Grief for the Living

Saying goodbye over and over again to someone you love with can be painful.

By Dulce Zamora

My family and I took a taxi to Changi Airport Terminal 1 in Singapore to drop off my husband, Noel. He was going on an international business trip.

“Daddy, you just came back last week!” cried our 11 year old daughter, S, as we stepped out of the cab.

“Sweetie, there’s a new person working for the company,” Noel explained as he placed a computer bag on top of his carry-on luggage. “So I have to go there and show her how we do things.”

“Humph!” retorted S. “You’re always away, and now you’re going to Australia without us. It’s not fair!”

Noel rolled his suitcase toward the terminal’s automatic double doors, which opened at our approach. A rush of cool air greeted us. Our front sides felt refrigerated while our backs sweltered in the humidity. .

“You want something from Melbourne?” Noel asked. “I can get it for you.”

“I don’t know,” said S, eyes glazing over the tan marble floor reflecting the bright rectangular lights on the lofty ceiling. The grand hall bustled with people moving every which way. People stopped momentarily in front of several TV screens listing departures and arrivals. It was a buzz we were accustomed to as seasoned travelers. This time, however, my hands and my daughters’ hands were free of the usual travel trappings. Instead, our hearts felt the weight. My 9 year old, J, sniffed a small worn-out elephant blankie, which covered the bottom half of her face. Her eyes looked uncertain as she grabbed my hand. S began to bury herself in a thick book as she walked. Several luggage-laden travelers almost ran into her, but sidestepped just in time.

“Put the book away, please,” I said. “Remember, you need to be present when walking.”

S rolled her eyes and muttered, “You always ruin the fun.”

I wished we had stayed home as my girls requested. Instead, I convinced them it was a good idea to see Daddy off so we could spend more time with him. Noel suggested it, and I went along with it, knowing that’s what he wanted.

At the self-check-in counter, J attached herself to Noel’s left arm.  S clung to his right side. “Daddy, don’t go!” they implored. “Just do your work here.”

“I know,” he said, eyes glued to the monitor and hands struggling to tap it. When he finished, he grabbed his boarding pass, and cheerfully said, “Okay, who wants to eat at Crystal Jade? I have a little time before I board.”

The girls jumped up and down, arms still clinging to him, saying “Me! Me! Me!”

We studied the directory and discovered that we were not able to go to Crystal Jade. That’s because it was located in the Departure Hall, where you had to go through security. J cried even though we suggested trying another restaurant. “I only want to eat at Crystal Jade,” she said, crossing her arms.

“Oh, but look at that Nutella and Oreo sundae,” said Noel, pointing to an ad for Pappa Mia showcasing giant images of delectables. “You can have it if we eat here.”

I cringed. Noel always had a sweet tooth, but lately, it seemed to me like he was always offering the girls dessert, or bringing sweet treats from his trips. I refrained from saying anything, knowing our farewells had more bite ever since we moved from California to Singapore 6 months ago. We missed our family and friends back home. Being with them for three years, we developed a closeness that now stings when we think about it. Maybe we could all use some comfort, or a little less conflict.

We ate dinner, had dessert, and walked toward the Terminal 1 viewing gallery.  The gallery had glass walls so could see inside the departure hall below. It was hard to miss the Social Tree, an animated structure with a giant monitor encircling the crown.

During recent family trips, we spent several minutes there taking selfies from touch-screen photo booths. Our faces then became part of the animation. The images tickled us all.

“Let’s take selfies!” the girls chirped with excitement.

“Sorry,” I said. “You have to go through security to get there. It’s for passengers only.”

Their faces fell, but not for long as they watched people down below taking selfies. They laughed, reminiscing about the animated images we created during past trips.

The viewing gallery also offered a panoramic view of airplanes docked outside, waiting for their next journey. Above the planes, puffy silver and white clouds dotted a baby blue sky.

As I looked at the view, I thought about the many times my family from San Diego visited us in the Bay Area when we were kids. My cousins and I loved our adventures and sleepovers, and hated to say goodbye. When they left after staying a few days at our house, the rooms always felt empty and quiet.

