Death of a Daughter: Processing Grief
From Ear Ache to Heart Ache
My ear hurts. A common complaint heard by millions of parents every day. My wife dutifully called the doctor and made an appointment for the next day. The pediatrician noticed some swelling in the inner ear and wrote the standard prescription to kill off the infection for an easy fix. It didn't work. One night five days later, our daughter woke us with pitiable screams from excruciating pain. Back to the doctor.
The primary care doc didn't mess around. She immediately referred our Brittany to an ENT specialist (Ear Nose & Throat MD) . Meeting the new doctor, he immediately exuded empathy and a tenderness that hid the raw realities of his line of work. The spotlight turned to the offending ear, and using a space age probe, he searched for the perpetrator of the pain. He came up empty.
A CAT scan was ordered, administered, and the waiting game began. Not knowing the results was torture. Every phone call met with anticipation and dread all the while never being the person we were so desperate to hear from. Then late one night my wife answered the doctor's call, and her face said it all with silent sobbing. "It's a tumor," she murmured. In the bright daylight, the nightmare shadowed us for six years.
Fight for Life
The seriousness dove deep into our psyche by scheduled surgery the next day. The terrible tumor grew dangerously close to part of Brittany's brain and psychopathically pushed on areas that controlled respiration and the heart. This was just the beginning. Nine brain surgeries, eleven chemos (that never worked), 100's of long hospital stays and the loss of control of half of her face occurred over six years that felt like 6,000. The journey for a cure took us from our hometown in San Diego to NYC, Dallas, Seatle, and even Mexico as we desperately tried to keep her alive. Like all Journeys, it came to an end and so did our beautiful Brittany's life.
Despite the physical pain and agonizing suffering, my daughter brought joy and inspiration to countless people through her fierce faith and fight for life. Her amazing testimony had such a profound effect that one of her young doctors stopped by her room after regular rounds one day. We all wondered what new crisis we would have to face with this unexpected visit. The doctor unapologetically said that he came to see Brittany, because he knew his spirit would be lifted just by being in her presence and briefly speaking with her. He wasn't alone in his experience.
Our daughter lived a vivacious life while she unconsciously walked the path of death. Before one of her craniotomies, she went surfing the day before. She continued to play varsity volleyball and even hit a three-pointer for her basketball team ahead of another surgery. She got her driver's license and was absolutely giddy as she drove her friends all of over San Diego. Most surprising of all, Brittany's fierce Faith never waivered despite a plethora of problems even a saint would have difficulty reconciling with the belief in a good and compassionate God.
I, on the other hand, blamed everything and everybody involved especially God.
For theists, the problem of pain is as ancient as the physical and emotional toll experienced throughout the ages. In his book, CS Lewis, provides perspectives that will open your eyes and give a new appreciation of the unfathomable depth of God.
Climbing the Ladder of Grief
The first misconception of Kubler-Ross' stages of grief is that they are sequential in nature. It is not some lock-step march that is synchronized for everyone. It is more like a teenager's mood swings that throw the sufferer on an emotional rollercoaster from hell. What triggers people to shoot between abject depression to violent anger is as different as the Sahara Desert and the Amazon Jungle. It can happen in a nanosecond.
If you've ever watched law enforcement inform someone that a loved one has been murdered, you know the instinctual reaction. Complete disbelief accompanied by statements like, "You're lying!" "You must be mistaken!" "That can't be true I just talked to him!" are what usually happens. Denial is an autogenic defense-mechanism designed to protect our psyche from an unfathomable fact we can't believe.
Stage 1: Denial
The symptoms of denial are recognizable to everyone except for the person in the midst of unreality. As counterintuitive as it might seem, it is the beginning of healing. It's nature's way of protecting people from information overload. It is a way to survive even when you don't want to. The slow process of allowing in malignant information prepares the grief-stricken to ask meaningful questions about what to do next. These critical questions build strength while weakening denial but inevitably bring up emotions that are incredibly painful.
Stage 2: Anger
The problem of anger is that it needs something, someone, anything really, to blame and strike out against. It is a necessary part of the healing process. It reveals the intensity of love you have for the dearly departed. The targets of anger are limitless where family, friends, colleagues, doctors, yourself, and even God are all fair game. The numbing abandonment is real, but we fear and stuff anger away in the attic of the mind where we hope it will forever stay in an organized box. It never works. Anger is a tool that gives structure to isolating emotions and can be a powerful precursor to positive change.
Stage 3: Depression
Once the fact that denial is no longer needed and anger has served its purpose, reality smashes us in the face. Interminable emptiness replaces the flood of emotions we drowned in earlier in the grief process. Depression is a natural response to great loss. It is not a mental illness that needs to be fixed by drugs from a psychiatrist (unless it lasts too long and affects too many aspects of your life). It's normal to withdraw from social activities to sit in your depressive emotions and experience them fully. The beloved isn't getting better and that is a necessary fact that is depressing. This is but another level of the grief ladder that must be climbed.
Stage 4: Bargaining
Even before a loved one dies, negotiations for a different outcome ensues. Pleading with God to take the place of someone terminally ill sparing them or promising to spread the gospel around the country even if you haven't believed in it for decades are common. Once the loved one is dead and buried, the bargaining reaches a new intensity level in an effort to restore the life that once was. Statements like "what if..." or "if only..." long for a time machine to transport us back to a critical moment where something could bring back the person lost to the circle of life which is ironically death. We live in the past to escape the pain of the present.
Stage 5: Acceptance
We started with a misconception to explain the nonlinear nature of the grief process and here's another. Closure never happens. How can someone truly be OK with the departure of a loved one? The act of acceptance doesn't mean all is right in your world, but that you acknowledge the fact that death means that the person's physical presence is no longer possible. This sometimes produces guilt because we feel as if we have forgotten a piece of very selves. But over time, little by little, we understand that the person who can no longer be with us wants us to stop the self-imposed suffering. It is this acceptance that honors a dearly departed life and death.
For more information about grief support groups and websites, click on the links below.
Grief Support Links
- HealGrief: Providing Community, Support & Connections
- Home Page – The Compassionate Friends
If you and your family have experienced the loss of a child, The Compassionate Friends can help you find the support, understanding and healing to work through your grief.
- Grief.com: Because LOVE Never Dies
© 2016 Michael Wnek