Everyone Grieves in Their Own Way

Herbie J Pilato

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I lost my father to lung cancer in 1995, and my mother to Alzheimer’s and heart disease in 2008. I was close to both of my parents, more so in their later years when I served as their primary caregiver. I became more than just their son, and they became more than just my parents. They became my best friends and I became theirs. They also became my children. Somehow, the roles were reversed. I was always their child, but I then also became their parent.

I sacrificed much of what this world calls secure to care for my Mom and Dad (and I can’t help but name them with a capital M and D, as a combined sign of respect and affection). I dedicated a good portion of my young adulthood to caring for them, and I do not regret one moment of my life in their company. They became my world and, in looking back, I became a better person because of them, not just in the way they raised me. But in the things that I learned from them while catering to their welfare and well-being in the closing years of their time in this world.

And you know what? I would not have done anything differently.

Trust me: I didn’t do it for the money. There was no money. No estate. No dividends. No annuities. No inheritance whatsoever, again, of what this world calls secure. I cared for my parents because I loved them, and they cared for me in the same way, whether as a child they initially shaped and formed or whether as the adult I became before their eyes.

According to my faith as a Roman Catholic, I believe Mom and Dad are fine in Heaven — that serene place above that I was taught exists. I believe they are living fully, in what some have called the Light of Love’s Embrace.

Yeah — that’s how I see it, as I make every attempt to live fully the life I believe God gave me through my parents. In my heart, to live any other way would be a disservice to God, to my parents, and to myself.

But again, that’s just me. And I’m not pushing me on you. I’m just sharing what works for me, suggesting in the process that maybe it could work for you.

It took me quite some time to recover from the demise of my parents. Losing my Dad was tough. At least I still had my Mom. But when she was gone, that was tougher. I was a single man, with many good friends and loving-kind relatives, including an older sister who loved our parents as dearly as I did.

But it was still a challenge to move on after Mom died.

Part of the problem is that I didn’t have too much in my buffer zone to help deal with the loss. I wasn’t working. I had no family of my own, no wife to help soothe my tears in the desperate, wrenching hours and sometimes endless days of doctor and hospital visits. The emergency rooms. The critical care units. The palliative procedures, the technical terminology of science and medicine, most of it was all-encompassing, and all of it was overwhelming and suffocating.

But I trenched on again because I cared. Because I loved my parents. And because I could not have done it any other way. Even when there would those who’d question me at almost every turn.

“Herbie J — what are you doing?! When are you going to move on with your life?! Your parents lived their lives.”

And my favorite, “Your parents' lives are over!”

I heard that last line when my parents were still alive — and healthy, to boot.

But when they did die, there was remorse and even a measure of guilt that maybe I could have done more for them while they were alive. But in truth, I did all I could — all that one adult child could have possibly done for any ailing one or two ailing parents.

And when they left, I grieved, intensely in the seconds, minutes, hours, days, and months following, and less so, but continuously for years after.

But not excessively.

Excessive grief, whether the result of the loss of a parent or any loved one or dear friend, serves no purpose. We may think it does, and some may even hope it does, in order to possibly shield themselves from living or to use it as an excuse to not go on living, fully or otherwise. But no — excessive grief, that may linger for years or in some cases, decades, serves no purpose.

Whether Catholic or Christian, Jewish or Hindu, Agnostic or Atheist or whatever one's personal beliefs, assuredly, it couldn’t hurt and only maybe make these less painful if could at least consider the possibility that, if our lost loved ones suddenly appeared to us, they would not want any of those they have left behind to grieve for an extended period of time.

In some religious creeds and spiritual thought, it is said that those in Heaven are not aware of the grief they ignite in this world. The mothers, fathers, sons, daughters, cousins, friends or co-workers, etc. who have left this world for a higher plane of existence know nothing but joy, happiness, grace, and love. In other words, every good thing. And extreme grief does not fall into that good category.

But for the sake of conversation, let’s assume our dear departed souls are indeed aware of any grief on our part, excessive or otherwise.

In that scenario, isn’t it then possible they may be disappointed in seeing the frequent tears of those of us still here? Isn’t it possible that it might break their heart to see their mortal loved ones sad all the time?

I think so — and it might be for the highest good of all concerned to consider other options besides excessive grief.

In the mid-1980s, I knew of a middle-aged woman who lost her son when he was only seven years old. Certainly, no parent should have to bury their child, and losing such a young child carries that point even further. In any case, there was no question that this woman missed her beautiful son every day.

