By Andrea Nakayama
It’s been just over two months since my dad died.
The death of a loved one still lands as a curiosity and somewhat incomprehensible reality this early in the game, as you may very well know. And yet grief is a well-exercised muscle for me.
I encountered grief through loss earlier than some yet later than others. Sure, I suffered the loss of my grandparents. But they had lived long-lives and their passing, while perhaps still too young, followed a sense of natural order.
And I’ve endured the death of pets. These yank at our heartstrings as we often feel wholly responsible for their well-being. These are our true “dependents”.
But what I’ve learned over the years – particularly after the loss of my husband nearly 14 years ago, when he was just 34-years old – is that grief is a many varied thing. There are myriad factors that impact our response to bereavement.
Relationship is one of those factors.
The grief of a spouse is different than that of a pet or a grandparent, a sibling or a parent, or, I can only imagine (and hope to never know), a child. I witnessed with a keen eye how my in-laws, brother-in-law and I each processed Isamu’s death differently at a deep internal level. And how, for my son (who was just a toddler when his dad died), grief is still unknown despite the loss.
And I watch now as my mom assimilates to a new life after a partnership of nearly 60 years, as opposed to the near ten that I had with my husband.
But one place where grief does not differ is on the inside.
Just what’s going on in there when it seems like our heart has been twisted in a knot, our gut is hollow and void, and the compass that directs us seems to have gone haywire?
Research in the area of psychoneuroimmunology shows how grief affects a number of bodily systems, in particular, the immune system. While your mind is grieving, it may come as no surprise that there’s what’s called “crosstalk” between your head and your heart.
And it’s your heart that pumps the blood that carries so much information throughout your body and to your cells. Immune cells travel readily along that serum superhighway.
On the inside, a state of grief results in a depression of neutrophils, a type of white blood cell that helps us fight infection and is part of our first line of immunological defense against viral and bacterial infections.
Simultaneously, there’s an acceleration of lymphocytes, a different type of immune cell that is part of our adaptive immune system and makes our allergic or autoimmune response more reactive. These cells are jumping in to save the day to keep us from getting sick, but their efforts can lead to further immune imbalances.
This likely explains why sometimes, in the elderly, one spouse dies shortly after the other. Or why we literally feel “sick” when we are grieving. And it’s why my mom arrived at my house early this week with a dual eye infection – red, itchy and flaking.
Yet despite these imbalances, we just can’t wish grief away.
All that crosstalk is happening and all we can do is stand by and witness it, as a natural part of human reality.
Yet what I’ve learned with my well-exercised grief muscle is that the best way to manage grief is to digest it.
After Isamu’s death, one thing I used to find myself saying was that “he brought out the best in me.” I was my best self with him and in his reflection. He thought I was captivating, beautiful, sexy, brilliant. He was completely enchanted by me and it was evident in his eyes when he looked at me.
In the months after he died I no longer knew who I was without that reflection.
And then I realized that what he was seeing was in me. It was me. (That’s what a reflection is, right?)
It was in that way that I began to digest the impossible. In small bites. It was as if I was taking each memory and literally swallowing the parts that were me and mine. Those, I realized, did not have to leave with him.
By embracing Isamu’s reflection of me, he is always with me. I’ll notice him in a gesture. In a song. In a place. Or in an expression from my son or his brother. But mostly I notice him in me. I would not be this version of myself without him. And in this way he lives on.
You may be sitting in a different grief today. It may be an overwhelming sensation that cannot be broken down into bite size chunks just yet. Or it may be grief for the loss of a favored food that you discovered you can no longer eat – like eggs or chocolate.
And I know many who grieve the self they once were when a new reality, like a diagnosis, is revealed. Those losses present grief too. And grief, as we now know, does not discriminate on the inside.
I invite you to digest. Digestion is how we assimilate what we need and filter out what we don’t.
Know that whatever you mourn has two sides – the sting that comes with its absence right beside the pleasure that once existed in its presence. And that mirth that makes you want to savor that person, place or thing forever has a memory that exists deep within you that is all yours. Nobody can take that from you. It’s yours to digest and assimilate and carry with you… forever.
When people ask me if I have taken time off to grieve, I say ‘yes’ – but honestly, I don’t know what they mean. You see, I have to break it down, do it in the moments in between, in an everyday sort of way. That’s the only way I can digest it.
Today, I savor a memory of my dad, to honor him, yes, but also for me and my immunity.