We landed, jet-lagged and high on love, to explore a city that neither of us had visited and to celebrate the beginning of our life together as husband and wife and the family that we would create. We had exactly 48 hours to get to know Barcelona before we would set sail around the Balearic Islands for eight nights. Spain was ours for the taking.
We wandered the wide, tree-lined streets, hand-in-hand, noticing the road lamps and how they sprouted from the ground and curved like the branch from a tree and how every street block had the corners of the buildings cut off — a design feature originally intended to accommodate Steam Trans that never became a reality, but that left the city with one of its most beautiful and remarkable architectural features. We immersed ourselves in the history of the country. We learned about Picasso’s upbringing and Salvador Dali’s aesthetic. We toured all of Gaudí’s iconic buildings and joked how we could easily complete his most complex work: the ongoing 137-year construction of the Sagrada Familia Basilica— ‘What can possibly be taking so long’, we thought to ourselves.
We absorbed the culture, drinking only Spanish wines, overindulging in meats and cheeses and overusing the word “Vale” (slang for “Okay” by Spaniards). Our minds were stretched and our hearts and stomachs were full. Happiness and excitement was everywhere. Life in that moment was perfect.
Then the phone pinged. I read the message and felt my blood rush, first to my head as if it were going to explode and then straight down to my feet, like a tidal wave ripping through me with nowhere to go, except maybe to my eyes, which began to water.
“Sweetheart,” I said, in the most calm and warm voice I could deliver. “I have some bad news. It’s about your dad.” He turned white. I knew the same blood rushed tidal wave was now ripping through his body. “Oh, no. What’s wrong?” he said.
My throat clamped up as if to try to protect him from what needed to be said. “Tell me. What is it,” he pressed. “Your brother just texted. Your dad had an accident. He’s in the ICU and he is in a comma. It doesn’t look good. He’s asking that you check your messages and call him”.
Everything changed in that moment. The next 24 hours were a blur. We sailed back to port, caught 2 flights and drove 3 hours until we stood, hand-in-hand, at the hospital’s front door to face what came next. Having some experience with a loved one in such a dire state, I felt compelled to try to prepare him for what he was about to see.
“Baby, I want you to know that what you are going to walk into right now is not going to be easy. Your dad is going to have a tube down his throat that will be doing the breathing for him. He won’t look like himself and he will be surrounded by machines making a litany of noises.”
What I couldn’t prepare him for was his mom’s grief-stricken face and swollen eyes as she stood over his dad’s body caressing his head.
The truth is, nothing can prepare you for the death of a loved one. The finality of it cuts deep, and the pain is sharp. So sharp, that it becomes physical and it hurts to breathe. The sorrow is real and heavy and you wonder how you will ever be able to get through that day, the next or the day after that.
It’s been three weeks since my father-in-law passed away. Here is what I’ve learned from this experience and from my own personal experience with loss.
In the end, when the time comes to tally one’s accomplishments, the scope and scale of a human life is not measured by numbers. Instead, tales of kindness and acts of service matter. Relationships, love and connection matter. Humility matters. Time is a non-renewable resource and death is an impending certainty. Don’t squander time. Get clear on what is important. Set intentions. Make conscious choices. Life can change in an instant. Start living a meaningful one now.
Dealing with a death – or any pain or trauma – causes significant stress. The body deals with stress by releasing adrenaline and cortisol, two hormones that increase your heart rate, elevate your blood pressure and blood sugar and hijack the region of the brain that controls your mood and ability to think clearly. To know this is to know to have patience, tolerance and tenderness for someone that is under stress. To know this is to urge your loved ones to seek healthy ways to cope, process and move through stress.
You can’t run from grief. In fact, you have to make room for it. You have to be willing to lean into it. There isn’t any amount of running, hiding, or mental gymnastics that you can do to avoid the pain that will inevitably come from grieving the loss of a loved one. You have to be brave enough to let the tears flow when they come and make space for your heart when it aches. Ultimately, the pain is a reflection of having loved someone so much that their absence breaks you. Not everyone gets to experience love on such a deep level and by focusing on the love, you can begin to find comfort in your grief and purpose in your pain.
Grief is not meant to be experienced alone. Community, connection and conversation have the power to heal. If you love someone, show up for them. Sit with them. Listen to them. Share with them. The days following the loss of a loved one can be some of the darkest moments in a person’s life. Over the past three weeks, I have witnessed the impact of friends and family showing up to help ease pain. Nothing will change the past or take away the sting of the irreplaceableness of a loved one, but love and connection have the ability to transform it from unbearable to bearable. So show up. Reach out. Call. Send a message. At the end of your life, these are the moments that will matter.