But she did not stop living. She kept busy and active; continued to work, and even date, as her husband had died years before. But when you’d visit her home after she lost her son, there was no doubt that she loved him.

In her living room, above the sofa, she had placed a hand-painted portrait painted of him that she had commissioned by a local artist. The painting was on display for all to see whenever they passed by it. She blessed his image, she sent love to his heart and soul in Heaven each time she glanced upon that picture. But she no longer grieved his spiritual passing to the point of denying her own human life on Earth.

Conversely, I know of another woman who lost a loved one, this time — her middle-aged husband — to a heart attack. It was her husband’s dream to move from their hometown of El Paso, Texas to a small town in Virginia. So when he died, the woman decided to leave everyone she loved in El Paso, uproot her own three children from all and everything they loved — and moved to Virginia — to live out her dead husband’s dream.

Meanwhile, her dead husband was alive in a sense, living fully in Heaven — dancing with the angels, singing with the choir of other enlightened souls — embracing the development of each other’s evolved hearts, no longer tainted by the trappings of earthly existence.

However, the husband’s earthly wife was still living his long-lost and forgotten dream of moving to Virginia, while she continued to miss everyone and everything she knew in El Paso. What’s more, her children were devastated, if ever so silently, of making the move. And decade after decade, this downhearted family sequestered themselves in Virginia, made no real friends and, all the while, spent thousands of dollars in telephone bills talking to their remaining loved ones on Earth, who were still in El Paso.

Then, one by one, this woman’s family left this world, first, a sister and brother-in-law who had followed her to Virginia (by way of her dead husband’s dream); then her own daughter, who never fully lived the life she was born to live in this world — she died, too, while only in her early 40s.

Soon following in death was the woman’s son, while in his early 70s, living nowhere near the full life his father or his mother would have assuredly wished him to live on Earth.

I know of another example, this time, a man from back East. He lost his wife to a deathly disease. He could not recover from his grief. Every day for years after his wife died, he visited the cemetery and placed flowers on her grave. Every day — without fail. And whenever he talked about her, he cried and periodically wailed.

But all the while, his wife is living fully in Heaven and knowing nothing of her Earthly husband’s grief. I’m not sure if he has died by now, but if he has passed on to join her, hopefully, he may have found the joy with her that he so sorely missed on Earth over too many years spent in grief after her mortal demise.

Into this mix, I know of a man, who lost his father. This man lives in Portland, in a big apartment complex, with a courtyard setting. And every Christmas, this man used to place a beautifully decorated tree in the window, for all the other residents to savor and enjoy upon each glance to this man’s front window.

But every Christmas since this man’s father died there has been no Christmas tree, and all the joy that was experienced by all those residents in that apartment complex has been lost because the man has refused to place a Christmas tree in the window every December, falsely thinking this is some kind of honor to his dead father’s memory. When, again, his dead father, now in Heaven, has no memory of any sad thing on Earth.

Meanwhile, this man’s grief is only increased by the loss of joy his neighbors and their children now feel by not seeing a tree in his window at the start of every winter season.

In short, we all grieve in our own way, and we should always have that right. But extended grieving, it would seem, serves no purpose to any being on Earth or in Heaven.

On the other hand, living fully — on any practical or portended realm of existence — serves every purpose.

In this line of thinking, it would seem the healthiest choice to let our loved ones go, guilt-free, when they leave this world. Guilt-free for us. Guilt-free for them. This leaves those of us living on Earth open to embracing our fellow living-breathing beings, all of us, who are shining our beautiful individual lights from the inside, out. And it’s easier to do that by living our lives to the fullest, by placing portraits of our sofas, and Christmas trees in our windows. In this way, we — and everyone else in our world — can bask in the great bonding perpetual glow of the loved ones unseen in this world.

But at the same time, we will still be able to share our lives with those immortal souls now singing with the angelic choirs, while everyone in both realms may reap the benefits of a glorious mutual dance of life in Heaven and on Earth.

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Writer/producer Herbie J Pilato is the author of several books about pop culture including biographies of Mary Tyler Moore, and "Bewitched" star Elizabeth Montgomery. He also writes for Emmys.com, TVWriter.com, and is the host and an executive producer of "Then Again with Herbie J Pilato," a classic TV talk show.

Los Angeles, CA
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