Max and I just watched the Netflix original, GAGA: Five Foot Two.
Lady Gaga played her grandmother a song that she wrote about her late aunt Joann.
Max asked, “How do you deal with death?”
I laughed, I’m probably not the one to ask.
December is a very difficult month for me, as I am sure it is for many of you.
The backstory: My parents divorced when I was 7. We moved from Philly to Coral Springs, Florida and that is where I grew up. I was raised by my Mom and step-dad, Ron. He stepped in and raised two children, that were not his blood, as if they were his own. Was it always easy? No, of course not. Raising kids is never easy. But he showed up every day, gave it his best, and loved us like we were his own. He held us accountable, and expected us to always be responsible and respectful. He had health issues for years and died in hospice on September 1, 2011. I had already relocated to Nashville by this time, and traveled back to Boca when my Mom got the call that things were imminent. I believe he held on, waiting for me to arrive, so that I could be there to comfort and support my mom when he passed.
Three months later, my biological father, Steve, was dead. We do not know the exact date, but assume it was December 8. He was found on December 11 in the hotel room where he was living. He died on his own terms and left many people sad, angry, and confused. My relationship with my father was complex and difficult, but he was my father and I loved him very much. It wasn’t until he was gone that I realized just how much. He battled internally – really battled. Substance abuse, mental health issues, other addictions – and yet, on the outside he appeared as if he had it all together. He was incredibly smart, and highly successful in his career. He was very funny and told the best stories. He was handsome, a college athlete, and boy was he charming.
I go back to my education and training when I think about their deaths.
Did I go to counseling? Nope.
Should I have? Uh, yes.
Did I take time off from work or give myself time to grieve? Nope.
Should I have? Possibly, but I am not sure. I stayed busy, and that was probably best for me.
Have I dealt with their death in a healthy way? Probably not. But I did what I think we all do. I did the best I could, with what I had.
How do you deal with death?
Both of my dads are dead.
In three months time.
No one knew what to say to me and I didn’t know what to say to myself. I would just flat out say to friends – it’s ok if you don’t know what to say. What can you say?
I remember yearning for normalcy. I just needed to get up and try to go about my day. I went to work (I was then working at my son’s preschool surrounded by the most amazing women). I tried to be as present with my children who were also grieving. I tried to be there for my Mom, who was also grieving. Her spouse and father of her children were gone. I tried to be there for my aging grandmother, Mimi, who was also grieving. She lost her son in a way no one should. I tried to process these losses with my brother who is the only person in my life that could understand the loss. The only person who could feel things the way I do – as a child who had lost their fathers. We were in this together.
None of this felt real.
How could this be real?
After their deaths, I got my job at the psych hospital. I felt like my Dad, Steve, got me that job so that I was able to share his story and help others. Which is exactly what I did, and what I continue to do. I will talk about him to anyone who will listen.
I need people to understand that how people present themselves may not represent how they are walking through the world. We are all dealing with our own obstacles as we adventure through life. Some just hide or internalize the struggles better than others. My dad Steve dealt with bipolar disorder, no combination of medication worked for him. If you had a 1 in 10,000 chance of getting some horrible rash from the psych meds, he got the rash. But he kept trying. He even went as far as participating in studies at University of Pennsylvania. In addition to bipolar disorder, he also dealt with addiction. He had some success with rehab, and periods of time with sobriety, but continually went back to his addictions.
And eventually he got tired. Tired of fighting, tired of feeling like he couldn’t get his old life back. The logical side of me can empathize and understand, but my heart never will.
I led groups on grief and loss at the hospital on a weekly basis. We often talked about Elizabeth Kubler Ross, and the five stages of grief.
All normal stages.
It’s all normal until it’s not. I know that sounds weird, but it’s true. Anger is a normal part of the process, but if your anger is taking over your life it is no longer normal. Depression is normal and can be expected. But, if you can’t get out of bed, aren’t going to work or functioning like you normally do, it’s past the point of being normal.
Where am I in the grieving process? Maybe still Denial.
It’s been almost 7 years. Shouldn’t I be further along?
I take things day by day. Some days I cry when I hear a song (I Drive Your Truck by Lee Brice gets me every time), while other days I can tell stories and laugh and not be sad at all.
-It’s okay if you don’t know what to say to someone who is grieving. Be real. Tell them you don’t know what do say but that you do know that you love them and will help in any way you can. Ask them what they need. Sometimes a hug or acknowledgement that you are aware of the pain is enough.
-Take time for yourself to help with processing. Write. Talk. Read. Walk. Run. Cry. Just be sure to process the pain.
It is a life-long process. The loss will always be with us. Maybe time makes the pain easier to manage (though I’m not convinced yet). Regardless, we learn how to live our new, different life without those people standing next to us.
-It’s okay to be angry, sad, and confused. It’s okay to feel, and it’s okay to not understand. It becomes concerning when these emotions consume you and you aren’t functioning like you should be. It’s okay to ask for help. It’s okay to cry. It’s okay to not cry. Let your body tell you what you need..
Give yourself time. Remember, there is no set time line on healing or dealing with grief and loss. The pain can come in waves and hit you when you least expect it, and that is okay. Its all part of the process and it means you are walking through your pain.
Walk. Keep walking, and ask for help along the way if you need it.
Be kind to yourself. You deserve it.
Jamie Codispoti, LCSW, has been in practice for over 18 years. Jamie has worked in schools, medical hospitals, psychiatric hospitals, and private practice. She enjoys writing about mental health, wellness, grief and loss, coping skills, parenting, and now about the happiness that goats bring to the world.