Seven years ago I wrote the post Almost 6 Months Later which contained some thoughts about the things that had happened in the six months following my fathers death. I believed that at that point I had moved most of the way through the grief process. 90 months later, I am certain that the process doesn’t ever have an end point. Instead, we get better at dealing with it as life moves on and our brain adjusts to create a new normal.
I am not sad and I do not believe that this is a pessimistic view. The fact is that we never stop developing and adapting to the stimulation we bring into our brains, so there is no reason to believe that adjusting to the death of a loved one ever stops. Our brains grow from the beginning of life and probably continue to grow for a few minutes after we take our last breath. They are complex organic computers that spawn and prune connections between billions of neurons to form long term memories and create processes that allow it to handle the world more effectively the next time the world brings it the same type of stimulation. They are never still and the only time they ever go dark is when we die.
In the original post, I spoke about someone who I met whose father had been given the diagnosis of a very slowly developing cancer. She was upset and having a tough time processing the news while her dad was very matter of fact about it. He was well into his eighties and didn’t really care all that much. He was old, had lived a complete life, and since he wasn’t actually running out of runway, he didn’t think it was worth the energy to worry about or to consider the diagnosis. He felt that there was as good a chance that old age would take care of things before the cancer did and since he wasn’t worrying about old age, it didn’t make any sense to deal with the fact that the doctor had told him that he had cancer.
A year later, Heather’s father was diagnosed with a few different types of cancer – no one was sure where the original tumor had been, but it had metastasized to the point that it was in his bones, throat, and possibly his brain. They said possibly because while he did have a brain tumor, it didn’t seem to grow at all between the scans; unlike the other tumors that ate his spine and began to close over his throat. Unlike my dad, who stood to gain very little from treatment, her dad was able to under go radiation and chemotherapy. The radiation worked wonders on his throat, opening it up again and allowing him to eat and drink anything he wanted, which he did. The chemo was less well tolerated, and he stopped it a few weeks in because of the side effects. After the tumors, the skin is the next place to begin to show the side effects of the chemicals – most of the chemotherapy medication that has traditionally been used in treating cancer works by killing tissue. It is reasonably specific in so far as it will primarily target the type of cell that makes-up the tumor, but it is not perfect and is not isolated to JUST the tumor cells. With chemotherapy there will be collateral damage and with him it began to take a toll on the skin of his lips and neck. Given that he was never going to be cured, he made the decision to stop the treatment and put an end to these awful side effects. He was close to seventy and had more or less made his peace with the life he had lived. He died the following July.
While at the time of my dads death, I was unable to find anything good about it; the possible exception being that since his GBM wasn’t painful, he got to enjoy the final 6 weeks of life as much as anyone can enjoy any six week period. The post I wrote six month later, I made mention to feeling useful to my friend because of what I had just experienced. With the sad news about Heather’s dad, I was able to be even more useful. This was a good thing, and it did, in a way, give my dads death a little more meaning or value. It wasn’t that I knew what Heather, her sister, and the rest of the family were going through, I didn’t, I couldn’t possibly know what their experience was like. But I did have experience with the process. So while I lacked the specific knowledge of what they were going through, she had someone to talk to about the feelings she was having and the thoughts that were popping into her mind with someone who was a little further along in the grieving process. I was able to talk to the very odd sensations and feelings that accompany your loved one seeming to improve with whatever treatment they receive and how there are feelings of disbelief that there is actually something wrong.
This is like an emotional time bomb that makes normal living close to impossible. No matter how good you feel, there’s a monkey on your back that at some point in the future something very crappy is going to happen. When you feel bad about what is going on, there is the thought that you need to cheer-up and enjoy your remaining time together. No matter what you are feeling, a thought pops into mind to tell you that you should feel something else. It’s a destabilizing experience, as though you are gas lighting yourself, and over time you begin to not trust how you feel or to simply allow yourself to experience whatever is occurring from moment to moment from any place other than the certain future when your loved one has died.
Her dad, just like mine, did his best to address this thing by encouraging his children and the rest of the family to go about their life’s as well as they could. There wasn’t any point in cycling on the future because it was going to happen when it was time. Until then it was just something to deal with later. On his advice, Heather and I took a trip to Mexico, our first big trip together. I don’t recall any specific moments of overwhelming sadness and the trip was a lot of fun.
Years later, Heather and I both have moments when we think about our dads. Speaking to my moments, I don’t get sad anymore, although there can be times when I wake-up feeling stunned that my dad is gone. These I know are just the emotional chemicals that my brain has released in response to some mental process that my brain has drawn a connection between and thoughts about my dad not being there. There have been a number of times in my past when I had these feelings, and they seemed to link-up to conscious thoughts relating to something that always was but was now no longer. Adjusting to dramatic change is tough and the brain isn’t very good at doing it all at once. It needs a lot of time and stimulation to eventually land in a place that doesn’t feel painful or register as loss, but is just a feeling of “offness.”
