The Lead Blanket Called Grief

A friend died yesterday; two days shy of her 52nd birthday. 

Six months ago she was doing her regular hot yoga classes and working full time. Few were more full of life.

Enter some vague symptoms, Urgent Care – and then an immediate trip to Yale Smilow Cancer Center. We are blessed to live close to world-class medical centers – except when it comes to a pancreatic cancer diagnosis because it seems there are no answers and no cure.

Fast (very fast) forward to yesterday. – four and one-half months later. 

She literally spent one day in the nation’s first inpatient hospice – one day – and she is gone. Her name is Jackie and I’ve known her for 17 years. The reason I know exactly when I met her is that she was a part of a women’s group called the Red Tent ~ and I am also a member. The Red Tent meets on the first Thursday of every month – and we have, for 17 years next month. (That equals 204 meetings – almost never missing a month.)

Jackie was what I affectionately called our “Sweep.” A Sweep is someone who “brings up the rear,” who is at the back end making sure everything is okay for the front end, a.k.a, the rest of us in the group. Jackie was 10+ years younger than most of us in the group and, as someone in the group recently said, “She was supposed to be the one taking care of all of us.” And someone else said, “Do angels pluck chin hairs when we can no longer? That was Jackie’s job.”

I decided to write today because my emotions are so vivid – about grief, about sadness, about death and dying.

While we knew Jackie would not survive her diagnosis, yesterday still sent shock waves through the Red Tent. 

There were 10 of us; now we have nine broken hearts.

I’m a gerontologist, a care manager, and an advocate for older adults. I live in a world where clients die with frequency. I have lost both parents, a brother, and other dear friends. I am no stranger to death, to the impermanence of life, but what always catches me by surprise is the many and varied ways that loss and grief manifest themselves. 

For me, grief shows up in many forms. The most prevalent is the feeling like I am wearing one of those lead blankets they put on you in the dentist’s office when they are taking X-rays. These blankets are designed to protect you from harm, and for me, this overarching feeling may be doing the very same thing. The heaviness protects me from moving too quickly; it slows me down so I can languish in the pain. The lead blanket of grief is so heavy it forces me to stay in it.

The other thing I know really well about grief is that it is in no way linear. Instead, grief comes in waves – up and down, and for me, a part of the loss never goes away – ever. I’ve often compared grief to “phantom pain,” that sensation where amputees feel pain in a limb that’s no longer there.

I believe you can feel someone who is missing – as if they are still there.

“May the longtime sun shine upon you .

All love surround you

And the pure, pure light that’s within you

Guide your way home.”

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