Every loss is different and everyone facing a loss will have a different approach to handling it. There isn’t one “right” way, but whether it’s the loss of a parent, spouse, child or dear friend, there seem to be some universal truths about grief.
- It’s a natural reaction to loss
- It can be harder than you expected
- It can last longer than you expected
For a person in acute grief, either numb or really suffering, the biggest question seems to be, How long will this last? As if knowing exactly where the finish line is will help you get through the rough times. There are no timelines. Conventional wisdom puts a lot of emphasis on the first year: “Just get through the first year and you’ll be fine.” The uninitiated assume you’ll shed some tears, go to the memorial service and then life will resume as normal. In my experience, while I desperately wanted my life to return to normal, it was an elusive target. The first year does indeed hold significant milestones — all the firsts without your loved one – the holidays, birthdays, family events and then the dreaded one year anniversary of the death. During that year, there are peaks and valleys, periods of time where life really does feel normal, and then phases where the pain and suffering feel like they could overshadow everything.
One of the many myths about grief is that a year is all you need for recovery. My good friend whose mom died told me she and her family were blindsided by how tough the second year was. I guess she’d hoped conventional wisdom would prove true and that she’d be “over it” after a year’s time. After the first anniversary of her mom’s death, she found herself asking, “now what?” She said the shock had finally worn off and she realized she was settling in for the long haul, still trying to adapt to her new normal. We know you never really “get over” a loss. You hopefully learn to accept it and incorporate it into your life moving forward. I agree that the second year presents some challenges. Mostly, others are stunned that you might still periodically be mourning something that happened so long ago. For me, those tough moments definitely became more sporadic, but they were still there, either on special occasions or just random events that would trigger a memory or longing.
- While not linear, there are distinct stages
From a grief counselor at Hospice, I received two helpful handouts. One called the Grief Wheel depicts common stages following a loss (Shock, Protest, Disorganization, Reorganization, Recovery) as well as symptoms and traits of each stage. Another matrix describes the mental, emotional, physical, social and spiritual manifestations of each stage, along with approximate duration. I found these two documents reassuring as they provided much needed proof that I was not unique in what I was experiencing.
- It’s not just emotional
- Support of friends
Grief can be exhausting and it requires mental and physical stamina. You’re emotionally drained, worn out and fragile. Exercise is so important for both mind and body, whether it’s a yoga class, a walk, hike or more demanding workout. Even when it’s hard to find the motivation, just getting outside for a walk can be so helpful. Getting enough sleep is crucial. Some people suffer from insomnia, so take naps if needed. Massage, hot baths, a trip to the spa – whatever you can do for yourself that is comforting. This is the time to make sure you take care of yourself.
- Books and other resources
I have always been the person that felt comforted by knowledge, or at least felt better trying to learn as much as I could about something so it was no longer the unknown. I approached my mom’s death and the following grief with a similar strategy. As the numbness began to wear off, I often found myself at the library desperately looking for anything that would make it easier, or at least, not as mysterious to me. Where was the manual? The How To guide? I felt adrift and looking for answers. In addition to books on loss, grief and healing, I read about death and the afterlife, mindfulness, transformation, spiritual enlightenment. Here is a list of the books I found helpful.
I recently had the opportunity to listen to therapist and author Francis Weller discuss his book, Entering the Healing Ground, at my favorite local bookstore, Book Passage. His message resonated with me and I found his words comforting and informative. Francis is also affiliated with Commonweal, and in November 2012, he and Michael Lerner had a conversation about grief and rituals.
- Professional help
Not everyone will seek the help of a professional, but I met with a grief counselor several times and found it reassuring and productive. I also visited with the wise Michael Lerner at Commonweal and had several sessions with a psychic/intuitive (Julianna Kallas). For me, seeking counsel from a variety of sources not only helped educate me about grief, but also allowed me to work through it toward healing.
- A place for reflection/ a place you can be sad
Some people create a quiet area in their home where they can grieve uninterrupted. For others (often busy moms), the car becomes the place where the tears can flow and the feelings can be processed. Several people told me that driving was one of the few opportunities they had to openly grieve, without feeling self-conscious or embarrassed. It’s liberating to have a place where you can feel your whole range of emotions.
- Rituals and Traditions
Rituals can be an important part of the healing process, whether done alone or with others. Memorial tributes can be a great way of honoring the deceased and keeping your loved one’s memory alive.
The metaphor of wilderness is used frequently to describe grief. It resonated with me – the darkness, the unknown, the unpredictability of it. With all of those unknowns, it was reassuring to hear about other people’s experiences and realize mine was not unusual. Grief is complex, complicated and full of paradox. It’s both universal and unique. On a grief journey, there are moments of grit and grace. Slowly I have come to realize the value of both the dark and the light parts of the journey.