A funeral or memorial service seems like a final chapter. We close the coffin, close the doors and everyone goes home.
But for bereaved parents and their surviving children, it's not an end, it is a beginning.
Much like a wedding or birth serves as the threshold to a new way of life, a new commitment, a new understanding of who you are, burying a child does the same.
I walked away from the cemetery overwhelmed by the finality of death -- not in a theological sense -- I believe firmly that my son lives with Jesus -- but with the undeniable fact that he is no longer available to me on this earth.
And in the days afterward, I was struck by the inadequacy of a funeral or memorial service to make space for the deep and ongoing sense of loss and pain and sorrow.
There is a difference between mourning and grief. Although before losing Dominic I never bothered to notice.
I think we confuse the two on a regular basis. I know I did.
Mourning is defined as "the outward signs and rituals associated with sorrow for a person's death. It is usually limited in time by social conventions or community expectations."
Mourning is the more or less public (depending on the family's choices) "Good-bye" to their loved one. It's a circumscribed set of things we do and time we spend welcoming others into the space where we remember, make final arrangements for a body and celebrate the life that has left us.
In most North American communities, we have dispensed with the tradition of draping pictures, windows and ourselves for six months to a year to mark the home and heart of someone who has suffered loss.
What used to be a longer span of time allowing for special accommodations due to grief has now been squeezed into about two weeks.
Our hyper-drive world insists that even parents who bury a child show up to work, begin to participate and act like they have it "together" in public much sooner than our frail human bodies and broken hearts can manage.
Grief is more than a feeling. It invades your heart, your mind, your body and your soul
Grief is the deep and poignant distress caused by bereavement..
It cannot be circumscribed by time and refuses to limit itself according to the expectations of others or even myself. It will last (though perhaps not with the same intensity) as long as I live.
Because unlike a funeral, missing my son will not come to an end until I am reunited with him in heaven.
And we need to talk about this.
We need to help ourselves and others understand that grief changes who we are. It changes how we perceive the world. It alters our sense of self and impacts our relationships with others.
I am not as fragile as I was just weeks or months after Dominic's death. I have learned to put on a smile and pass by his favorite food in the grocery store without crying. I can remember funny things he said or did without simultaneously experiencing gut-wrenching pain that he is no longer here to do them.
But I am still grieving.
I am still working out how this missing is weaving itself into the fabric of who I am.
And it is WORK.
Much of the work I have to do on my own-I have to think about and feel and embrace the changes that have been thrust upon me. But for some of the work, I need the help of others. I need to be able to speak aloud my thoughts and feelings and receive feedback so that I'm not stuck in unfruitful inner dialogue.
It requires energy and resources.
While I am doing this grief work, my physical, mental, emotional and spiritual energy is largely consumed by it. I am unavailable more often. I have a smaller capacity to absorb sudden change and unexpected events. I'm uncomfortable in crowds. I tire more easily.
And it takes TIME.
I have discovered that no matter how much I want to speed up this process, it will not be hurried along. And it proceeds in a "two-steps-forward-one-step-back" fashion so even when I feel I am making progress, I discover I'm not as far along as I think I am or would like to be.
So how to love well at this stage in my grief journey? When I'm transitioning from "good-bye" to grief? When I'm trying to understand this new life I never expected to live?
Acknowledge my ongoing pain and struggle.
Encourage me by allowing me to share honestly.
Be patient. I want to heal but I don't have control over how long it will take.
Don't shut me out or shut me down. Grief is uncomfortable for both of us.
Remember my son. I need to know that others miss him too.
This post is part of Common Grief, a Healthy Living editorial initiative. Grief is an inevitable part of life, but that doesn't make navigating it any easier. The deep sorrow that accompanies the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage or even moving far away from home, is real. But while grief is universal, we all grieve differently. So we started Common Grief to help learn from each other. Let's talk about living with loss. If you have a story you'd like to share, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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