Society, I think, tends to believe that once a certain amount of time has passed after the death of a loved one, then it means that the ones left behind are fine and have moved on with life. Because those left behind no longer break down in public, no longer show up to work with puffy and red eyes, no longer hide inside their homes surrounded with solitude but instead are back to living life, enjoying life even, then that means that it’s all better and they’re cured of that “death” stuff. It’s an easy assumption to make if you haven’t walked through the minefield death leaves behind.
What I want to say today is just because years have gone by and the person in questions seems to have it all together and by all appearances has moved forward in life, doesn’t mean the grief is gone, that it is no longer present. Sometimes, years later, after the acute phase of grieving has passed and a new normal is found, sometimes grief reaches out of the shadows, taps you on the shoulder, and reminds you that it is not gone from your life, not ever; it’s just no longer the focal point.
I’m in the hiring process of a new job and as part of that process, I have to get a BLS certification. For those unfamiliar, it’s a Basic Life Support class that teaches you how to quickly assess a situation and effectively perform CPR on adults, children, and infants in the event that they are experiencing a cardiac or respiratory failure of some sort. I signed up for the class that was offered today and thought nothing else of it.
Until I walked into the building.
It has been almost five and a half years since the night I came home and found Brandon unresponsive, called 911, and had the operator tell me to do chest compression on his body for ten minutes before the ambulance got there. I haven’t thought about that moment in a very long time. It’s not something that is regularly on my mind, not since I’ve passed through the acute grief stages and settled into the new normal of life. But walking into that room today, I was struck with a cold, clammy feeling on the back of my neck almost immediately. I saw those plastic dummies on the floor, and I saw myself leaning over Brandon’s body, my hands on his chest, pushing, counting out loud to ten with the operator over and over again, seeing blood begin to seep out of his nose and mouth, the operator’s calm and pleasant voice as he asked me to feel for a pulse. I remembered the stark fear I felt, the uncertainty, the sheer panic. I remembered it all.
Within 30 seconds of walking into the room and saying hello to the instructor of the BLS course, my stomach felt panicky, I started to sweat, and my heart rate spiked. I was heading very quickly into a panic attack. I’ve had enough of them over the years to recognize it coming, so I ran to the bathroom and had to take a minute to get control of myself and this response.
The past five years have certainly taught me how to deal with grief and its various manifestations, and these were the skills that came in handy today to keep myself from spiraling out of control. The point I’m trying to make, however, is that even though it’s been over five years and I’m fine 98% of the time, sometimes this happens. Sometimes something completely random and ordinary triggers me and I’m smacked back to that night, back to feeling helpless and panicked, back to feeling fear crawling out of my skin. It happens lightning quick. It happens out of the blue. I fully expect it to continue happening for the rest of my life.
I hope one day the world changes how it looks at death, at grief, at suicide, and at the widowed. It’s easy to see someone a few years after experiencing a death and assume that everything is completely okay. I used to do it too. They don’t talk about it much anymore and have new things going on in life, so it’s easy to write them off into the “they’re fine” column. And they may be fine most of the time. There are, however, brief lapses, like mine today. For a few minutes you’re not fine and instead you’re back to where you started this uphill climb. And that’s okay. Grief is a marathon, not a sprint. It’s an ever-evolving process. It’s never finished. It just sheds old skin and morphs into something new.
So, if you know someone who has lost a loved one, whether it’s a spouse, a sibling, a parent, or a friend, even if it’s been many years and they seem okay, check in with them every now and again. Ask how they’re really doing, the version of that answer that they’re not telling when the world asks. Give them a chance to tell someone about whatever grief wave they’ve experienced recently. It helps to talk about it. And most people stop asking about dead loved ones after the first year. To those left behind, the dead are always there, always a part of everyday life, and it’s nice to know that someone else remembers them too.