Cambrian: Opinion

Strategies for grieving through painful, long goodbyes

The columnist’s frined Donna and Tom Pinhey in their teens (on the right) and Donna with her sister, Jane.
The columnist’s frined Donna and Tom Pinhey in their teens (on the right) and Donna with her sister, Jane.

Whether it is just my age or it is the time of mankind, it seems there are a lot more ailments afflicting us these days. People die of many things, but some maladies are just more insidious than others, like Alzheimer’s.

I’ve seen numerous people in town evolve through it and in fact spent a little time with one friend with a form of it. I’ve one friend who was rapidly taken by it while another friend’s father lived for way too many years with an advanced stage of the disease. And now, I received a letter from yet another friend who’s mother is quickly heading toward a merciful ending. Her stepdad was the one who went quickly. Her aunt also suffers from it. She had another relative who died from it as well. Yikes.

But, being the main provider for her mom (her only sister passed away last year from other health complications) as well as caring some for her aunt, she puts on a good face and moves forward with grace.

“Oh, I cry a lot.”

How could you not?

“But, you also have to find the funny things, the touching things, when they happen!”

I’m sure.

She sent a long letter to several of us, inviting us to come say goodbyes, to bring or send love. (I’m blessed to be friends with the whole family) “Having lost Tom and my sister, I’ve pretty much figured out that there’s no one, singular way to grieve. Grief evolves and revolves. It shines and casts shadows like the sun, it wanes and waxes like the moon. Grief expands and contracts with the temperature of our soul.

“We all deal with grief how we can. However you need to approach this is okay with me. Here’s some help. I have mercifully received no-cost counseling from the Central Coast Caregiver Resource Center through a grant from the Area Agency on Aging. The following web page/information has been helpful to me. Perhaps it will be helpful for you? If not now, perhaps you will recall it later should you find yourself here again.” (

“Ambiguous grief” and “anticipatory grief” are new concepts to most of us, I suspect. Personally, I find being able to identify exactly what I’m feeling helps me understand it and address it appropriately.

“Ambiguous grief kind of puts you in limbo — people know they should be sad, but they aren’t exactly sure how sad to be or what to say or do so they don’t come around at all,” my friend shared.

I have heard that from many friends who have suffered long, protracted illnesses or conditions. As tiny children, we are taught “not to stare at the lady in the wheelchair” or “don’t ask them about the oxygen tank.” How can we know what to feel around people if we don’t know what exactly is going on? There is a way to teach your kids to be respectful and engaged … but I digress.

From the website listed above: “Our ‘ambiguous grief’ feelings may be sadness and yearning, anger and guilt, or a range of other emotions. These emotions can become even more complicated than the grief that comes after a death when the behaviors and words of the ‘new’ person causes us to question our old memories. Or worse, they can start to consume our brains as those old memories begin to fade. Another complication of ambiguous grief is that many people don’t recognize it as grief. When those around us don’t acknowledge our grief, or make us feel that we have permission to grieve this sort of loss, that can make you feel lonely and isolated. It can be a hard type of grief to open up about because we know others may not acknowledge it.”

“Oh, at least you still have them with you for a while longer!”

“But, look at all the other blessings around you — don’t focus on the loss!”

“Try to remember all the good things! Just think of those!”

While well-intentioned, they negate the feelings of grief and sometimes cause more stress by making people feel like they’ve failed at “pulling themselves together.”

I suggest to my clients: The physical or mental condition or mobility/medical device in your life is “not who you are,” it is something that you are going through or something you need (a device or medication) to help you continue being who you are now. But, sometimes, it is a new you, it is a new way of life that is not going to change back to what you were comfortable with before.

Here is what the website suggests for dealing with this ambiguous grief, whatever has gotten you here:

▪  Remember that the present doesn’t override the past

▪  Understand that the illness isn’t the person

▪  Acknowledge the grief and pain of the loss

▪  Be open to a new kind of relationship

▪  Connect with others who can relate

While I have indeed found myself in my life grieving plenty — the loss of a best friend, the loss of my mother, etc. — I know I am not alone. I admire my girlfriend who has been so challenged, all my friends who are facing or have been through so much.

I do focus on the good. I do meditate on the positive outcomes I desire. I’ve also cried a lot and I know that none of it is easy — leaving my friend’s bedside at the care facility sent me into deep sobs — I’ve loved and admired her for more than 30 years — I just have to love her now for where she is and I do. It’s hard as hell.

And we are not alone.

Dianne Brooke’s column appears weekly and is special to The Cambrian. Online: