Life after loss is so very hard. The death of a loved one takes away something so uniquely precious to us and leaves in its wake pain, suffering and sorrow. These feelings are known as grief. Yet, grief is a part of life. It is inescapable and not something we can easily prepare for and sadly we will all experience it at some point or another in our lives.
Grief can overwhelm us, leaving so many aspects of our life disrupted or unrecognizable. When a loved one dies, unavoidably our lives as we once knew them change forever. Grief fills us with a wide range of emotions and feelings and, although not always thought of in this way, grief can be a full body experience.
Early grief can seem unbearable, with no clear path forward. The pain and range of emotions can knock even the strongest of people off their feet. Those experiencing loss often say it feels like a nightmare that they can’t wake from. The pain may be so intense that many people grieving feel like they can’t breathe or take the pain for one more minute longer. Many people feel like they are spiraling out of control during the grieving process, partly because they are experiencing new, raw and difficult emotions, but also because there is no comprehensive guidebook on how people should act or feel during the grieving process. There are however a number of insights that can help you better understand the grieving process and what you may be experiencing as you grieve the loss of a loved one.
Grieving is Unique: Although grief is common human experience, the way that we grieve is unique to each and every one of us. It is important to remember that there is no right or wrong way to grieve and that everyone’s grief will look different and have its own unique timeline. Remember, your grief will be shaped by the factors that make you who you are. Your relationship with the person who has died, the manner of death, the coping mechanisms already in your tool box, as well as your religious or spiritual beliefs will all play into how you grieve. Be kind to yourself and stick to your own timeline that feels right for you. Try not to compare yourself to others or let others tell you about what you should be feeling or doing. Remember this is your journey unique to only you. Find ways to mourn that honor yourself and your loved one.
Grieving Hurts: Grieving is not pretty. It hurts and can make you feel just plain awful. Grief has powerful effects not only on the mind, but on the body as well. Those experiencing loss often report many physical symptoms including chest pain, stomach pain, headaches, body aches and pains, dizziness and extreme fatigue. Intense grief can cause changes to the heart muscle so much that it causes “broken heart syndrome,” a form of heart disease which mimic the symptoms of a heart attack. Neglecting your physical needs after the loss of a loved one is common. But the importance of self-care during grief cannot be emphasized enough and it can do wonders to help your well-being and healing. Remembering to eat nutritionally dense foods, to exercise and to get adequate sleep can all help give you enough energy to manage the emotional and physical strains of the grieving process.
The Only Way Out is Through: Unfortunately, there is no fast pass or short cuts to getting through grief. Grieving is a process and it does last a long time. And just when you think you have it under control, it can quickly sneak back and flood your emotions. The good news is that grief does change over time. The intense pain that you feel in the first days or weeks after loss will lessen eventually. There is a well-known and often told metaphor of surviving a shipwreck that so beautifully and perfectly sums up what grieving feels like:
“As for grief, you’ll find it comes in waves. When the ship is first wrecked, you’re drowning, with wreckage all around you. Everything floating around you reminds you of the beauty and the magnificence of the ship that was, and is no more. And all you can do is float. You find some piece of the wreckage and you hang on for a while. Maybe it’s some physical thing. Maybe it’s a happy memory or a photograph. Maybe it’s a person who is also floating. For a while, all you can do is float. Stay alive.
In the beginning, the waves are 100 feet tall and crash over you without mercy. They come 10 seconds apart and don’t even give you time to catch your breath. All you can do is hang on and float. After a while, maybe weeks, maybe months, you’ll find the waves are still 100 feet tall, but they come further apart. When they come, they still crash all over you and wipe you out. But in between, you can breathe, you can function. You never know what’s going to trigger the grief. It might be a song, a picture, a street intersection, the smell of a cup of coffee. It can be just about anything…and the wave comes crashing. But in between waves, there is life.
Somewhere down the line, and it’s different for everybody, you find that the waves are only 80 feet tall. Or 50 feet tall. And while they still come, they come further apart. You can see them coming. An anniversary, a birthday, or Christmas, or landing at O’Hare. You can see it coming, for the most part, and prepare yourself. And when it washes over you, you know that somehow you will, again, come out the other side. Soaking wet, sputtering, still hanging on to some tiny piece of the wreckage, but you’ll come out.
The waves never stop coming, and somehow you don’t really want them to. But you learn that you’ll survive them.”
Find People Who Will Listen: Sometimes it is difficult to know what to say to a person who is grieving. You may find that many of your friends or loved ones might distance themselves from you or may say things that are not helpful to you or that you may find judgmental. We as a culture, we’ve never been great at handling or confronting grief. For the most part, we want grief to be neat, tidy and quickly fixed. So, you may find that your well-intentioned loved ones may spend their efforts trying to cheer you up or try to fix your pain. A broken heart no matter how hard we try cannot be easily fixed, however.
Certainly, not being able to connect with loved ones on a personal level at this time can be hurtful and disappointing. Know, however, that you are not alone. There are many others out there going through a similar loss. If you are a young widow with small children who recently lost your spouse try connecting with other young women going through a similar experience. If you are a father who recently lost a child, connect with other parents facing the same crisis. Finding a support group with people going through a similar loss can be extremely helpful in your healing process.
Grief, it is a part of life. It is unavoidable and when you love deeply you will grieve the loss forever. The pain will change over time but, closure in the strictest sense of the word does not truly exist. When we experience grief there is a chance for growth to occur. Remember, that even though sometimes it may feel that way, you are never alone. There are many resources out there to help you along the way.