to share some of my recent experience with loss including what has helped me truly mourn. Also, I continue to notice more foggy cognitions at times, something my grief group leader referred to as “grief brain”, so writing a completely organized, logical article felt both inauthentic and in some ways impossible, at least about this topic. Still, I wanted to share what I know in hopes of helping others and addressing societal misconceptions about grief. Whether you are grieving the loss of a loved one or trying to support someone who is, I hope this helps.
When my mom died unexpectedly in February 2019, I vowed to be transparent and open about my grief. My personal experience and professional observations show me how little grief is actually talked about even though we all experience it. I am learning how often people are shamed for their grief being “too much” or “taking too long”. In continuing to talk openly about my grief and loss experiences my hope is to normalize the grief process so we can more effectively hold space for one another; so we can stop hiding our grief and instead have shared experiences around loss.
What follows are from my reading on, professional observations of, and personal experiences of grief and loss. This isn’t meant to be the final word on grief; I suspect my thoughts and feelings will evolve over time and they are just that - my thoughts and feelings at this time. Instead I hope it provides ideas and perhaps opens the door for conversations and learning around loss. I hope it helps normalize the grief and loss experience so perhaps we can be more compassionate with ourselves and others.
One of the most important things I have learned thus far is that grief is different for everyone, every time; everyone’s grief and loss experience is unique - as unique as a thumbprint as Alan Wolfelt puts it. There are so many variables that impact our grief it would be nearly impossible to name them all. Some I have noticed include: who was lost, the relationship with the person lost (can be complex if strained), the role the person played in your life and your role in theirs, if the loss was expected or not, the age of the person who was lost, the age of the griever at the time of the loss, and sometimes how the person died. One’s support system and previously existing coping skills can also have an impact as can spiritual beliefs or lack thereof. Given that there are so many factors impacting how our grief shows up, it is essential to have compassion for ourselves and others as we all grieve; there is no one right way to do this. Setting timelines or expectations on when we or others “should be over it” are not helpful or even practical. Instead, understanding that grief will unfold in its own unique way every time can help create space for the needed mourning.
For many, the sense of loss felt when a close loved one dies, will likely never go away. Sure, the pain may be less often over time perhaps with less intensity. But it will likely always hurt. The pain of significant loss can be so deep that it is not something that is “healed”. It is something we can reconcile but we never get over the loss. i wouldn’t want it any other way; she was too special. We just learn how to live with it as we reconnect with joy in our lives. But finding that joy will be slow and intermittent at first. And that’s OK.
Reconciling the Loss
Rather than talking about “getting over”, recovering from, or healing from grief, I like how grief specialist Alan Wolfelt writes about “reconciling” the loss. If we lose an important loved one, it is inconceivable to me that we will just “get over it” someday and then be “fine”. My life will never be the same without my mom; how could it be when she was such an important and amazing person in my life. Instead what seems more realistic to me is that we weave the loss into the fabric of our life. It doesn’t have to define us, but it will always be a part of us. I will never get over my mom dying. The thought of doing so seems to dishonor the amazing woman she was and the important role she played in my life. However, it doesn’t seem healthy to sob all day every day for the remainder of my time in this life either. Instead, as I take time to actively mourn her, I trust that the agony and the frequency of the pain will decrease over time. I am already seeing shifts in my grief with less numbing and more moments of deep sadness. Further, I know I will be hit with grief bursts even decades from now and there will be days when the emotional pain hits me hard. My birthday will never be the same without her calling me for our special moment at the exact time I was born. And yet, there will be (and already are) moments, that eventually string together to make days, of fun and joy. It will never be the same without her; I don’t know how it could be. Yet I trust that as I actively mourn her death it will become part of who I am and how I show up as I try to honor her legacy.
Misconceptions on the Stages of Grief
Another important piece is to address misconceptions on the stages of grief. As so much grief literature points out, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages of grief are often taken out of context (her work was with people who were terminally ill). It was never meant to be a linear recipe for dealing with loss. Rather, she observed a range of emotional experiences (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) that people tend to have as they grieve. In my own experience, I can have a few of those emotional experiences in just a day, or I can sit in complete disbelief for a week and a half. In fact, congruent with my reading on adult children who unexpectedly lose a parent, I have been in a state of disbelief most of the time since my mom’s death. It has been hard for me to wrap my mind around how she could be dead, how this could be real. I also have moments of deep sadness and an empty feeling from the loss. But the majority of the time I find myself numb or in a state of disbelief. While staying numb all of the time feels like putting off the mourning or avoidance, some emotional numbing through disbelief provides a blessed relief. It allows me to function, to go to work, to have fun with my nieces, and to enjoy time with loved ones. The unreality of it has effectively titrated the dose of grief so I could mourn in a bit more tolerable way.
