Embracing the Bittersweet Reflections of the Season: Confronting Loss and the Complexity of Grief
Tis the season of reflection and insight. The time we celebrate our successes and evaluate the thoughts and behaviors that no longer serve us. We ponder what’s changed in our lives and what remains the same. It’s a time of celebrating what we’ve accomplished and what we treasure most in this life. This time of introspection is not always pleasant, as it asks us to confront what is missing in our lives and the people we love most. The joyous time of year we anticipate turns into one of sorrow and frustration as it brings forth anger and regret. The absence of our loved ones persistently reminds us. Just like the rest of our emotions, grief doesn’t take a holiday. It sits in the seats our loved ones once occupied. The lights, smells, and sounds of the season that once comforted us now bring despair and anger. Thus begins an inner conflict of how we perceive our behavior should be during this time of year.
We revisit the grief journey we’ve experienced and instinctively rail against the re-emergence of our most significant losses. Just as we cannot change the loss, we cannot change how grief continues to affect our lives. But we seemingly go through all the stages of loss once again. We enthrall ourselves in the same rationale, bargaining, disbelief, denial, and harsh acceptance. We are human. As humans, we believe we can change the impossible and that infinite possibilities still exist to remedy the prospect of how loss has transformed us. A part of us still believes if only there were some way we could access the impossible, we could’ve changed what is now. It isn’t sustainable or healthy, but we do so anyway. In moments of deep grief, we understand that life’s experiences take various forms of grief and last a lifetime. This truth about the enduring nature of grief can be incredibly overwhelming and emotionally devastating.
Battling Against Fate: A Mother’s Strength Ignites Unyielding Determination
When my mother became terminally ill, I was angry. Anger doesn’t quite encapsulate my raw, intense, unwavering rage. I had never experienced such overwhelming hopelessness. It wasn’t the stages of grief I was taught as a grief counselor. Entertaining the thought of a world without my mother, the magnificent woman who brought so much warmth and love to everyone she encountered, the person who loved me unconditionally when I came out as gay, the person who made every moment such a beautiful memory, would no longer exist. Everything I learned as a therapist at the time seemed illogical. I was devastated, scared, and hurt.
My mother was gentle and the strongest person I know. So when she said to me, “Vessa, baby, I want to fight until my heart stops beating.” I said, “Alright, mama, let’s do it.” And for the next two years, I fought with insurance companies; I put the fear of God in the medical team overseeing her care when they even hinted at giving up. I became so well-versed in her case I’d correct the medical team if they didn’t reapply her sutures correctly or hadn’t adequately sterilized her intubation tube. I knew what medications were needed when her pulse oxygen was low and what intravenous solutions were necessary to regulate her condition. I was tested and retested to ensure I was a perfect match for a kidney transplant to extend her life for five to ten years. I rarely slept. I don’t remember eating. I ceased all activities in life to give her what she had always given me, a chance to live the way she chose.
The Unpredictable Journey of Grief: Navigating Emotions, Finding Peace, and Confronting Loss
In my journey through the grief process, I yearned for uncertainty to shield myself from the painful truth. While actively fighting for my loved one’s life, I realized that grief encompasses far more than just a set number of stages. It is a complex tapestry of emotions experienced throughout the process of loss. I oscillated through these emotions daily, sometimes even encountering multiple stages simultaneously. Much like emotions, grief does not follow a linear path, and the intensity of these emotions can be overwhelming and suffocating. However, amidst the heaviness, there were moments of joy and love. I recall the laughter and the light in my mother’s eyes when I painted her nails as she expressed feeling beautiful. Even on her deathbed, she candidly inquired about my romantic life, concerned about my happiness. Her curious heart desired my well-being just as I yearned for hers to be restored. Through it all, I discovered the diverse forms of grief and its profound impact on our lives.
Additional Read: How to Recover from Emotional Trauma 
Then, just a few days shy of Christmas, her heart stopped, and she was gone. The medical team at Vanderbilt was magnificent and inconsolable as they also grew to love my mother. I stopped breathing, and when I did, I released a wailing cry that disturbs me to this day. As I held her hand, and the life I fought so hard for began to leave this plane of existence, those dazzling, beautiful blue-green eyes gazed upon me one last time, and the warmth in her hands radiated through my entire being. Every instance of love flashed through my eyes, and every warm memory I experienced, and she shared from her perspective enveloped me. For the first time in two years, I felt peace.
The following year came, and I was finally living in Chicago, the city I’ve loved all my life. Creating new memories in one of my favorite places would warm my heart. But it was the darkest year of my life thus far. I experienced the loss again, filled with pain, anger, and hopelessness. I felt terrible because I was in such a good place. There was snow on the ground. I’d been humming as I cooked my favorite family recipes and friends to share this joyous time, but I was miserable. I tried to rationalize it and push away this conflict because I had found such peace when my mother died. There was such turmoil because I couldn’t just admit what was wrong. I just wanted my mom.
Embracing the Ever-Present Essence of Grief: Honoring Memories, Finding Strength, and Embracing Life
I hadn’t fully learned how grief becomes a part of us. It doesn’t leave after we’ve accepted the loss. It changes as we change. It transforms and presents in our lives in so many different ways. Trying to separate or ignore that part of us makes it more present in our current thoughts. Holding space for how grief presents itself in our lives allows us to feel all the beautiful moments that preceded our most tremendous losses. The hugs, smiles, warmth, and love: These memories are still there; they’re still alive in us and will remain with us as long as we allow. That is something both as a therapist, and a human I didn’t know could be so wonderful. I can be mad that my mother is no longer alive and feel all the love she gave me throughout my life. I can be sad she’s no longer physically here and laugh when reminded of her wicked sense of humor. We don’t have to confront grief in the same it entered our lives. As we learn about grief, we also understand its place in our lives.
There is no panacea, no therapeutic technique that will replace what we’ve lost. But the love that remains, the moments of affection, warmth, and joy, don’t leave us either. Just as grief becomes a part of us, so does the love that’s left behind. It can comfort, motivate, and uplift us to overcome the next obstacles we face. We transform as we are never the same, nor should we strive to hold on to a version of ourselves that no longer exists. Through the process, we can learn that moments of profound love exist in the initial process of grief. Grief cannot exist without love. No matter when we revisit the disbelief, anger, doubt, regret, sorrow, confusion, despair, denial, acceptance, or every other emotion in between of grief, there is love in them if we are willing to embrace them. As complex beings, we can acknowledge grief and embrace the love that created it.
Infusing Daily Life with the Beauty of Death and the Heart of Sadness: Embracing Love’s Transformative Power
I urge you to follow my mother’s invaluable lesson: wholeheartedly embrace love and generously share it in your daily life, witnessing its remarkable multiplication. Love holds the profound beauty that resides within grief, offering solace and ensuring that the essence of our cherished ones remains alive. While it cannot replace our losses, it is a guiding force, infusing our hearts with resilience. Embrace love’s transformative power and carry it wherever you go, intertwining the beauty of death and the depth of sadness into your journey.