Experiencing the Gray: a Daughter’s Grief

Today’s post is written by someone I deeply love — my daughter-in-law Lauren. Less than 2 years after I watched her walk down the aisle on the strong arm of her father and watched the father-daughter dance on a night bathed in joy, I was at his funeral. No one expected it. It was too quick. It was too early. It wasn’t right. Lauren was too young, too newly married. But it happened and so today’s post is a tribute to her dad, Jim Robertson who died on January 8, 2013. Lauren writes this post as one who grieves to you who grieve, who are living in the gray. The post is an essay on grief, and because grief is complicated, there is no word count.


Robertson Family

On this day, one year ago, my father died. I called our hospice nurse over early that morning. My mom and I had been up all night holding his hand. I remember singing to him. Every now and again, through such labored breathing, he’d open his eyes and struggle to ask, “Why are you guys sad? Do you know something I don’t know? Will you sing to me?” I wanted to tell him how much I loved him and how thankful I was for him. I also didn’t want to make it any harder on him, so I’d sing to him and massage his forearms – the only part of his body that looked remotely like it did before cancer.

When I would hear about cancer and death, I’d have this image in my head of someone being hooked up to all these machines and the person saying one last thing to their loved ones, then closing their eyes and drifting off peacefully. That is not what happened. We were at home, because my dad wanted it that way, and we had a female hospice nurse that would come in and check up on him. Listen, my mother is a powerhouse. I always knew it. Watching her administer morphine and all the other drugs, all while dealing with the emotional and physical stress of tending over her dying husband – I am still in awe. I am not sure exactly what happens or how the body breaks down, but I believe that since the cancer was in his lungs (and several other places) his breathing got harder and harder.  A few days before, he started taking anti-anxiety pills. I wish I had known that this was the last time he’d be coherent. I would’ve tried to have just one more conversation with him – maybe about how he wouldn’t be able to meet his grandkids and how sorry I was for that. But after he started taking the anti-anxiety medicine, he started to see things and communicating became more difficult. There were a few times he saw men in the room. He smiled at them and called them “gentlemen”, like they were from the 1940s. I hope that among those gentlemen was his father, ready to take him into the next stage.

In those last hours, occasionally he’d stop breathing. Everything would stop. I’d stare at his chest waiting for it to rise, thinking how mad I’ll be that he didn’t hear me say bye. And then with force, his chest would rise. This is not something you want to see your father do. It’s not something I’ve ever seen in the movies or heard about. And the whole time I’m worrying and wondering, “is this normal”? And there is no one to tell you yes or no. In all of life, when I am hurt or when someone else is physically hurt, I search for the solution: what can I do to make this better – to fix this? But with my father, it was an awful reality to accept. He wasn’t getting better. He was moving towards death.

It was terrifying up until the last 10 minutes. The last 10 minutes, I knew exactly what needed to happen and what was happening. Not because somebody told me, but because of some intuition a daughter has with her father.  He was struggling so much – we didn’t want him to be in more pain. So my mother and I removed his oxygen mask – something that seemed so wrong. And we put on his favorite album of “Yes” and the hospice nurse read a psalm from the Bible. And as soon as we made that transition, he stopped struggling. I asked, “is he gone?”; the nurse listened to his heart and said, “no, he’s still here.” And he relaxed. I held one hand, my mom held the other. He was facing her and his eyes were half-open. He tried to speak but he couldn’t, tried to open his eyes, but he couldn’t. My mother recalled all the beautiful places they had traveled together and would travel together in Heaven. In his last breath, he managed to smile at her. And I was so happy for him to not be in pain anymore. I felt the energy between his body and the heavens. I felt my mom, my dad, and I as one. And I felt his peace.

