Twenty True Things I Know About Living With Grief*
After a long lifetime of losing many people (70 years) I have some very practical suggestions about living with grief.
1) Never feel guilty about grieving, no matter how long it’s been since the death. When you lose someone who has been an integral part of your life, it’s like there is a hole in the universe, and that hole never closes. As time passes it may hurt less, but it will always hurt, even when you think of the good times — because those memories will be tinged with sadness that those good times shared with that person will never happen again.
2) Expect to be going along just fine, thinking you’ve gotten it all back together, and then something will happen — you will pass by a place you once shared with that person, or you will get a whiff of a scent that reminds you of that person or a time you shared, or you will see someone walking toward you who has the same bearing/coloring/stride/shape (or whatever) and you will think for an instant that it’s them, and then your heart will lift and immediately crash as you realize it isn’t.
3) Expect that a lot of people — perhaps even most — won’t understand. They will try to erase your grief with platitudes that will feel empty to you.
A lot of people are uncomfortable with the reality of death and grief, and they will want to cover the feelings over and hide from them.
Your grief will remind them of their own grief — grief they have not confronted because it’s too scary, because people have given them empty platitudes and they think that’s what they are supposed to feel, and they don’t want to make other people uncomfortable with their grief, so they shove it down.
4) Accept that it is natural to grieve such a loss. Even if your grief lasts your entire life, it’s still ok for you to feel that way.
Don’t let anyone tell you “shouldn’t you be over that by now?” — suggesting that if you are still grieving there must be something fundamentally wrong with you.
If it’s an acquaintance, just smile and don’t answer. If it’s a loved one, tell them that grief doesn’t come with a “sell-by” date after which it is no longer legitimate to grieve. Then invite them to join you in talking about what you actually feel. If they can’t handle that, it’s their problem, not yours.
5) If the person you lost played a central role in your life — a spouse, a child, a parent, a best friend — that person’s absence will feel like a giant hole in your universe. Accept that you can’t fill up that hole with other people, though they can help distract you from feeling the loss temporarily.
The hole in your universe will still be there because the person you lost was unique. Respect and honor that person’s uniqueness.
You may yet find someone who occupies the role that person played in your life, but a person is not a role, and no matter who else you may have present in your life, there will always be that absence.
6) Allow yourself to grieve deeply, cry and sob uncontrollably, shriek with pain if you need to. Allow yourself to completely violate all the rules of decorum with your grief. You will need to choose safe places and times to do so, but when you have that safety, don’t hold ANYTHING back.
(On the other hand, don’t feel there is something wrong with you if you can’t let go like that.)
7) Don’t be shocked at how you will sometimes feel anger toward the person you lost. Don’t feel guilty about that anger. It is natural to feel you have been abandoned, no matter how irrational that may seem.
8) Don’t be surprised when that anger is mixed with or replaced by guilt — with the “if onlies” — “if only I had spent more time….if only I had said how I really felt…if only I hadn’t …..”
9) Remember that grieving is not a stage-by-stage linear process, despite what grief experts have said in the past.
Your grief will be like a loop-de-loop roller coaster, returning you to earlier “stages,” shooting you past them, then bringing you back round again to a place of deeper grief than you experienced before. And as with a roller coaster, you will feel you are being jerked around by your emotions.
10) Expect that you may be on an even keel for a very long time, and then suddenly something will happen to bring you back to that very instant of first loss and it will be as if it just happened. This is not an indication that you have failed in your “proper” grieving, but rather makes evident that survival instincts kicked in when the loss first happened, and now you are stronger and so your subconscious mind is allowing you to feel the loss more deeply. It means that you no longer require the protective shield you created in the beginning in order to get by.
And so your subconscious says: you are safe now. Grieve the way you would have grieved if you had felt safe back then.
11) If you are a constant, essential caregiver, someone upon whom others rely for protection, guidance, and support, chances are you won’t allow yourself to grieve as much as you need to when the loss first happens. You won’t be able to fulfill #6 nor many other items on this list at the time, because others need you to be the same person you always were before the loss. This limited grieving is not a fault, not something to be ashamed of. It doesn’t mean you don’t care enough about the person you lost; it means you care enough about the people who are still in your life, and they must take priority.
12) If you are a constant, essential caregiver but find yourself unable to completely fulfill your role as in #11, don’t waste your energies feeling guilty or bad about yourself.
Not everyone is as strong as they are supposed to be at any given moment.
Try to find others who can fulfill aspects of that caregiver role you are unable to provide at the moment. Your loved ones need your care, but your care can be expressed by choosing the right people to provide that care.
13) Allow yourself to rest. And rest and rest and rest and rest. If your situation allows, take naps every day until one day you realize you don’t need to nap anymore. Grief is energy-expensive. It takes a huge toll on the body.
14) Along those same lines, do everything else you need to take care of your body. Exercise to get those endorphins popping, preferably outdoors in fresh air. Eat healthfully — and as heartily as you can. Splurge occasionally with comfort foods. Don’t bother trying to stick to any strict diet, as you will only end up binging out of resentment over your deprivation. Just keep it RELATIVELY healthy.
15) When people say “let me know if I can do anything,” take them at their word. “Well, I could use some help with the pile of laundry that’s been stacking up….” Don’t feel you have to be the world’s best housekeeper and mom and wife (or whatever) while you are grieving. Nobody really expects you to — and those who do aren’t worth worrying about.
16) When your friends invite you to go out with them, DO IT. Within reason, of course. Chances are even if you don’t feel like it, once you are out you will be glad you went. Do, however, continue to take care not to overdo it.
17) On the other hand, accept the fact that sometimes you just need to be alone with your grief and your thoughts about the person you lost. You had private moments when they were alive. Having private moments with them in death is perfectly acceptable. It doesn’t mean you are being morose or depressed or antisocial or somehow on the verge of losing it.
18) Write. Journal entries and letters, including letters to the deceased. Process your feelings through your words on the page. Get the feelings “outside” of you where you can see them, acknowledge them, accept them, and discover insights about them.
19) Listen to your favorite music. DANCE!
20) Last but not least: Think of how kind you would be to someone else in the same situation. And then treat yourself the same way!
Second in a series (more to come) on Twenty True Things I Know.” See also “Twenty true things I know now about parenting an adult child (that I wish I knew before)”