It did not occur to me until recently that when people leave after a visit, or when they drop someone off at the airport, there is a loss.  It could be a loss of noise, a loss of activity, and/or a loss of company. I suppose those losses could be good thing if we really didn’t want them around. But, if we did like them, even for just a little bit, losing them can feel like a burn.

Maybe that’s what my family felt when I left home over and over again for my many adventures. My mom once told me she kicked my bedroom door during my backpacking trip through Europe. I thought she was being overly sentimental and protective, especially since my parents hadn’t wanted me to go anywhere. But I can now fully grasp the loss she must have felt without me at home.

Noel has left for international business trips dozens of times in our 13-year marriage, and, as far as the girls can remember, he has always traveled for work. Why are we so bothered by it now? Maybe it’s because he has been gone more the past couple of years. Maybe it’s because we just moved back to Singapore where we are still working on forging new connections. Many of our old friends have settled into different routines, or have moved away. Maybe it’s because we are still grieving the loss of our old connections in California. Or, maybe it’s a little of all of the above.

Whatever the reason, when it was time for Noel to go, I tried to make the goodbyes quick, hoping to thwart meltdowns. “Time to use the bathroom,” I immediately told the girls after our farewell hugs and kisses. “It will be a long line for the cab and at least a half hour to get home.”

This did not prevent the girls from bickering with each other. Nor did it prevent me from rebuking them, which resulted in some loud sighs and sassiness from the girls, and my reminding them to be respectful. This was all no surprise to me, but I recognized it as a pattern. Perhaps that was why I softened up when the girls asked to stop at the Kinetic Rain moving sculpture near the Terminal 1 departure entrance. Even though it was getting late and it was a school night, I think the girls appreciated looking at the beautiful moving artwork.

Now that I recognize our loss, I plan to focus on ways the girls and I could cope with our grief. It may sound overdramatic to talk about grieving a living loved one, but, come to think of it, it happens all the time. Parents grieve the loss of their children when they move away. Children grieve the loss of their parents when they gain a new sibling or when they go back to work. People grieve when their loved ones succumb to dementia, a brain injury, an addiction, or mental illness. Then there are living experiences that cause grief such as divorce, retirement, disease, dismissal from work, and rifts with loved ones. All sorts of changes — in body, in work, in school, in residence, in family, in social situations, and in all sorts of circumstances — can cause grief.

There are many websites that address loss and how to deal with grief, mostly to cope with death. I browsed through some of them, such as the U.K.’s National Health Service (NHS), the American Psychological Association (APA), and the Mayo Clinic. Their advice could certainly be helpful for people with living grief. Here are some of the tips offered:

  • Accept your feelings. Allow yourself to be sad or angry. Understand that it is normal.
  • Express yourself. Talk about your loss. Seek help if you need it, and help others if you can. Helping people deal with their losses also has benefits.
  • Take care of yourself. Eat well, sleep well, and exercise. Keep up with your routine.
  • Avoid things that may temporarily numb the pain but cause you more problems later on. Alcohol is mentioned, but I think we can also think of other things to soothe or avoid the pain of reality, such as food, social media, a rebound relationship, or drugs.
  • Celebrate what you lost. Do what feels right to honor your loss. With death, the APA suggests planting a memory garden, naming a baby after the lost loved one, or donating to a charity. To celebrate a living loss, I would imagine that the same concept of honoring what you love applies. Perhaps, in our case, we could write daily emails or letters to Noel, or learn to cook or bake something we’ll offer him when he’s home — the latter of which we’ve already done in the past. Maybe we are not doing so badly after all.
  • Remember that grief is unpredictable.  Sadness and anger from loss can strike you at any time, even when you think you’re doing fine. Something may trigger the grief such as a birthday, an anniversary, a holiday, or a life event.

All this new-ish information gives me some hope. There are ways to deal with loss. I am especially drawn to the idea offered by the Mayo Clinic that grief is a process, that the loss will gradually become an integrated part of me as a person. I’d like to make that integrated part be a positive one. How can the girls and I cope with saying goodbye to Noel over and over again? We have some thinking and work to do. Stay tuned.

© 2019 Windswept Wildflower


February 17, 2019

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