it doesn't make sense not hurt when you've loved and how hand in hand they are. They're flip sides of the same coin [00:25:00] and that there's grief if you've been loving. Then also I love what you said too about just really creating a space for validating and for allowing people the room to talk rather than creating a judgment on anything being right or wrong. It's not right or wrong to feel anything, it just is what it is.
Mary Ellen: That's right.
Ellie: I love. Thank you all so much for sharing your stories. I am so grateful to Laura and her mom for sharing their story of loss and the grieving process with us. [00:25:30] I'd like to end today's episode with an excerpt of a talk Laura's dad gave one year before his death. His words feel especially poignant knowing what his family would experience just a short time later.
John: It's spoken or unspoken in our culture, Christmas is also a time where we celebrate family. When someone we love dies, they never really ever leave us, do they? [00:26:00] Thanksgiving and Christmas are never the same without them. That first Christmas after the death, after the divorce, is always always the most difficult. Paul says this, "Mourn with those who mourn." He doesn't say you're to give advice to those who mourn. Give them a theological explanation. Tell them that it's not so bad. It could be worse, he says, mourn with those who mourn.
To love it all is to be vulnerable. Love [00:26:30] anything in your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. Some of us have been hurt and we're so afraid of being hurt again and you refuse to love. You're afraid to dream. You avoid friendships. You flee from risk. You isolate yourself. That way is death. Henry David Thoreau said this, a quote you're all very familiar with, "The mass of men lead lives [00:27:00] of quiet desperation." I believe if he were here today he might write this, "The mass of men and women live noisy lives of desperation." Our garage is full, our basements are full, our stomachs are full and our hearts are empty.
I love that little Japanese proverb that says, "When death finds me, [00:27:30] may it find me alive." My life is as rich and as good as any I know, it is just not the way I would have wanted or written it.
Ellie: Mental Note is created in collaboration with the Eating Recovery Center and Inside Behavioral [00:28:00] Health Centers. If you'd like to talk to somebody about receiving professional help on your own journey towards healing, please reach out for a free consultation. The phone number is 877-411-9578. If you're looking to process your own grief, there are a lot of options available. You can even use psychologytoday.com to search for a group near you in order to find a supportive community. Today's episode was produced by Sam Pike. [00:28:30] I'm Ellie Pike, wishing you a very loving holiday season. We'll see you in the new year.
[00:29:04] [END OF AUDIO]