While it would be tempting to stay in a state of numbness or disbelief or in other ways avoid dealing with the loss and just depending on the passage of time to “heal,” I know that’s not how it works. Alan Wolfelt and others recommend active mourning. For me this means taking time to sit with the loss (mostly crying with my cat). As part of this, I journal to my mom and talk to her throughout my days. Both help me stay connected to her and writing helps me sort out my feelings about her death. I have read several books on grief that have helped, some more than others (see end of post for a list of books I found particularly helpful). Having pictures and some of her things around the house has also helped me stay connected as does listening to voice mail messages she left me (so glad I figured out how to save them to Dropbox!).
These ways of mourning have all helped me in addition to my usual self-care skills and practices that I have continued to do including regular exercise, sleeping a minimum of eight hours (this has increased to almost nine as I am finding grief to be exhausting), eating healthy food, doing my gratitude journal daily, meditating daily, writing, reading, practicing yoga at least one to two times per week (what I can tolerate right now), doing my morning energy medicine routine, and participating in my own psychotherapy primarily focused on grief. I have found that my existing self-care routine has really helped ground me into something normal, something familiar as so much of my life has dramatically changed following this loss. The take away? If you are grieving now, be gentle with yourself as you work on self-care. If you are not grieving, perhaps now is a great time to look at one way in which you could bolster your self-care both for mental and physical wellness now and possibly for future stability (it seriously has made such a big difference for me).
Much Needed Support
I also have learned from friends what support feels helpful for me, which may be different for each of us. In the two weeks following my mom’s death, I was home with family and family friends - surrounded by love and support as well as busy with making arrangements. As much as I appreciated my friends reaching out for support, I didn’t really have time to talk. But I knew I would really need their love and support especially after returning to Colorado once the cards stopped coming and where my support system is more limited. During those first weeks, I had a friend send me three hearts in a text message whenever she was thinking about me. I knew it meant “I love you, I am thinking about you, and I am here for you when you need me”. Those messages really helped get me through.
The other thing I found incredibly helpful is when people would say they weren’t sure what to do or say and asked what I needed. I appreciated their honesty and openness to hearing my needs. I’d like to say I showed up for people that way in their loss prior to my mom’s death but I know I rarely did. I just tried to show up the way I imagined I would have wanted. This isn’t wrong. We don’t know what we don’t know. Our loved ones don’t know what they don’t know. Rarely is anyone trying to hurt us when they respond to our grief, nor are we trying to hurt someone else. Many times we just don’t know what to say or do and are so uncomfortable we end up saying something that misses the mark; I know I definitely have done this before I really understood grief. Now I know that what is most important is for people to listen and to hold space, to sit with us in our sadness without trying to fix it, to validate our experience and our feelings, to honor our authentic experience (not everyone is sad when someone dies), and to let us know they are here with us. If we don’t know how to do that, what was most valuable for me was when people asked how to show up with me. That showed me that they prioritized and valued supporting me.
When one of my friends asked how she could support me I found myself saying that what I needed most was for her to set boundaries when my grief was too much, when she needed a break from it. With her promising this I felt safe enough to open up about my loss and share my authentic feelings trusting if it was too much she would let me know. I would rather have someone set boundaries than end up overburdening someone and potentially losing a friendship. I’m not saying these are the only ways to show up in the life of someone you love who has experienced loss. I’m sure there are many ways unique to each person. These are just things that worked for me. In sharing them I hope they help you reflect on how people could show up for you and/or how you can show up for them as well as normalize that it is okay not to know and to ask.
I know my story is not your story or the story of your loved one. Grief is as unique as a thumbprint. However, we all experience loss and all will try to sort our way through the messy process of grief be it from our own loss or a loved one’s loss experience. My hope is this parts the veil around grief and loss to some degree so that we can truly show up for each other in this normal part of human existence.