When my father died in 2010, it was the first time that anyone close to me had died. I had lost my grandparents and a couple of uncles and an aunt, but they weren’t as close as my father. I thought that grief was going to the funeral where everyone cried and hugged each other, then went back to work a few days later. That was my concept of grief. It came largely from Hollywood and, oddly enough, the teaching of conservative, evangelical pastors and leaders who knew very little about the grief process. My ignorance caught me by surprise. I thought that when the phone call finally came that my father had died (he died of complications from diabetes), I would melt into an emotional mess. That didn’t happen. In fact, I don’t remember feeling anything at all. I was living in New Brunswick at the time and had to get back to Ontario for the funeral, and had to leave the next morning. The first hint of emotion came the morning of the funeral when I looked at a picture of him and sobbed, “Why did you leave me?”.
That was at the end of July 2010 and it took me about a year to work my way through the grief process. I didn’t know there was a process, to be honest. I still had this Hollywood concept in my mind of everyone hugging one another at the funeral and crying, then everything would be okay. Sure, everyone did cry at the funeral and we hugged each other, but that was just the start of the grief process for me.
I didn’t really have any emotional breakdowns for several months. The first major one happened in October, Thanksgiving weekend in Canada. I wasn’t going back home for Thanksgiving and was alone in New Brunswick, and would spend Thanksgiving alone. My sister told me to go out and have a Thanksgiving dinner and take a picture of Mom and Dad with me so I could “have dinner with them”. I remember driving along a country road outside of Moncton when all of a sudden I began to cry. This was not a good road to have that experience. There were no shoulders and I couldn’t just pull over somewhere and ball my eyes out, then carry on. I managed to find a place to turn around and parked in the parking lot of a baseball diamond where I was able to vent my emotions with a five star crying session. I never did have that dinner.
There are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
What I have come to learn recently is that someone does not have to die in order to grieve. Last week, when my doctor told me he was leaving private practice and it was due to a conflict with the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario that he is not going to win, I believe I experienced grief. He did not die, but my relationship with him has come to an end.
My first response was denial: No, he will win. He will not retire, not leave private practice. Everything is going to be okay. Then I experienced anger: I began to plot how I could somehow intervene in the process, somehow make a difference that would allow him to continue his practice. I am sure that feeling has been experienced by a good number of his patients, but I quickly realized that this was not my fight, that I had not been invited into it, and there was, in reality, nothing I could do to help the situation. I was angry because I felt so incredibly impotent and helpless. This was way beyond my control and I wanted to do something! I think anger and the next stage, bargaining, happened together. I began to think about ideas that I could offer him, a way to contribute, to helping him get past this crisis in his life. It is a crisis for me, but my life isn’t going to change radically. His life will. Along with the bargaining and the anger, I experienced depression, periods of deep sorrow and sadness. This was much different than just feeling down or blue for a while. This was an intense feeling of sorrow, of emotional darkness, and despair. I’m not sure if I am at acceptance yet or not. That might take time. I know that I am not yet past depression as I still experience these short periods of intense sadness, times when I see a picture of him in his office, or a memory comes back to me that causes tears to flow. I don’t think I have reached the acceptance stage yet.
One thing that I have learned about grief is that most people will try to get you to “overcome” your grief. When my father died, I had people tell me, “Don’t feel bad”, or “Think about happy things”, or “Crying won’t do you any good”, or “He’s gone. It’s better if you just let him go”. A minister who was well-acquainted with grief stood by me and told me that I had to resist letting people tell me to “get over it” because that would only prolong my grief experience. He told me that it was perfectly natural to grief and it was a healthy emotional exercise. People mean well, but I came to believe that the reason they don’t like displays of emotion, like crying, is that it makes them feel uncomfortable. They aren’t so concerned about you as they are about how they feel in that moment.
Gratitude helps. It prevents bitterness, which can prolong the grief process. Yes, I am deeply saddened because my doctor has to leave medicine, but I am also deeply grateful for the almost twenty-five years I was his patient. I am so grateful that I had a part in his practice, in his life, and that he was an integral part of my life for so many years. I am grateful for the times when we laughed together, when we shed tears together, when we hugged, when we consoled each other in times of tragedy and loss. I am thankful for dozens and dozens of cups of coffee and the hilarious pictures that adorned his walls and the artwork, all done by his patients, that spoke so deeply in spiritual dimensions beyond Christianity. I am grateful for the lousy couch in his waiting room which was one of the most comfortable pieces of furniture one could sink into. I am thankful that his approach to medicine was that he answered his own phone, wrote letters for free, and taught me more about mercy and compassion than I will ever learn from a thousand sermons.
Grief is a deep, dark, lonely place. My picture of it is of darkness, of echoes like being in a dark cave, where memories are frightening shadows and cries go unheard by the Almighty. That is what it feels like, but I know that God is ever present in grief. I know that God grieves and that He feels the pain and anguish that He allows us to feel and experience. While I might cry out, “Why?” in a hoarse whisper after crying, I know that God hears that prayer. Gratitude can invoke sadness and sorrow and tears, but it prevents bitterness over a loss and offers me a context in that a chapter has closed and I can move on to new things.