Last new years eve, I wrote the following in my journal:

“Well, my parents were able to give each other a new years kiss and my heart is melted to puddin’. So f*** you cancer. If I were to share this, I’d probably take out the f-word and say something like ‘cancer: 0, parents: 1’. But I think I like it better in my journal. Because nothing – no words – can touch the sweetness, sadness, and joy that happened when my mom leaned over onto my father’s death bed and kissed a spark – a second of life into him – and him to her – and then he pulled her back in for more kisses. Something that took all the energy he could muster up. I wonder if he stayed still the whole day so that when the time came, he would have reserved enough energy to reel his wife back in for more kisses.”

Dad and I Wedding

When my father died, I wasn’t ready for the little stings like shutting off his phone and not hearing his voice on his voicemail. I also wasn’t prepared to lose other people in my life, to become resentful towards people, and to grieve in isolation. Grieving for me was – and still is – so odd. Most of the time, I’m wishing to feel something one hundred percent whether it’s intense joy or intense sadness. Instead, I stay in gray confusion. I can see now that this is grief for me. But that is my grief – and I can’t speak for anyone else.

After my dad died, I found a therapist in Los Angeles right away. I told him, “I want to grieve properly.” He asked me what that meant — I still don’t know what my answer is. My main struggle was feeling inadequate. I’m a very empathetic person – and I’m very in tune with others. So when I encountered people’s inability to address my grief, I felt I wasn’t supposed to be grieving. Los Angeles is a hard place to be gray. Everyone wants you to pick up your feet and move on, or go home. People would forget and ask me why I was weird. And so I began to dislike myself, something I’ve never really experienced. I thought something was inherently wrong with me, that I was failing in every way. Why wasn’t I able to remember things I used to remember? Why was it hard for me to be around big groups of people? Why couldn’t I just stay in bed in cry or get up and live a productive life?

I’m reading a play right now where a young woman has just lost her father. At his funeral, she says, “I’m so tired of people saying ‘I’m so sorry for your loss’”: I am envious of this character. I don’t remember ever hearing those words. Was it because I looked strong? Or were family and friends just too uncomfortable to bring it up? Everyone kept asking how my mom was or commenting on how strong she was, and I understand that. She was, and is, grieving her husband. I can’t even imagine. But why didn’t anyone ask me how I was doing? That pattern continued for the year. I’d get texts from people asking how my mom was and telling me to take care of her, that I needed to stay strong for her. I guess I began to believe subconsciously that her pain was far greater and more legitimate than mine; and in the process, I forgot about me.

If you are in the gray right now, I want to speak to you. You are still you. Your pain is not made invalid through others’ lack of acknowledgment. Your confusion and grayness is right. What people and books tell you about how you should be feeling – don’t let it be your compass for normal. My hope for you is to embrace your gray and let go of the struggle to achieve feeling and clarity. C.S. Lewis once said, “You are not a body who has a soul. You are a soul who has a body.” You are a soul who is learning how to cope with your new surroundings. But you are still you.

An author who I relate to most during all of this is Elizabeth Lesser. Here is an excerpt from her book Broken Open that I found to be powerful in my grief:

“When I noticed someone teetering near the edge I would pray for her to walk around the abyss. Now I pray for something different. I pray that each one of us stays awake as we fall. That we choose to go into the abyss willingly and that our fall is cushioned by faith – faith that at the bottom, we will be caught and taught and turned toward the light. I pray that we don’t waste precious energy feeling ashamed of our mistakes or embarrassed by our flaws. After years of teaching, I know only a few things for sure. One is this: we are chunks of dense matter that need to be cracked open. Our errors and feelings are chinks in the heart’s armor through which our true colors can shine.”

On the day of the funeral – we had 17 family members staying in our house. And as everyone was getting ready and laughing and eating I remember thinking, “how can life possibly be continuing without my dad.” I went into my parents’ room and for the first time since everyone arrived, I let myself cry. My cousin Adrienne laid beside me and just let me cry on her sweater. I can’t tell you how meaningful that was. For those of you who have a family member or friend who is experiencing loss, and you are unsure about how to help – my advice to you is to just sit and listen. So many times, I just wanted someone to acknowledge my pain. To just sit with me in my sadness. Thank you to those who did that with me. And thank you to my husband who was so patient with me, who would do crazy things in public to make me laugh and who would not question me when I shut down.

