Nothing is so devastating as losing a child. Up there in difficulty is the passing of a spouse or dear parent. If someone you love has recently died, you have come undone. Yet already know to allow the stages of grief into your experience. You’ll be dulled by shock, you won’t believe they are gone, may be furious at God and the universe, “Why her? Why now, she was so young!” You might be so immobilized by grief you can’t eat , won’t want to work or laugh. Nothing will seem important anymore, at times. You may sob for hours on end, remembering how they died, how they lived, laughed, smiled, things they said to you. What they didn’t get to do. You’ll feel the depth of the love you shared in a way you didn’t ever feel when they were alive. You may question yourself, or blame yourself for things you did or didn’t do. As difficult as this is all is, it’s normal. Read Elizabeth K-R for more support through these stages. But here are some additional thoughts I offer in compassion to you from my personal experience.
1) Comfort. First, I am so, so sorry for your loss. I really am. It is extremely sad that this person you loved with your whole heart died. You can say this to yourself, as well, that you are so sad for your own loss. I suggest that you chant consoling things to the you who is grieving, shocked and alone. After my husband died, I told myself for a couple of days, “I can’t do this.” But then I realized I had to. I had two sons. Parents don’t have the “luxury of despair. “ So I started saying, “I’m figuring this out. Every day, I’m going to figure out how to do this.” “I’m here for myself.” Comfort yourself in your sadness, all of the time, over and over again.
2) You are unique. No one can tell you what your grieving process should be like, what you should put your time into, or with whom you should hang out. Simultaneously, listen to their ideas, and be open. Friends told me I needed to “eat more fat,” so I did – I’d become skinny, with adrenals firing constantly for over a year. Choose for yourself, with the guidance of a few people you trust. I needed funny people to be around, so forced myself to spend time with my tightest friends. I also needed unconditional, non-judgmental support from friends & family. You do too. I sustained hope via quiet time, so I read a lot and listened to music. Getting back into my body in a new, more alive way helped, thus, I did a lot of yoga. I told myself and my deceased husband, “I loved you completely. I miss you more than words or music can say. But my dear, I must go on living.” I went back to work on short order, because I knew who I was there. I needed time in nature, doing what I’m good at so I cross country skied. I traveled some, because the year my husband was dying we didn’t, and I knew he would want me to. It helped me move on. Don’t hole up in your room for too long, afraid to face the world without them. Breathe. And put one foot in front of the other and try to move forward into the new present.
3) You’re not alone. So don’t go it alone. Do the harder thing. Call your best friend in the middle of the night when you can’t sleep. Then call another best friend at 4 am, when you wake early in shock and terror. Let people be there for you, inviting them to come in close and comfort you. Doing this doesn’t mean you’re weak; instead, you’re strong enough to build pillars. Get some EMDR if you are stuck with looping negative thoughts, or frozen, haunting memories. Pray with someone you trust. Get on an anti-depressant temporarily if you are drinking too much every night, or can’t work properly. Remember your loved one, remember everything you can. Keep remembering. They would want you to know they are still with you. You are not alone, never alone. Yet don’t fixate too much. They would want you to keep on living.
4) Cry. Cry all you want to. Bawl by yourself or with sacred, intimate others. I sobbed with my sons a lot, and with my best friends. But cry. Let yourself grieve. If you stuff it or avoid the pain, it will just go into your body and come out in other ways later. Watch out for prolonged grief; if you’re inconsolably despairing much of the time four months out, you probably need additional tools like therapy or an antidepressant to help bring you back up to baseline. Some of your tears will arise from gratitude, that you ever had this person in your life. Allow that as well, honoring who they were, and your special, unique, once-in-a-lifetime relationship.
5) Chores as ritual. Do those gut-wrenching chores that only you are left with, but make them meaningful by seeing them as one ritual in remembering your loved one. Her phone, her bank accounts, her car, her possessions….tend to these essential loose-ends with purpose. Have a friend help you sometimes, too. Clear his closet, keeping your favorite memories of him. Give away some of his possessions face-to-face to friends & family who loved and appreciated him. Spend hours looking at photos of your dear one, and create albums. Make an alter, with a photo of her, a candle, a notepad with favorite things she’d say, or things she did. One of my girlfriends whose son passed made wristbands for herself and everyone. His initials are printed on them, and they say, “Voy A Ver El Mundo,” meaning, “I’m going to see the world.” This was what her son had been doing, and wanted to do – to travel and experience the world. Now, we wear our bracelets when we all visit various places and countries, posting photos on his facebook page in memory of who he was and the joy he would have in travelling where we’ve gone.