Of course, I have done a lot of stuff in the meantime that has had a big impact on how I approach the experience of being alive. There is no doubt in my mind that how I handled my father’s death served as another example of how some of my ways of operating were not helpful or were contributing to the level of difficulty I was having living from day to day. I accept this, and realize that dealing with death is not something that we are taught or that most people have much experience with. Improvements in healthcare, food availability, sanitation, safety regulations, and vaccinations have boosted life expectancy, meaning that the initial experience with the death of a loved one do not occur until much later in life. This is a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it is great that people are living longer. Being alive is at least something, so the fact that more than twenty years have been added to the average life span in North America means twenty more years of that something. But on the other hand, it means that, statistically speaking, the first exposure to the death of a loved one is going to occur twenty years later than it would have before.
The significance of this delay is best understood when considering the compounding effect of experience over time. Someone who has been writing for twenty years is going to be much better at it than someone who has been writing for five years. In the case of physically writing, the fifteen extra years will give them much better physical control over their hand and finger movements, allowing them to become an expert in terms of handwriting. In the case of writing words that capture ideas, those extra years of practice will mean that the brain will have adapted more completely to whatever the mental stimulation that brings those ideas to consciousness and then to paper represented. This is much more to the point. The grief process is long, possible permanent, and it does represent one of the more significant things that a human being will have to deal with.
Death is real, it’s a thing that happens, but it is less significant than the experience of grief would have you believe. My view of it has changed over time, as I mature and my brain works its way through the grief processes that have been triggered in my life. When you are in it, it feels awful. You are almost incapable of thinking about it in real terms, and will instead deal with the abstract aspects of it. This is not good or bad, it’s just what happens with most people. But it is not a pure reflection of reality.
Consider it from a materialistic point of view. People are bags of molecules but a “person” is a rich narrative understanding that is a collection of things. My dad married my mom and they had two children. This is a biological thing and it can be measured. But the relationship that I had with him cannot be so easily understood. He did do a lot of stuff to change the physical environment that I lived in – he worked to make money so that we had food, shelter and clothing – he took physical actions in the world to make sure that the family was safe, secure and mostly free of worry, and he talked to me to teach me things and to alter some of my decisions or actions – the ideas that he had were captured by the air flow that left his lungs and passed over his vocal chords allowing these ideas to be generated in my head when that air vibrated my eardrums, creating the electrical activity that my brain converted into the understanding of the words from which the ideas were created. That is no small feat. Make no mistake about it, my dad did a lot for me and he did almost all of it through the same methods that human beings have been using throughout their entire history.
My present understanding has nothing to do with trying to diminish anything about the important role he played and that all parents and caregivers play. But when you detach from the whole thing and break it down into the material or objective reality, it all becomes so much less than the story we are living when we are gripped tightly by the hand of grief.
When my dad died, I lost my father, yes, but he had already completed 98 percent of the “father” things that he had the potential and willingness to do. From this point of view, his death makes almost no difference to my playing the role of “son.” The role I get to play is not the same as it would have been had he not died in 2012, but that doesn’t actually mean anything. Only one thing happens, so there is only an alternative experience or outcome when we take the time to think about it. Any notion about what it would have been like if he had continued to live for another twenty years is immaterial. It can only exist as a thought and even then, it can only exist in the brain of the person who is thinking it. This is vastly different from the 98 percent of the things that he did that contributed to his playing the role of father. Some physical matter was impacted by those actions and that makes these actions real and of material consequence.
Sure, we can make an argument that, by him dying, he was no longer able to take action and that therefore is a material difference. This is true, but we’d be hard pressed to say with complete certainty what those actions were. Okay, I have every reason to believe the family would have continued to enjoy Sunday dinners, so his passing very likely marked the end of them; or at least him eating dinner with us. But the truth is that this is only the most probable outcome. Something else could have happened that put an end to the Sunday dinners. We’ll never know, and that is the point of it. While someone is alive, we can say with certainty the material impact that their actions have on the world – what molecules they put in motion, which ones they stopped moving or prevented from moving, and which ones they impacted to change their direction and velocity. When they are dead, or did not exist, we can only engage in a game of speculation about how they would have impacted the physical universe.
The initial phases of grief are awful, not because the person is dead and they are no longer impacting the physical world in a way that make their loved ones feel good which is perceived as bad. The intensity of the early part of the grief process is magnitudes larger than that. The reason, I believe, why it starts off at such a high level is because their death is interpreted as the loss of EVERY SINGLE possible impact they could have had on the physical world. It has very little or nothing to do with the present moment. The genesis of the feelings is an unconscious and automatic loop that has the brain cycling on all of the future possibilities that are now off the table. This happens fairly quickly, and unless the person has the ability to clear negative emotion faster than the brain creates it, they can find themselves getting overwhelmed.
The feelings the person is having are real. The chemicals that cause the body to experience the emotion can be measured and the increased brain activity in the areas that are responsible for processing negative emotion can be observed with an fMRI machine. BUT since these changes will not occur in the bodies of people who did not know the deceased person, their cause is purely perceptual and the result of specific mental activity in the brain of the bereaved. So while death is real, and the emotional response to a death of a loved one is real, this response does not have a direct physical cause. It is an abstract interpretative reaction that is triggered in the brains of almost all human beings and many animals. It is a part of the genetic code that evolved over millions of years and is a deeply seeded part of our operating system.
