Grief, Sheila CallahamFrom the Series: Life on Dog Hill

Grief sucks. I can’t think of an emotion I dislike more than this one. Grief shatters your heart into so many pieces you think you will never feel happy again. Grief erupts like a volcano, spilling loud, agonizing moans into the air and hot tears down your face. Grief brings out self-judgement that sounds like, “If only you had….” That inner judge is the executioner of best effort, striking down all that was, pointing to all that could have been, if only…. Grief rips you apart, limb by limb, leaving nothing but your core — shaking, shivering, at loss for anything other than grief itself.

But I’m guessing I’m not the only one who needs to hear these words.

I don’t do grief very well. Who does?

When I’m grieved, I pull away from everyone and everything. I take my emotions and run as far away as I can, turning inward for solace. As soon as I’m able, I move into nature, sitting in the woods amongst the trees and fallen leaves. Breathing in. Breathing out. Breathing in. Breathing out.

I cry. A lot. I stop eating. I stop working. All the time the voice in my head saying, “If only….”

“If only” doesn’t matter when grieving a lost life. I can’t make the dead undead. I have to learn to accept the gaping hole left by the departed. I know, from experience, that takes time. A long time. A lot of tears.

Grief sucks.

Grief, Sheila Callaham

My Momma and me in June 2013 after her heart surgery. Like her tiara?

I’ve never known such deep grief as when my mother died almost 14 months ago. She died on her 68 birthday. How many people pull that off? I’m sure that’s what she wanted. Makes it easy to remember. Momma liked efficiency.

Mother and I were best friends. She was the only family member outside of my husband and children with whom I could be comfortably authentic. I didn’t hide my true thoughts and feelings from her. Mainly because she could see right through me, and I could see through her. We were that close. I knew she wouldn’t judge me. In fact, I know my mother admired me for having the courage to walk my path, my way.

My mother’s death was not expected until a few days before she passed. Once I realized it was coming, I moved into shock. I kept hoping for a miracle to occur until she told me from her intensive care bed, “I’m not doing this anymore.”

“I understand,” I said, choking back sobs.

She spoke with her eyes closed. “You know what I mean, don’t you?”

“Yes, Momma. I know what you mean.”

My tears flowed as I bit my lower lip. My body began to tremble, and I prayed my brother would arrive in time. He did. We were with her when she died in the wee hours of her birthday morning. We sang her Happy Birthday and then my brother told her she could move on. He prayed over her and sang her some Christian hymns. He said the Lord’s prayer.

Both of us held a hand. Both of us told her we were okay with her moving on. I spoke what I knew she needed to hear.

But I wasn’t okay.

My siblings and I arranged the funeral. It was beautiful. I cleaned out her apartment, picked up her ashes, and drove home. I stopped in Gatlinburg, a favorite vacation spot for my brother and his family. I spread some of her ashes around two moss-covered oaks leaning over a nearby stream. She would have liked that spot. I stopped at Grandfather Mountain and spread more ashes amongst the rocks and native shrubs. She would have liked that, too. My mom loved nature, as do I.

When I returned home, I had been gone three weeks. I wasn’t functioning at capacity for almost three months. Even then, I cried every day. My heart ached for my Momma.

In January, on my birthday, I played a phone message from my Momma received a year prior. I listened to her sing Happy Birthday. I listened a dozen times while I sobbed through my grief, tears streaming down my cheek.

Grief sucks.

After six months the crying subsided, and I began moving into acceptance. I thought of her daily — still do. Today is the first time I’ve written about my Momma’s death. I hadn’t planned to write about her; I was going to write about my dog, Toby.

Grief, Sheila Callaham

My gardening buddy….

Toby was my buddy, my #1 in the Dog Hill pack. He was my shadow, always wanting to be wherever I was.

I would lay with him on the floor and scratch his head, rub his back and legs, nuzzle my nose into his fur, and inhale his smell. I loved that dog so much, which is why I’m grieving so deeply now. Toby died tragically in the early hours on Monday. Rescued from a shelter at aged two, he had been with us seven years.

Once again, I’ve spiraled deeply into grief. Moaning, trembling, not eating, crying unexpectedly, moving from anger to despair in a fraction of a second. Damning myself with “If only’s….”

I’m not the only one suffering, of course. Hubby cried Monday morning when he placed Toby in the car so we could take him to the vet for cremation. On Tuesday, my 12-year-old son, Ryan, was so emotional I had to get him from school. I worked hard to suppress my grief so I could help Ryan heal from his. 

Grief f’ing sucks.

With Toby’s devastating passing, it occurred to me that I should blog about grief. Words whirled in my head, words here, phrases there. Those were not the words I put on paper, however. Because when I sat to write, it didn’t feel right. I turned inward and asked, “What am I supposed to write about?”

My mother, of course. As I stared at the blank page thinking about grief, I realized I am still grieving for my mother. And to write about grief meant that I had to write about her too.

I don’t know what to say about healing, other than everyone is different. Obviously, I don’t do grief very well. Maybe it’s because I try to hold too much in. Maybe it’s because I feel so deeply. Maybe it’s because I’ve experienced so much joy that grief creates such contrast I can hardly breathe.

While mourning Toby, I have reminded myself that I am not mourning the tragic loss of a child. I remember the family of Anna Smith, a freshman student at Appalachian State University, who disappeared just weeks after her parents dropped her off to begin her college experience. The same college where I dropped one of my sons last year. It took two weeks to find Anna’s body in a wooded area near campus; dead of an apparent suicide. I can’t imagine living through that grief.

While mourning Toby, I have reminded myself that I am not grieving the tragic loss of my spouse and best friend. My husband who, in a show of love and support, took Monday off so he could be with me. He held me when I fell into wailing. With love and dedication, he offered me his companionship the whole day long. Several times during the day, I acknowledged him with thanks and gratitude. My husband, the workaholic, did this for me. He was speaking my primary love language: quality time. When we went to bed that night, I thanked him again.

“Not many husbands would take a day off because the family dog died,” I said through my tears.

“Not many wives love their dogs as much as you loved Toby,” he replied.

Grief sucks.

I’ve thought a lot about grief since Monday. It’s part of the human experience. There is no way we can be born and live very long without experiencing some form of grief. And, while grief sucks, I continue to remind myself that it gives me the contrast with which to measure the depth and beauty of love, companionship, loyalty, and dedication.

I don’t understand grief. I certainly don’t like it. Yet, it is.

Life continues. With or without us. I am working through my latest round of grief and all the remnants of past, unresolved grief Toby’s loss has brought up for me.

I miss my Momma every day. Just like my brother does.

Now, I miss Toby, too.

I hope I get better at processing grief. I don’t imagine it will disappear in the future. In fact, I’m reminded of my mother-in-law who, at almost 91, is always telling me about friends or distant family who have passed. She must feel very lonely sometimes.

Life continues. With or without us.

Grief sucks. It always will.

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