My father was a unique and beloved man. He always brought the fun. At my wedding, his speech was him singing, “I gotta feeling that tonight’s gonna be a good night” and he got all the guests out of their chairs clapping and singing. You can tell a lot about someone’s character by the way they handle death. He was strong and calm throughout it all. He said he had so many “’take me now’ moments” during his life that he was ready for what was next. During his brief stage of chemotherapy, I texted him once to ask how he was doing; he texted back, “Getting chemo. Wishing I was on top of a mountain.” And on this day – even though I’d much rather have him here next to me – I can smile and think he probably got his wish.


About the Author: Lauren Robertson Gardner is an actor living in Los Angeles with her husband, Micah Gardner and arguably the cutest dog in the world — Wilbur. She is in two regularly featured shows at iO West – LA’s Best Improv Comedy and has been featured in several short films including Running Buddies, Role Play, and Santa is Real.

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20 thoughts on “Experiencing the Gray: a Daughter’s Grief

  1. Thank you so much Lauren for sharing your experience. Your words are profoundly moving for me and my heart is wide open feeling all my sadness of loved ones lost. I really relate and appreciate you articulating your acceptance of the “gray”. I acknowledge you, your tremendous loss and your process of grieving. I have so much respect for for you and your path. Sending you much love!!


  2. Oh how I cried reading this Lauren. Thank you for sharing this. Over the last couple of years we have had a number of friends and family lose people close to them and I am learning how best to love them in this, simply letting them be, letting them cry or remember or just loving them wordlessly. I so appreciate your honesty in sharing your embracing of the gray, it will stay with me as I listen to others who grieve or who are going through hard core life stuff.


  3. Thank you for opening up your heart and soul to us, Lauren. As a Nurse Care Coordinator in the lung cancer department it is especially meaningful. As I walk the journey with patients and their extended family I pray I will be more aware of not only the spouse but others in their family circle. I also watched my daughter in law begin this same vigil of care and love after returning home from her honeymoon. Expecting to return to visits during a bone marrow transplant, it all changed when her disease returned with a vengeance and 5 weeks later she and her family bid their farewell to her much loved mom. Thank you again, Lauren. I am so sorry for your loss. May the fond memories you have of your daddy bring comfort in the remembering in the days, months and years ahead.


  4. I lost my mom to cancer a little over a month ago, and reading this was a gift to my grieving heart, a gift and reminder that it’s okay to be in the gray, it’s okay to go down into the valley, and it’s okay to start moving on (and I’ve definitely been in all of those places at different times in the past few months) because God is with me no matter where I am in the grieving process. And my mom is home with Him. Thank you, Lauren, for being vulnerable.


    1. Were you able to find those to walk beside you during this grief? The reason I ask is that grieving as a third culture person can have its challenges. Often we are far far away from anyone who remotely knows the person we loved and lost. I was wondering how that has been for you. When you have a memory and long to be able to share it yet are surrounded by others that don’t know your mom. Which actually would be similar for Lauren in LA.


      1. I am blessed to have been able to come to where my parents live in the UK to help care for my mother and be with my family in what ended up being her final months with us. Here the people knew and loved my mother so much, which has helped with the grieving process. I think what has been difficult has been that my parents moved here after I graduated high school, so I am still building new relationships here and beyond my immediate family haven’t yet developed close relationships where I feel well known to be comfortable enough to talk through the grief with. Grief is a journey that looks different for every person that has to walk it, so I am learning to be thankful for what I have, like getting to be with my family, God’s grace for each day, and Skype for the rest!