Now given that it is a natural and genetically coded process, we are innately equipped to handle it. It is a mechanism that evolved because it improved our fitness in terms of survival and reproductive success. This is the problem we are running into now, because as life expectancy grows, the necessary experiences that trigger and shape gene expression are delayed. This delay is at least twenty years – given that life expectancy has grown by this amount over the last century – but it is almost certainly longer. Regardless of the time frame, every previous generation of human beings lived much shorter lives and had to deal with infant mortality rates that were in the double digits. This means that exposure to the early death of a loved one was a way of life not so long ago, and it was a fact of life for every ancestor (prehuman) in our evolutionary past; even if they were not capable of relating to someone as a “loved one” many of their species died young ensuring that those who survived long enough to reproduce had figured out how to get back on their feet again.
Maybe a more concise way to phrase this would be to suggest that only recently and only within our species, that death has become increasingly more abstract as our direct exposure to it has been delayed for decades. The positive is that we are living longer, the negative is that for many of us, our first exposure to it comes well after our brains have fully developed. While this may seem like a bonus it isn’t because children and adults do not process stimulation and information in the same way. The prefrontal cortex of a child is much less well developed than that of an adult meaning the younger a person is, the lower their capacity for thinking about the future and for generating timelines. As a consequence, children do not have the same grief experience as adults.
So returning to the compounding effect of experience over time comment, it’s very easy to imagine a child 2000 years ago having their first experience with death and grief at age 10. It means something to them, but it cannot mean the same thing as it does to their 30 year old father because they do not have the same hardware. However, the child has the experience and the process runs its course. Meaning that, over time, their brain processes and reprocesses it, and as their brain fully matures, they have been working through the experience for 10 or more years. And they have probably had other death experiences that influence and play their part on the grief process. By the time they are 30, they will have a level of resilience that is the result of wisdom and NOT the result of willpower or wishful thinking. They know it sucks but they know that in time they will feel better because they will have gone through it a few times and have become aware and desensitized to it.
Even when their brain is fully formed and capable of peak levels of abstract thought, their life experience will have populated their long term memory with sensory information that reflects the truth about death. When compared to their contemporary counterparts, their reactions will not be the same in terms of magnitude and may actually differ completely in terms of content.
My first exposure with the death of a loved one was when I was 21. There is no comparing this to the second experience I had almost 20 years later. Yes, there was sadness and a sense of despair, but there was also a wisdom of knowing that I didn’t need to think about it all of the time and that I was actually free to NOT think about it if I didn’t want to. The first month was tough the second time round, but things were only as bad as they could be for a couple of weeks, and even then this was only when I thought about it; or when I was not able to NOT think about it.
And that is really the value of what I went through. I knew what it was all about in terms of the human experience of grief and its innate emotional experience. It’s intense and rough at the beginning as the brain works its way through the list of EVERYTHING that is lost, but then it calms down and starts to get a grip. Over the weeks and months it narrows its assessment to what might have been lost and focuses on what was actually lost. What begins as thousands becomes 4 or 5 things that you can honestly say are gone because you know you would have done them. For example, I miss talking to my dad about things. He was curious and kind, and he had a lot of life experience that helped to provide perspective about what those things actually meant or what they meant 20 years ago when they happened, and 40 years ago when they happened. I miss his laugh, not because it was a particularly good one, although it was, but because when you hear someone laughing like that, you know with absolute certainty that they are in the moment and it is a great moment to be in. And I kind of would have like for him to meet Heather because she’s awesome and he was awesome and I think they would have become good friends. But none of that stuff is worth crying about and even if it does make me sad from time to time, it does not make me death date +2 days sad.
Which is the point of all of it. Had I known what I would miss and be sad about and focused only on that stuff, I would have had a much easier time with it and would have been a lot more use to my mother, brother and sister in-law, and whoever else was negatively impacted by his passing. But technological progress has liberated us from having to have the experiences that make human beings effective grievers. We have the genes to make us good at it, we just don’t have the experiences to bring about their expression.
At this point in my life I do not think much about the future deaths of the people that I love. It is something that I am capable of doing but choose not to because it makes me feel lousy. I know I will be subjected to grief again unless I’m the first one to go, so I’ll deal with it when it comes along. What I do know is that most of what the older people say about death and how to navigate through the first couple of months after the loss of a loved one is solid advice. Look after your health as well as you can. Do your best to stay nourished. Take the time to do the things that you know work for you. Put in the effort to reestablish your sleep schedule as soon as you can. And go easy on yourself, no matter how you feel. It is fine to not think about it, just as it is fine to take some time to bawl your eyes out. Over time, you will feel better and adjust. The brains response and adaptation to death is logarithmic and not linear. Most of what it has to deal with occurs very early on, then there is a very rapid drop off. However, it has a non convergent property meaning that your life will never meet back up with the normal that once was. It will be new and it will be fine, but never again will it be the same.