It’s been 476 days since you left this world, David, and the presence of your absence still haunts me. I start each morning with a heaviness and a lifelessness in the approach that leaves me deflated and defeated. My prayers are always the same... "Dear Lord, put peace in my heart with what is and give me the courage to face another day without David in it." The emptiness in my heart is constant; there is no escape, so I find comfort and respite in the only way I know how, work.
I’ve been working with a counselor, Elizabeth, for the past couple of months now. I can’t seem to find respite from the hollow emptiness that fills my body and the joylessness I feel in my mind and in my heart. She says I’m not depressed, but I know that this deep sadness is suffocating me. Like a flame deprived of oxygen, the life is being sucked out of me. I feel as if I have no room to breathe.
Elizabeth says my grief is understandable. It’s the price we pay for love. I know this; I’m a grief counselor, for heaven’s sake! I know that you don’t lose a spouse, child, a sibling, or parent and just get over it. Again, this isn’t news to me! I teach this, I counsel about this every day. Grief 101 - you must allow yourself the time to be in it, so that you can begin to move forward and through it - in an effort to live with it.
She brings up a good point at our last session. She starts out by asking me what I do for a living. I remind her that she knows I’m a mortician, a licensed funeral director and embalmer. She also knows that I’m the director for the Mortuary Program at Ogeechee Tech, and that I teach the mortuary sciences and the Death and Dying classes we offer at the college. I’m getting annoyed. Why is she asking me questions she already knows the answers to? She also knows that, along with my teaching responsibilities, I do a great deal of trade work and grief counseling on the side. I remind her of all of this, and yet she just sits there and looks at me with a smug expression on her face. “What do you like to do for fun?” she asks. “I put the “FUN” in funeral,” I shoot back at her. She’s not amused. I get her point. I know she only
wants to help me see the reality of my situation. She means no harm; she genuinely wants to see me come out the other side of my grief experience a whole and healthy person. Counselor to counselor – she’s doing her job.
My work keeps me busy. I work four tens each week at the college. Every day I’m there from 7:00am until 5 or 6:00 pm, Monday through Thursday teaching students how to counsel others through their grief. On the weekends I work at the funeral home where I serve families and loved ones who are in the throes of their own grief. And sometimes on Fridays I visit with others who are struggling with a variety of life’s challenges, some due to the loss of husbands, wives, children,
“Therein lies the problem,” she says. “You can’t eat, sleep, and breathe death. You can’t teach it, counsel it, and minister to those trying to live through it, and give your own grief room to breathe.”
“It just won’t work,” she continues in her know-it-all counselor voice. She’s right. “Your grief is important, too,” she reminds me. “When do you spend time alone with your own grief?” She asks. I’m thinking out loud as I say “how much more time do I need to spend with it? I’m immersed in it every day, day in and day out!”
My world revolves around death and dying. I teach it, I minister to those who are buried in it, no pun intended, and I guide families through it in the arrangement conference. When the time allows, I move to the embalming room where I stare death in the face while bathing and preparing the lifeless bodies for public and private viewings before sending them to their final resting place. My life’s work has been spent serving those who are profoundly saddened by the loss of a loved one. I don’t know how to do anything else. My work is who I am. Much like my grief, which I didn’t choose, I feel as though I didn’t choose my life’s work, but rather, it chose me. It’s weird; I’m licensed and certified and credentialed to the hilt, but none of my skills help me to navigate my own grief experience. It doesn’t matter how much I know. It can’t help me overcome what I need to experience. My knowledge does not guarantee my peace.
Caring for others isn’t work; it comes easy to me. But caring for myself is hard work; it’s heavy. For now, my professional life allows me to stay in front of my feelings. When I’m teaching at the college or working at the funeral home, I can do what I love doing, providing ways for others to healthily work through grief. What I have to work at - the thing I struggle with, the part I know in my head but can’t seem to make my heart understand - is caring for myself and giving my grief the room to breathe. I imagine that if I suffocate it, if I think through it, I can manage this pain, but I know better. Grief is not for thinking; it is for feeling.
I don’t know anything else. My work world as I know it is a beautiful ministry filled with love and gracious giving. It’s a place where I can flourish, a place where I am armed and ready to help others grow and soar in the midst of tremendous
pain. It’s a safe and doable world. I’m in control, and I’m good at it and at helping others through it. Unfortunately, I’m not so good at practicing what I preach.
My grief is unpleasant. It’s heavy and dense, and I haven’t been giving it the space it needs to breathe, but I have to. If I don’t let it breathe the natural, cleansing breaths it needs, it will, at some point, take ragged, gasping breaths, deep, painful breaths, and I will be the one to suffocate. And I know you don’t want that for me, David. For the first time in the 476 days since you left me, I find myself wanting to step out of the comfortable world of death and dying, a world where I feel safe and confident and in control and into an uncomfortable space where I can confront and nurture my own grief, a place where I can give your death and my grief life and room to breathe.