By Jody Kerzman
June 20, 2015. We call this the day our family changed forever.
It’s the day my father-in-law died in a farm accident.
I’ll never forget the phone call, telling my kids, trying to comfort my husband, how our usually hyper dog sat still so our then five-year-old daughter could hug him while she sobbed. Our house became a gathering spot for family in town, and family passing through on their way to the farm to make funeral arrangements.
The summer is still a blur.
The funeral, the farming and ranching that needed to be completed, and the grief that we all still struggle with.
Grief is a crazy thing.
It’s different for everyone. I’ve witnessed that firsthand this past year. Some have cried, others have avoided the subject, others have thrown themselves into their work. I’ve learned that what works for one person may not work for the next. And that’s ok.
While it’s been hard to watch everyone grieve, watching my youngest daughter struggle with the loss of her grandpa has been heartbreaking. Morgan is six now, but many of her memories from her first five years of life involve Grandpa Kerzman. He was very much a part of her life, and I’m so glad for that. But it’s made her grief that much stronger.
I’ve lost track of the times she’s laid in her bed, sobbing because she misses Grandpa. I’ve found pictures of Grandpa removed from their normal spots and hidden under her pillow. She’s used his old t-shirt as a security blanket, she’s worn a locket with his picture in it around her neck. And she has asked a million times when she will see Grandpa again. She has had a constant tummy ache, or at least a complaint of a tummy ache, ever since Grandpa died. I think she sometimes says her tummy hurts, when really, she’s feeling sad about Grandpa.
As overwhelming and complex as her grief is, experts say it’s pretty normal.
“Younger kids don’t really grasp the idea that death is final,” explains Marie Schaaf Gallagher, a psychologist at Sanford Health in Bismarck. “They often think the person who died is coming back, and they get impatient and sad when he doesn’t show up.
“We need to be direct and honest with kids about death because their understanding of things is just so different than ours,” she says. “If we tell our child that Grandpa is in heaven and heaven is a wonderful place, they think that sounds great and say they want to be there with him. It may sound like the child is suicidal, but they’re probably really not, they just want to be in a great place with Grandpa. We need to be clear that they can’t be with Grandpa anymore and that he’s not coming back. It’s a really hard thing to tell a kid.”
But those words can lead to healing. Dr. Schaaf Gallagher says grief is very individual and there is no right or wrong way to grieve the loss of a loved one. The most important thing, she says, is to experience the emotions, whether that’s sadness or even anger.
You may have heard of the five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance). Dr. Schaaf Gallagher says those stages were actually designed for people who are in the process of dying, not for people who just lost someone. She says grief isn’t about getting through each stage, its about adjusting to life after the loss of a loved one.
“I read an article that described grief as a play and when you lose someone, you have a new act in your life without that person. You have to figure out what the act looks like now and how to make it work,” says Schaaf Gallagher. “I like that because it’s more about a process, not about getting through something. You might not ever truly be done grieving, but it’s about how to incorporate the change, the loss, into your life and make sense of it.”
She says everyone will go through that differently. Some will cry, some will talk, some will keep to themselves. And she says, there isn’t a time limit on grieving. Some will take a year, others may take five years. Everyone is different. Dr. Schaaf Gallagher says it’s ok to be sad, and it’s ok to ask for help. Both can be difficult, but she says they are key to the grieving process.
“There are warning signs to watch for when a loved one is grieving,” she adds. “They are similar to the warning signs you’d see if someone was depressed, things like missing work, struggles with family, missing other commitments. When a person stops taking care of himself, for example he stops showering, eating, or spending time with friends, that’s a red flag. Substance abuse, whether that’s alcohol or even prescribed anti-anxiety medication, is a warning sign that the person grieving needs some help.”
Her advice to help a friend, or in my case, a daughter, who is grieving? Just listen.
“When people ask me what they should say to someone who is grieving, I always tell them not to say anything. Instead, just listen,” she explains. “Listen to their feelings, let them share their memories, happy and sad. Having someone to listen is very comforting when you’re grieving.”
So, for Morgan, we will continue to listen when she wants to talk about Grandpa. And honestly, when she shares her memories, it helps heal our hearts as well. Its fun hear what she remembers – things like eating melted ice cream, riding in the tractor, and sitting on his lap during church. These are the things she remembers, and misses about her grandpa. And they are the things that make up the first act of Morgan’s life. Now, we’re in act two: life without Grandpa Kerzman.
In the meantime, I found this quote:
“Missing someone is your hearts way of reminding you that you love them.” – unknown
It’s helping Morgan deal with her grief. Her heart reminds her constantly how much she loved her Grandpa Kerzman.