  5. I too lost my Dad to lung cancer in June of 2010. He found out he had cancer March 22 and was gone on June 22. It was a quick 3 months of hospital stays, radiation therapy, and wasting away because nothing tasted good to him. I cried when I read your story from beginning to end. I’m so sorry for your loss as well as mine. Good Daddy’s are so few and far between. I thank God everyday that I had him in my life until I was 35, but it just wasn’t long enough. God bless.


  6. Love all of these comments – and so grateful that Lauren wrote and you all read. It’s a gift when words that are vulnerable and hearts that are exposed are met with words like the ones all of you have written in the comments – so thank you!


  7. I love the pictures, Lauren. They reveal so much – a happy childhood, your glorious, joyfilled wedding day. I’m so glad and thankful that we were able to be there. Each one pictures a special time and a special memory. I know memories don’t fill that huge empty space, and you will continue be overtaken by grief, often in totally unexpected ways. Thank you, too for the reminder that we need to reach out in specific and personal ways to those who have experienced loss. I was reminded that a month after my sister’s death, Micah’s Aunt Jean, we need to communicate with her adult kids, not just her husband, to let them know we realize how great is their loss of their Mom. Thank you so much, Lauren, for sharing your heart.
    Much, much love from Grandma Brown..


  8. Thank you so much for your honesty in sharing and thank you, Marilyn, for giving Lauren a forum to post. It gave my daughter and I an opening yesterday to have a tiny conversation. Her three and a half year-old daughter died in May and I am amazed to see how people are so supportive in the immediate aftermath, but two weeks later think you should be back to normal. I shared with her how people ask you how your mom is doing and she remarked how people keep asking her how I am doing and people ask me how she is doing. Our culture seems to be so afraid of grief. With hugs to you, Lauren, as you live with this big hole.


  9. Beautifully written, Lauren. I am feeling your pain and can acknowledge your grief….the grief of losing a brother. You were very lucky to be with him during those last few days, few hours, few moments. Something that I didn’t get to do with my Dad (your grandfather), when I was just about your age. I still remember “wishing”…..wishing I could have said one more thing……..wishing I could have told him just how much I loved him………wishing I could have held his hand one more time……etc. They were alot alike…..everyone loved them and they were the life of the party. Now the two of them (Jimmy and Jim) are reunited and I find a lot of comfort in that. Hope you do too. Know that I love you! Auntie Chris


  10. OH Lauren… you described the GREY… and the confusing and tender feelings that nobody seems to understand. I was 50 when I lost my father… and it was exactly the same… and reading this brought it back full force, and I can’t stop crying. But it feels good… we need to cleanse every so often, for it builds and builds until I feel I will explode! So thank you my dear sweet friend, for allowing me a moment to cry in YOUR sweater… now go ahead and lean into me and do the same… then let’s take a nice long drive, and sing at the top of our lungs! If we listen with our hearts, I know we will hear our fathers join us! What a glorious feeling… I just love you sweetheart!


  11. Lauren, I am deeply sorry for your immense loss. Your Dad sounds like someone I would have liked so much to know. Your post poignantly and memorably illustrates that often those grieving must teach others how to respond, and that our American culture may well fall short in its understanding and embracing of those who grieve. Whether this was your intention or not, your post is a gift of graceful, generous teaching and wisdom. May your heart be healed.


  12. Oh Lauren…. thank you for honestly articulating your pain and your grey.I am SO sorry for your loss. Your pain matters. As you wander on through your grief I pray for grace ungreyed and for moments of hope. Thank you again.


  13. Beautifully written and brought me to tears. That’s about all I can say, but I love that Lauren so much and am so thankful that she was able to communicate these words to all of us.


  14. This is beautiful and touching and heart-wrenching. It brought tears to my eyes… The bond of a father and daughter (or of any child and their parent) is a special one, and I am truly sorry for your loss. Thank you, Lauren (and Marilyn) for sharing this – it is a beautiful testament of love.


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