With the recent passing of one of my favorite authors, Wayne Dyer, memories of the day my father died came flooding back to me.
The morning of March 6, 2013, after they rolled his leukemia-ridden body away on a gurney, I instinctively crawled up into his bed and lay in the exact spot he died, as if filling in the outline of a body from a crime scene. It was my way of holding on, to marinate in the last space he occupied while alive. It felt like a portal between life and death and I sensed his energy lingering, still lying on the bed even though his body had been removed.
He was gone, but he wasn’t.
It was too much for me to take in. All my senses were on hyper alert and I curled up in the fetal position and cried, my tears soaking the sheets he had sweated on all night.
As a Highly Sensitive Person and an Empath, I feel everything deeply on a daily basis. The entire world is an all-you-can-eat buffet of emotions beckoning me to have a cheat day. A dead raccoon on the side of the road, a lonely elderly man in the doctor’s waiting room, a little girl dragged by the arm by her hurried parents in the grocery store, you name it, I feel it. It takes constant mindful presence not to be carried away by all the energies around me.
But when something as sweeping as death happens, it’s easy to lose your balance and get lost in the swirling vortex of heightened emotions inside and outside you. And it’s not just your own or other people’s emotions, it’s also the impermeable layer of death that has been suddenly blanketed on your world, radiating from every animal, object and even the air around you. It’s like the entire Universe is in on it, like some kind of globally orchestrated rhythmic death-chant. There’s nowhere you can go to escape.
Here are 6 things I learned after my father’s death that kept me from getting swept away in grief and sorrow.
1) People die.
It sucks. But it happens. And it happens to those you love. This might seem ridiculously obvious but it wasn’t until a few days after my dad died that I finally accepted this. I was holding his ashes in my hand and I kept thinking he was going to appear around the corner and ask me what the heck I was doing with a cardboard box full of his ashes. In that exact moment, it hit me, he was dead. He wasn’t coming back, not around the corner, not around anywhere. As a Highly Sensitive Person, death and the inevitable grief that follows make absolutely no sense to me. Why do people have to die? Why do they have to be ripped from the embrace of the ones who love them? There’s no real, satisfying answer and asking “why” only exacerbates the pain. It was in the complete acknowledgment and acceptance of humanity’s biggest certainty, death, that I started to come back to life.
2) When someone you love dies, a part of you gives up.
A friend who has lost 2 lovers to death recently said to me, “When you lose someone you love, a part of you sits down and the rest of you moves on because you know you have to.” With my dad’s death and other traumatic events that have happened in my life, there was a part of me that refused to move on, to accept that life could be so cruel. The hurt, bewildered part of me sat down in a dazed rebellion and the rest of me kept moving, trying to forge a new life, to get through. But I will always have energy stuck in the past, in the pain, until I go back to that part of me sitting on the ground in defiance, face her, take her by the hand and gently guide her up. Knowing this, I can allow the whole of me to sit down for a while when something traumatic happens and when ready, I can move forward with the part of me that wants to give up instead of leaving her behind.
3) It’s gonna hurt. Period.
There’s nothing you can do to take the pain away. You can try to numb, medicate or desensitize it, but underneath it all, it still hurts. Sit with your pain and allow it to flow in whatever way it needs to flow. Sometimes that means lashing out in anger and beating up your pillow. Sometimes it means curling up into a ball on the floor and bawling your eyes out until you fall asleep. Whatever it means in any given moment, let the emotions flow. It’s natural to feel grief and sorrow when someone you love dies. For a Highly Sensitive Person, the feelings are magnified intensely and often felt to the core of our being. If we resist the pain, it becomes stronger. There were times the emotions coursing through me were so acute, I thought I was going to physically die. I would lay on my bed sobbing, my entire body shaking, thinking this is it. This is the moment I’m going to die. But I didn’t. And each time I thought it would happen and it didn’t, I realized I could not only survive the bombardment of emotions, but I could let it happen, knowing it would soon pass. When we allow the pain, we take a powerful step toward healing.
4) Just because one person you love died, it doesn’t mean everyone else you love will die soon too.
After my dad died, I became fixated on everyone else I love dying. I feared the old superstition that death comes in threes. I called my mom every day to make sure she was still alive, and I almost lost myself in the helplessness and fear of potentially losing my mom, sisters, boyfriend and everyone else I love. When you’re highly sensitive, deep pain can often turn into deep fear of a similar event happening again. Our highly sensitive brains and our rich imaginations have developed to consider possible outcomes. Recognizing that this is a part of the emotional and mental processing for many who are highly sensitive can ease your fears and help you move through it without succumbing to it.
5) You’re not only dealing with your own pain, you’re susceptible to everyone else’s too.
Empaths and Highly Sensitive People take on the emotions of others. Sometimes it’s hard for us to distinguish between our own feelings and someone else’s. My boyfriend stubs his toe outside in the yard and suddenly I feel a stabbing pain in my big toe, even though I’m reading in bed and can’t see or hear him. When death sweeps through a family, your usual protective guard is down and you’re suddenly overwhelmed by a vast mixture of emotions. It’s hard to sort out what emotions are yours and what emotions you’re taking in from others, so don’t even try. Allow yourself to feel everything without judgment, criticism or filtering. It doesn’t matter whose emotion it is, what matters is that you let it flow through so it can be released.
6) The right time to move on is when YOU move on.
No sooner, no later. Highly Sensitive People generally take longer to grieve than others. It’s just the way we’re neurologically hard-wired. Don’t let others tell you when you should move on or that you should’ve gotten over it by now. We all heal at a different pace and pain affects each of us in varying degrees. Allow yourself the time YOU need to move through it.
This article was originally published in Huffington Post.