On Coping with Grief
My dad had cancer.
It’s only because I can use the past tense now that I can even type the words. And honestly, it’s still all a bit much. It feels like bad mojo. The c word.
We found out two months ago, and since then, my dad has had surgery, the results have come in, and he is on the mend, seemingly to a full recovery.
The week I found out was the hardest week of my life. The first night, I had severe 체 and threw up. Before work one day, I was at the onset of a panic attack, and one of my best friends, who had been picking up on the hints that something was wrong, received the news and talked me through it. Day to day, I would imagine myself going through the motions—getting up to make tea, walking to the subway station, prepping class materials—but couldn’t get myself to go through them. Even waking up in the morning was too much. I would cry to Andrew about how I just couldn’t get myself to do anything. How I felt trapped in a fog, a dementor shadowing me every second.
I allowed myself to grieve intensely that week. And then I compartmentalized it all away.
I boxed it up so neatly and tidily it almost felt like forgetting. Until I heard anything conclusive, I would forget it.
I had planned to call my dad one last time before his operation, but the pre-op was so intense that I wasn’t able to get hold of him. Then he went in.
The operation was supposed to take a certain number of hours, and for the first few, the nurse would call my mom every hour with an update. The number of hours had passed and the nurse stopped calling. It was three in the morning in Seoul. Andrew was fast asleep and I didn’t want to worry my mom. The only person I wanted to talk to anyway was the one who had been put under. So instead, I panic-researched the procedure, blocked the scenes I kept imagining from my mind, desperately tried to remember the last time I had talked to my dad while beating myself up over not having called him sooner. Eventually, I fell into a restless sleep and then compartmentalized it all away.
It might have been two or three weeks post-op when I had my first ‘normal’ conversation with my dad again. After we hung up, relief, mixed with all the pent-up feelings of the past two months, washed over me and I was inconsolable for a while. Hysterical even. My dad has been the most important person my whole life. So I’m on the mend too.
Grief is grief is grief, but grief is ultimately an individual experience; there isn’t one right way to grieve nor is there one right way to support someone who is grieving. But if you’re the introverted, in-your-own-head, imploding-type who does everything to maintain some semblance of stability through trying times (as I am and do), maybe you’ll find these coping mechanisms helpful.
as a griever
Allow yourself to feel it. I am someone who wants to be completely over something once I’m over it, and the way that I do this is by allowing myself to feel my emotions deeply and intensely in the moment, then process and let go.
Otherwise compartmentalize. I tend to sublimate myself into my work or a task when I’m going through a tough time, which helps me to compartmentalize and therefore continue to function day to day. Teaching has a performative aspect to it and so I’ve developed a strong professional poker face. If I feel a bout of sadness during the day, I’ll box it up and make sure to give myself the time and an outlet to unpack it afterwards.
Inform yourself. For many, ignorance is bliss, but I prefer to know as much as I can, good or bad, to prepare myself for what may come. My imagination runs wild, so it’s better for me to tame it by addressing the what-ifs and limiting its scope.
Find what feels good. There were times when I’d get dizzy with grief while doing yoga, but pushing through the pain gave me a sense of purpose and accomplishment. I also got lost in a novel. Escapism can be a healthy coping mechanism if done right.
as a supporter
Focus on your friend. Few people can artfully share their own experiences with grief in a way that positively impacts the griever. It’s natural for our own similar experiences to come to the forefront when we hear about others’, but airing out your past grief is only commiserating, and for the current griever, knowing that you’ve experienced pain does not lessen theirs. The same goes for questioning or pressing for updates. While your intention might be to show thought and care, these are inundating actions that don’t serve the one who is responding, only the one who is asking. Show thought and care by allowing your friend to decide when and what they want to disclose and truly listening once they do.
Validate their feelings. Words of affirmation falls low on my list of love languages, but one of the worst things someone could do when I’m grieving is tell me that I’m overthinking or overreacting. Grief may cause you to express your feelings differently than you would otherwise, but that doesn’t mean those feelings aren’t valid and sober.
Bear other burdens. There’s probably nothing you can say to make your grieving friend feel better, but there are things you can do to lighten their load. Andrew is always a supportive partner, but especially during that week, he took care of all the chores, errands, and meals. Some people cope through these types of tasks, but the last thing I want to have to think about is what to eat for dinner.
There’s a reason why they say grief comes in waves, and for me, the best way to cope is to ride it out. I’m counting my lucky stars that things seem to have turned out okay and that I have a number of ride or dies to ride out the waves with me.