I was binging Grey’s Anatomy on Netflix the other day. I had gotten past all the Derek death episodes when suddenly the subject of grief popped right back up. Amelia was avoiding grief like the plague. And, I could SO relate! I mean, who wants to deal with grief. It feels like a monster that will swallow you whole! When she was tempted to numb her pain with drugs she confided in Owen. He said the most profound thing I’ve probably ever heard about grief. “It’s normal. It’s boring even.” Whoa! Normal?!?! BORING?!?!
Well, if you think about it, it is! There is one thing you can be sure of and that is, we will ALL experience grief in our lives. It doesn’t always come from death. It could be caused by many things. I’ll be talking about other types of grief and how to cope with them in a future post. But, in this one I’ll be focusing on the big D.
Firstly, I want to say that time has not a single thing to do with grief! People often say “time heals all wounds”. This is a nice sentiment, but it isn’t true! Time all on its’ own doesn’t heal it or make it better. What you do with the time and how you think about it is what makes it change. You can stay in bed permanently crying. Or you can never deal with it and shove it down only to have it rear its head ten years from now! Either way time won’t fix it. You have to experience grief and move through it in order to go forward in a healthy way.
Time of Year
Time of year also doesn’t matter much. We often have this idea that everyone very acutely experiences grief around the holidays or the anniversary of the deceased death. Often it is true that these times can be particularly challenging. That doesn’t mean they always are or that other times aren’t. We shouldn’t expect ourselves or others to be overwhelmed (or not) with grief simply because of a date on the calendar.
Celebrations & Struggles
I find that there are days where I very acutely feel the loss of my father. Days, still now, where it feels difficult for me to breath because I miss him so much. It is rare that this is related to any holiday. And it’s been 22 years since he passed! I’ve processed my grief and have built an incredible life. But there are times when I still miss him tremendously. I’ve found that this usually occurs when I want to celebrate something with him or feel I need his advice. I’m more likely to be saddened by his loss at my child’s graduation than on his birthday or Christmas. This makes sense. I no longer feel grief stricken but there are moments that I still wish I could physically share with him.
The passage of time and the moments we struggle with are different for each of us. We are all unique in this way. There is no right or wrong! This is ok. The one thing we have in common is that everyone experiences grief. And it tends to come and go in waves. It knows no time!
The 5 Stages of Grief
To cut to the chase, this is nonsense! In order to process or understand something as huge and painful as grief we really want a road map. The 5 stages of grief have served as a comforting, helpful guide since 1969. The only problem is that Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wasn’t writing about the grief we experience when a loved one dies. She was writing about the actual process of dying. The name of the book is “On Death and Dying”. Later in her life she said that she regretted that people were applying her work to the process of grief. That was never what she intended to begin with.
Sorry if I just burst your bubble! The problem is that the 5 stages of grief theory often does more harm than good. It frequently leads to judgement and comparison. When you think you are through stage 4 and wake one day feeling like you’re back in stage 1 you’re pretty likely to be freaked out!
The truth is, grief isn’t linear. There is no road map. You might feel amazing one day and like you’ve been hit by a bus the next. Guess what… that’s normal! The most important thing you can do is be patient with yourself and practice good self care!
Every death is different, and every person reacts differently to it. We don’t get to rank or compete with one another related to who’s experience is worse. So often people assume that the death of certain loved ones is tolerable while that of others is awful.
Losing a Grandparent
When my grandfather died, I was a freshman in college. He was relatively young (only in his 60s). I had lived with my grandparents until I was 2 and had always maintained a very close relationship with them. He was like a second father to me! And to be honest, he wasn’t even my biological grandfather. But boy, did he love me and I him! He was sick for a very long time before, so I had come to terms with his impending death. But, losing him was still shockingly painful. There were so many complexities in my other relationships at the time which made it more difficult.
Probably the most challenging thing was feeling like I had to explain why I was so upset about losing my grandfather. So many people around me were taken aback by my grief. The flow of comments about how “lucky” I was to have even known him and how old he must’ve been were overwhelming.
Grief is Grief
In this situation, the loss of my grandfather was being compared and ranked with the other people I could potentially lose. Or those others had lost. Comparison is a tremendous and unwieldy burden! You can hardly process and travel through grief if you are being denied that experience. Do not allow others to compare the losses. Don’t get tangled in the assessment that losing a person in one role or another doesn’t merit the same grief. Grief is grief. There is no comparison. Every experience is different and unique.
