In Your Own Time

“I am so sorry for your loss.”
Words I say not infrequently in the course of my work.

“Everyone’s timeline for grief is different.”
I must have said the phrase a hundred times over the years.

“At first, every time you remember, you will cry. After some time passes, you may feel guilty when you realize you haven’t thought about grief for a few days. Eventually, you reach a point where memories bring smiles instead of tears, laughter in the place of sadness.”
Advice offered to each patient who lost a special person in their life.

All good things to say. My head knew they were: true, helpful, kind.

Now, my heart knows more. Acknowledging loss conveys more than sympathy; it connects us as humans. Grief is a process: sometimes fast, sometimes slow, always unique. Often, the emotions of grieving don’t make sense; ambushes of sadness, anger with fate and laughter through tears all show up in the midst of a tangle of other life events. Being “strong” has a new definition - no longer meaning one who doesn’t cry, but instead, one who isn’t afraid to do so.

A year ago I lost my father. Without any warning, there were no more phone calls on Wednesday night or Sunday afternoon, no more emails with a link to his latest motorcycle or music video find from the internet. No more fatherly advice that I might (or might not) take. No more oft-repeated stories (“I tell them again not because I forgot I told you before, but because I like to tell them!”) or well-worn tropes (“It’s better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick.”) or soapboxes (“They really need to have classes on life skills in schools; why did they ever stop teaching kids how to balance a checkbook?”). It took months before I stopped reaching for my cell phone to call him every time I had news.

A year ago I learned that “I am so sorry for your loss” meant I wasn’t alone in my grief. I learned that my timeline for grieving his death is long, and recovery from the sadness of missing him is slow going. I’ve made it past “every time you remember, you will cry” and through some mild guilt when he didn’t cross my mind for a day or two. I now have more smiles and laughter than tears and sadness. And I know that I will always deeply miss him.

“Everyone’s timeline for grief is different, and you will regain your footing in your own time.”

I’ve now added to my advice, based on my own experience of loss. I wish to both give hope that grief will pass and acknowledge there is a broad range of “normal” for the time it takes. My hard-won new understanding of grief translates to being a better friend, family member and physician in others’ lives.

Tim Sundgren, 1944-2018

Tim Sundgren, 1944-2018