6) Alone in the house. You’re noticing the emptiness of rooms without him. You see him wherever you go. Allow that for now. Breathe as you notice. Feel the loss, see that he’s gone. State it aloud. “He’s gone. I’ll always remember him, so he’s still here in many ways.” Eventually repaint a room, rearrange, if you can. Make something different. Stay, but make a few things new. You are changed. Your surroundings can support the old and the new. You may move in a couple of years, to firmly stand in your new life, but for now don’t alter too much. Why? Because you want to learn to Stay. Staying, emotionally and physicaly, will help you evolve into a new future little by little. Staying with the void temporarily, the grief and loss, will actually help you to move through it more certainly.
7) Love big. Bigger than you feel you can. Love and care for yourself first, then eventually reach out and help something else. Find a service, place or organization to put a little bit of your energy into. Not just someone, not solely another person close to you. Most of our family & friends don’t benefit from our sudden overfocus, with much of our energy directed onto them. Sure, throw yourself into helping your family grieve too, that’s a gift you both receive. Yet dare to stretch into the realm of caring outside of your circle. Your grief and loss can transform you into a wounded healer who inspires others.
8) Redefine yourself. Create a new definition of you. You are not just a mom, a wife, a mother, a nurse, teacher or whatever you do for work. You are the Observer, deep within. At your core is a Self, a Seer who watches everything you feel, think, do and experience, and this is who you really are. It’s who you have been, you may just not have known it. See your new Self from within. It may feel surprising, unfamiliar. But you’re letting go of your old world and some of that life anyway. Reinvent yourself. I had a well-known quote posted in my kitchen for two years, “Living the New Normal,” and it grounded me every day. I rediscovered myself, my new life, and continued on.
9) Ask. Ask the universe or God those huge questions. Then find your own answers, over time. Why do people suffer? Why do people die so young? What’s the point of their pain? My pain? What happens after death? Will my dearest one still be within my reach, somehow? Allow your grief, and the hope you can conjure, to wrestle with the unknown. Putting energy into the struggle for answers is part of your journey too.
10) Speak. Write about it, or blog. Send a handwritten photocopied letter inside your personal thank you notes, mentioning a few things you remember about your dear one. There’s a website called Caring Bridge to which we donated, and I posted brief, monthly entries & updates about my husband during his last year as he battled an incurable, recurring brain cancer. Hundreds of loving folks posted their feelings, thoughts, responses, and encouragements – especially after he passed. This site was a little light for all of us and for my husband to read as he plogged on that year. It helped us to connect across the country via our beautiful web of support. Another friend altered the facebook page of her loved one, honoring him beyond his passing, and to which friends & family still post photos, quotes, songs and musings about him. Speak up, even if it’s difficult. The pressure of unspoken grief can drive us crazy. When we share, we dare to keep going.
11) The fresh. “Whatever arises is the fresh,” says Pema Chodron. Become mindful of what’s newly arising as you grieve, and you’ll live with fresh purpose. Observe whatever you are experiencing, now. Even if it’s been months, or years, since your loved one passed. Noticing is part of renewal. Pay attention to something you do, then say, “Wow, there I am, doing that.” Or, “Huh, I’m feeling this.” Or, “I’m wanting X.” “I suddenly can’t seem to Y.” Try to simply allow for any limitations, or new needs. To go on living, we must not stay dulled. Numb is no way to live. Notice what IS, both in and around you, without judging it. If you’re angry, observe that. Temporarily being mad at others or the world because your dear one is gone is part of the ongoing process. I found myself observing other couples who still had each other thinking, “Be kind to your husband, you don’t know how long he’ll be here.” My friend told me she’d notice other parents and their children and think, “Hug your son, you are so lucky to have him!” This is the fresh too. Holidays ,birthdays, and anniversaries are hardest. Prepare, and allow for whatever arises to simply be ok. New grief, sobbing for twenty minutes. Do what you need to, taking care of yourself. The daily, current emotions and thoughts opening up over the months and years are the exact ingredients for your own personal grief soup. Welcome them, and mix them in. Don’t judge yourself. “It’s strangely reassuring that pain and empty space will always be with us” (Hickman). You will definitely learn to appreciate being alive, the beauty and mystery of every moment, if you notice the fresh, paying attention with the eyes of a child.
~Pamela W. Brinker, LCSW
Resources: On Koi Pond Removal: Heartbreaking Chores with the death of a loved one (blog: adamisfreakingoutrightnow); Cheryl Strayed’s chapter: “The Obliterated Place,” pp.277-286 in Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on love and life by Dear Sugar; Elizabeth Kubler-Ross: On Grief and Grieving, and On Life After Death; Martha Hickman: Healing After Loss: Daily Meditations for Working Through Grief; Great quotes, in Dan Zadra’s: Be happy. Remember to live, love, laugh and learn.; Pema Chodron: Comfortable With Uncertainty. Poem by Pablo Naruda: “The Dead Woman.”