Grief – A Personal Journey
By Donna L Scrafano
My first exposure to grief came on December 3, 1963. That was the day I had lost my maternal grandmother, twenty-three days before my tenth birthday. I was in fifth grade. Eleven days previously on November 22, the nun who taught us at St. Anthony’s parochial school had gathered us together and said, “Today we are going to say two prayers. The first prayer is for Donna’s grandmother, who is going into surgery. The other prayer is for President Kennedy, who was just shot.” When I arrived home that same day, my mother was in the kitchen, inconsolable, sobbing. No explanation was given, I just knew something was very wrong.
On December 3, my grandmother died. She was only fifty-three. Again, I arrived home to find my mother very distraught and uncommunicative. It was my father who broke the news to me. My first reaction was rage. I ran up to my third-floor bedroom and began to throw every doll, every toy, everything and anything I could get my hands on, while screaming, “I hate you God.” During the wake, viewing the open coffin, I remember waiting for my grandmother to wake up. But she didn’t. It was I who then became inconsolable. An aunt had to take me out of the room to try to make me feel better. Only much later, when I was a young adult, I learned that my grandmother had died from colon cancer. It was never talked about when I was a child.
This was my most traumatic experience with grief for almost fifty years. Then, on January 16, 2013, I lost a younger brother to colon cancer, like my grandmother. He, too, was only fifty-three. Three months later, on April 13, 2013, my mother died. But my grief for him was somehow deeper, more painful. She had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease two years earlier, and I think I felt more anger watching my mother waste away from that dreadful disease than I did when she died. I was often sad and felt helpless some days. After her passing, I was more sad for my father, who had lost the love of his life. She, I felt, was finally in a better place.
The loss of my brother, though, was indeed the most intense grief I have ever felt. I continue to have some sad days as I make my way through the process of acceptance. This brother was the protector, the peacemaker, the social worker, of the family. But true grieving took me a while. The first year I had to be the “strong one” while the rest of the family grieved: my brother’s wife, his children, and my father, who had lost a child and, of course, a wife. The second year reality sank in. This huge vacancy in my life was permanent. But it was hard to reach acceptance. I just couldn’t comprehend that he would not be at family functions or my grandson’s basketball games, that I was never going to hear his voice again. I was also angry that he wasn’t here to help me with our elderly father. At one point I scolded God, saying, “How dare you leave me alone to do this!” I guess that was the equivalent of me throwing my dolls around as a child.
The recognized five stages of grief are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Though my grief included anger, denial, and acceptance, there was no clear pattern. One day I would be totally accepting of the traumatic change in my life, another day I would lapse into disbelief that my brother wouldn’t be walking through the door, late as usual, to a family function. Now, the anger has dissipated, for the most part. The sadness creeps in now and then, but is not as painful as it once was. As for the other stages of grief, I don’t believe I did any bargaining, and I’m thankful that I have never been clinically depressed. Incredibly sad, yes, but I firmly believe that because I have always expressed my anger outwardly—both appropriately and, at times, inappropriately—I was able to avoid experiencing depression. I once heard that depression in women is anger turned inward. Perhaps that is the reason.
All in all, with time, processing, working through the pain—whatever that looks like for each individual—we do get to a place of acceptance. Not everyone experiences all stages, nor does everyone go through the stages in the same order. How we grieve is personal to each and every one of us.
Photo by Nathan Cowley (Australia) @artisansoflove
Donna began her journey in Human Services in 1983. During the next 35 years she held various positions and formally retired in 2018. She writes on an array of social issues. Donna’s relaxation time includes walking her Lab, Roxy, having fun with her six grandchildren, writing for Silver Sage, spending time with friends, and applying self-care. Her current full-time position is care-taking her 90+ year-old father.