Anyone who has lost a loved one has a story important to be told. The stories are sad. The stories are heart-wrenching. All are unique and real. Death does not discriminate and neither does grief. We will all experience loss at some point in our lives. Yet, the stigma, silence and taboos surrounding grief only add to the loneliness that grievers feel. There is much healing power in sharing our stories. Sharing reminds us of our humanness and our collective experience. Sharing reminds us of the universality of loss. Sharing our stories of loss and grief has the power to help both the story teller and the listeners to heal.
This is my story. I was widowed at 31. My husband had also just celebrated his 31st birthday eight days earlier. We celebrated with a big party that stretched for three days over the Labor Day Weekend. The party was filled with so much celebration, good friends, joy and love. He was my high-school sweet heart, my best friend, and soulmate. We had so beautifully welcomed the birth of our first child, a daughter, eleven weeks earlier. Then eight days later on a Tuesday in September, at 10:03 am, my husband died in a plane crash. Almost nineteen years, ago life as I knew it changed forever.
For those of you who have experienced loss, you know those early days after loss are a blur. I don’t remember much about that time. I was surrounded by loved ones who cared for me. I think shock was protecting me in some ways and all my efforts went into caring for our infant daughter. I began seeing a therapist a few months after his death. And about three months after that I joined a grief support group.
My support group was made up of other young widows. We all had a unique story, but we shared similar struggles. I think there were nine or ten of us in the group. Many of us had young children. Some of the women were pregnant at the time of our husband’s death and had just recently given birth. Some of us brought our babies to the group sessions. The babies slept peacefully through the hour, as the rest of us shared emotional stories of our loved ones and the loss, emptiness and shattered dreams and hearts that were left behind. Our group was led by a therapist who was a young mother herself. Looking back, she was a pillar of strength and led us through a difficult and winding path toward hope and healing. Although she herself, had not experienced such loss, she was able to find common empathy and share her wisdom in ways that were kind and supportive.
For some people, joining a support group might seem scary or maybe even a little out of character. I had no idea what to expect at our first meeting. I felt shy and a bit terrified. I thought it would feel strange or even difficult to share my most personal feelings with people I had never met. But I do remember that first meeting, as if it were yesterday. Our group therapist had us go around the circle one by one and share the story of our loss. Many of us had brought a picture of our deceased loved one. They were beautiful pictures of memories, such as weddings or family events. We would now cling on to these photos, these memories, to remember happier times . We all sat and listened to each other’s stories with our hearts open. During that first hour we shared the burden of pain that others were feeling. Sometimes, words did not need to be said. The silence was comforting. We knew what the other was feeling, no explanation was often needed. Although, we were all sad to see so much collective grief – it was amazing for each of to realize that we were no longer alone with the thoughts that had been chaotically spinning in our heads like little tornadoes, since the day our husbands perished.
I feel lucky that I did not have to walk the path of grief alone. I share my story openly so others can find the support and hope that they so desperately need. I know first-hand the healing power in sharing. And still so many years later, I continue to heal by sharing what I have learned with others who may just be beginning their journey of living with grief. Here are a few important lessons I learned by joining my support group. Most importantly, though remember, you are not alone. Find the support you need. We will heal together.
- Firsts are Hard, But You Will Get Through Them: Some days will be harder than others. Especially, birthdays, anniversaries, holidays and little special days unique to just you and your loved one will be difficult. For many of us, the anticipation leading up to the day might even seem harder. I have learned to give myself permission to embrace whatever I am feeling on these important days. I accept that grief might sneak up on me like a wave. I accept that the anxiety of knowing what I want to do on those days or where I want to be can be confusing or throw me off track. On these difficult days, I listen to MY needs. Do I need to be alone? Do I need the comfort and support of others? These events will tug at our hearts. And why wouldn’t they. Love is the most powerful emotion and these special days remind us of the love that we shared and continue to share with those who are no longer with us
- You Will Clean Out Your Loved One’s Belongings, When You are Ready: I’ll share a little secret with you. It took me over year to clean my husband’s bedroom closet. I called a dear friend over and she helped me sort through his suits, ties and sneakers. She patiently listened as I carefully folded ever t-shirt bought from adventures and vacations past. I neatly packed away his belongings into ten extra large Tupperware bins. I moved houses about four years after his death. The Tupperware containers moved from one house to the other. When I moved again sixteen years after his passing – I finally had the strength to open the containers and donate most of his belongings. I had the house to myself and this time I went through the belongings alone. It took me many years to let go! And it felt great to release these emotions, on my terms, when I was ready. Remember, there is no timeline to your grieving. Likely, you will feel pressure along the way from others to move on by cleaning out a closet, a drawer, cabinet or office. Only you will know when you are ready and when it feels right for you. Take your time. Ask for help if you need it. But remember, only you will know what feels right for you when working through the emotions of this difficult task.
- Grief Will Overwhelm You: There will be days when you can’t get out of bed. There will be nights that you cannot sleep. And there will be moments when you cannot stop the tears from flowing. You may feel angry. You may feel hopeless. These are all natural feelings that come with grief. Grief is not pretty. But to move through the grieving process, letting yourself feel is necessary. Always, remember, feelings are better out than in. If you haven’t done so, give yourself permission to let your feelings out. When you feel overwhelmed and are in need of support reach out to those who will grieve with you. Always, remember you are not alone. Recognize that many people who love you may not be able to support you in the way that you need to be supported. This is okay. It is natural for your loved ones to want to make you feel better, to cheer you up. Watching you grieve may be too hard for them and they might not have the tools or depth of knowledge necessary to share with you what you need most.
There is no better support out there than those who have been through loss. And there are so many ways to connect with a support group that fits your needs. Find someone who will sit and listen to your grief story. Someone that will listen, without judgement to what you are really feeling. Your thoughts are not “crazy.” They do not define you. They are normal to someone who has experienced great, devastating loss.
And when you are ready, be that person that someone else needs. Find the space and time to empathically listen to someone else’s story. You have been in this lonely and devastating space before and you know just what that person needs.
Grief is unique to each and every one of us. At times grief can be so very lonely. But when we look at grief through a universal lens, grief is the invisible thread that weaves our hearts together with hope, care, compassion and kindness for one another.