On this Memorial Day, I am thinking of my husband’s great-uncle. I have thought of him often over the past eleven months since my brother died. Young, handsome, and beloved by his parents and older brother and sisters, he chose to serve his country as an airman in the Navy. He never made it into WWII combat. At the age of 21, he was killed in a flight training accident on a base in Florida, a tragic loss.
I met my husband’s grandfather and his two great-aunts, his grandfather’s sisters, many years later. All of them lived long lives, and one is still alive in her 90s. They had spouses, careers, and children; some had grandchildren and even lived to know great-grandchildren. They continued on. Before I lost my brother I didn’t think that much about how they coped after their brother died, although I imagined it was terribly difficult and sad. Now, however, I have a completely different perspective on what they may have experienced in losing him. I look at the arc of their lives and see that they found a way to make the most of their days and to thrive. I want to know how they did it.
I hear and read many different phrases that address how the pain of grief can change. “Time heals.” “It gets easier.” “It gets better.” “Step by step things will improve.” “The passage of time makes a difference.” When I think about the scope of human history and experience it becomes clear that uncountable numbers of people have managed to build, over a period of time, their ability to cope with the loss of someone they loved. I have wondered: Does it get easier, really? And if so, how? And if not, how do the living keep going? I had worried, at times, about the fact that living without my brother did not yet seem easier. I wondered if that time would come when I could string together enough qualifying “easier days” to be able to say with confidence, “it got easier.”
Some time ago I received a note from a friend who is coping with the recent and devastating loss of his son. In it he said something that now, a couple of months later, has suddenly struck me. He wasn’t sure, he said, that living with loss gets easier; but what he did know was that people get better at dealing with it.
Of course. Even if living with loss doesn’t get better, they get better. Mt. Everest doesn’t get lower or easier to climb; but people work, and train, and try, and try again, and over time they become good enough climbers that they can reach the summit. The 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon in Death Valley doesn’t get shorter or cooler; but people follow brutal training regimens for years and build up the strength to complete it. The English Channel doesn’t get narrower or calmer, but people work out and swim distances endless times and develop the stamina to get from one coast to the other. I imagine that people can build strength and skill in coping with loss in much the same way as they do for any physical feat.
If so, how do they build this strength? How can a person “train” to cope with grief?
I suspect each person’s best training regimen is unique to that person, loss, and circumstance, and the regimen probably changes as needs change over time. But perhaps some elements are common. For me right now, my chosen training elements include physical activity, writing this blog, therapy, time alone, talking to people who cared about my brother, and time with my family. Another element -- perhaps the most pivotal one -- is taking on the pain whenever and wherever I encounter it from day to day. I sense that if I evade or escape my grief too much, I will compromise my ability to grow stronger. As my therapist says, grief waits for you. I’d rather face it as it comes now than set it to the side where I suspect it could quietly grow more intense and more difficult to handle.
So I’m in training. As with all training, I’m sure I will experience highs and lows, periods of getting stronger and times when I lose ground. But getting better at dealing with grief, to me, feels more possible than hoping it will get easier on its own.
Thank you, Flight Cadet Ensign Paul Chaplitsky, for your service. You continue to serve still, as your story and your family teach us lessons in how to live.