The Five or Six Stages of Grief

Last Monday, I didn’t post for the first time since I launched my blog. I even posted on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day (Mondays!) But, last Monday, I could not write a post because I was too preoccupied with writing my father’s eulogy. 

My dad passed away at the age of 91. He had a pretty great life. Well into his 80’s, my dad still practiced law, drove a car, traveled the world, went to concerts, played bridge, and had a very active social life. Around the age of 87, a complicated stew of aging, dementia, Parkinson’s, and three different kinds of cancer started to slow down the fun train. His body was no longer reliable enough to navigate the world independently. He accepted a new life with full-time caregivers quite well. Over the last two years, there was a steady decline in the quality of his life. Still, he remained happy to go out every day, eat in restaurants, and continue to see friends and family regularly. It was only in the last few months that his mobility and cognitive skills were so diminished that he started sleeping most of the time. When he was awake, he just had a blank stare as if he was always in a dream state. Finally, he passed away quietly in his sleep.

When I got the call, I went into hyper-vigilant-mode to help get things organized (long distance). My brother was doing the bulk of the heavy-lifting — making the funeral arrangements and organizing the reception. I just needed to do a handful of things, but everything was going wrong. It felt like I was trying to move in quicksand. It took me hours to write his eulogy. Hours to write his obituary. Hours to book my travel. I even booked the wrong dates the first time. Then the electricity and the internet went out. I thought it was some kind of sign. I am still not sure a sign of what, but maybe that no matter how prepared you are for someone to die… you are never really prepared.

I flew to Los Angeles where we held the funeral. It was well attended by family and friends. His 88-year-old brother gave the first eulogy. His 83-year-old sister gave the second. All four of his children gave a eulogy along with two of his five grandchildren. Without knowing who would say what, each person told a funny story -- stories that my Dad had told them. Each one commented on how full and joyful his life was. Each one commented on his love of food, family, and storytelling. He was well honored. He was appropriately adored and admired for his zest for life. The service was filled with genuine laughter through some heartfelt tears. Everyone who attended felt that it was a celebration of a life well lived.  

The theme of my eulogy was my father’s relentless optimism and how grateful he was to have been alive for 91 years. After the chapel service, we had the traditional burial. My dad was buried next to my mom where she was laid to rest 43 years earlier (minus five days). Ironic that they both passed away in the month of June. I remember my mom’s funeral as if it had happened yesterday. I remember what I wore. I remember being terrified of cemeteries and caskets. At her funeral, no one gave eulogies except our family rabbi. No one uttered a word. No funny stories were told. It was nothing but sadness. She was 45 years old, and in the prime of her life, when cancer robbed her at the halfway point. She left four children (ages 10-21.) She left a husband who adored her. She left a mother, father, sister, and a huge group of friends who were all devastated. I remember thinking my world ended the day she died and wondered if the sun would come up the next day. I remember thinking even if it did come up, what would be the point of it? Without her, my world had ended. She was my best friend. 

But I survived that day… and the next 43 years too. Now I was standing on that same patch of grass, burying my father. But this time everything was different. With maturity and perspective, I was able to celebrate my dad’s life. I was able to appreciate the time we had with him. I was grateful that he passed away peacefully. I was grateful to all the dear friends and family that showed up for the service. Losing a parent is always difficult. But there is no comparison between losing your mother when you are a little girl and saying goodbye to your father as an adult... when their life was truly complete.

After the service, we had a wonderful reception at my aunt’s house. We feasted on deli platters (my dad’s favorite) and sat around sharing more stories. Then for the next four days, my siblings and I got together to eat meals, sifted through old photographs and talked more. We dredged up a lot of memories… some hilarious and some emotional ones too. By the end of the week, my heart was full. There was very little sadness or grief. I had my first dissonant moment when I wanted to call my dad and tell him about this incredible memorial service… but then remembered it was his.

By the end of the week, my siblings and I went back to our respective homes in our respective cities. And now the melancholy is starting to creep in. When my siblings and extended family were all together, it felt like my dad was with us. He was laughing too and enjoying the lox and bagels. But with everyone returning to their separate homes, it suddenly has become very quiet. Feeling a bit unmoored, I decided to look up the Five Stages of Grief. I did this the same way I might look up a recipe… as if there is a formula for making this feeling go away.

Here are the Five Stages of Grief:

Denial

Anger

Bargaining

Depression

Acceptance

Yes, those emotions would definitely apply to other times in my life. But this does not depict my current emotional journey. My stages have been more like:

Numbness (the initial news)

Overwhelm (funeral planning and travel logistics)

Teary-eyed (seeing family and friends at the memorial)

Laughter (storytelling about his wonderful life)

Gratitude (for the beautiful sendoff and his longevity)

Melancholy (when the family all went home)

So I am having my own SIX stages of something else, and I don’t like it. I want to hold onto those stories. I want to hold onto that celebration of life. I want to hold onto the virtue that defined my dad: Optimism.

So I remind myself of three simple things:

My dad is in a better place.

On this earth, he is in his final resting place… next to my mom.

In heaven, they are taking a walk in Paris… and catching up on the last 43 years.

Dad, may you and Mom both rest in peace… you are loved every day and never forgotten.

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