So, part of why comparison was such a tremendous issue in the loss of my grandfather is that I embraced it. I began to judge myself. I determined that I was really bad at grieving and not responding properly. So, I forced myself to “buck up”! I dove right back into school and work. There was a series of poor decisions and self-sabotage that followed. I wasn’t over it or ok in any way. Everything was just being stuffed down inside me. I was just going through the motions and making everything worse!
It took me years to finally process the loss and be able to move forward. And on top of that I had to deal with all of the baggage I’d accumulated along the way as well. Time was NOT my friend here. Judging your grief and trying to avoid it or deny it doesn’t do you any good. It just prolongs the healing process and clouds your judgement!
You’re Doing it Right
Whatever your experience of grief is, you’re doing it right! There is no one right way to grieve. There is no set timeline or set of feelings you’re supposed to have. How you grieve doesn’t indicate how you felt about the person (or pet) who passed. It also doesn’t indicate what role they had in your life. Grieving is a deeply personal experience that is unique every time.
It isn’t your place (or anyone else’s) to tell yourself to get over it or to be more upset. We often are racked with guilt about what we believe we should or shouldn’t be feeling. Our feelings and the expression of them don’t need to be put under a microscope. There isn’t too much or not enough crying. How we express our grief isn’t an indication of how much we love the person.
Rather than judging our experience we simply need to have it. Grief will not, in fact, swallow you whole. But the only way to get to the other side is to go through it. There is no right or wrong way. You just need to feel and process the feelings you have. Allow it to be without judgement, without rushing, without trying to numb it. Simply feel it. Will it suck? Yeah, probably! But keep in mind no feeling is permanent and this won’t be either. It will not always feel the way it does right now!
Could’ve, Would’ve, Should’ve
Basically wherever you see this or are experiencing this in your life, it’s not beneficial. It serves no purpose except to keep you trapped, helpless and in pain! You can’t control everything in your life and you certainly can’t control death!
Regardless of what actions you may have taken or how involved you were in the situation that lead to the death of another, you aren’t responsible. Unless of course you knowingly and willfully killed them. Right… you didn’t, so that means you aren’t responsible. It doesn’t matter what your role was!
My father passed when he was 43. He had a massive heart attack. It wasn’t his first. I knew that he wasn’t following his doctor’s orders. I also knew that he should’ve had bypass surgery years before. To make matters worse we had been estranged for years before he died and had just made amends.
I was living on the other side of the country when I found out he was hospitalized. At first, I didn’t know what to do since he was in stable condition and supposed to be having surgery in the morning. But, for some reason I knew he was going to die. I booked the next flight which was early the following morning and let my family know I was on my way.
It took me over 10 years to ask if he knew I was coming. I blamed myself for not being there when he died. I felt I should’ve been quicker to make the decision to come. I also felt that I should’ve been more adamant about my concerns related to his health choices. If only…
Well, let’s talk about where this got me? Did it bring my dad back? Did it make the loss easier? NO! It kept me trapped in bondage for years! I couldn’t get through the grief. I couldn’t shake myself out of it. Here’s the other thing, I gave up huge chunks of my own health and happiness. I was so angry with myself for all the could’ve, would’ve, should’ves that I wasn’t living my life.
Letting go of my regrets was very difficult. When I stopped focusing on that I had to experience the rest of the grief. And let’s be honest, that’s part of why I was holding on to regret… it scared me less than the grief! But, there was simply no way around it. In order to keep on living I needed to allow myself to experience the pain. I had to trust the process and know that I would come out the other side. I couldn’t change what had happened I could only move forward.
Your Thoughts & Grief
In my experience when someone close to you dies in a way you expect your experience of grief after their death is different. This is often because you have already processed some of the grief. And in certain ways you have already lost them. Watching someone deteriorate and the helplessness you feel during that process often jump starts grieving. In addition to that, no one wants to watch someone they love suffer. Sometimes the first feeling you experience when they pass is relief. Yes, you will miss them. And yes, you will still grieve. But you may feel relieved that they aren’t suffering anymore. This is the perfect example of how thoughts create feelings and how powerful your thoughts can be in grieving. The thought you have is “they aren’t suffering anymore”. The feeling you have is relief or maybe even gratitude.
Considering New Thoughts
Early in the grieving process it is common to experience overwhelming angst or emptiness. It is challenging to see past that. (This may even come after the feeling of relief in the situation above). There are points where you come above the grief for air. In those moments the thoughts you have determine how deeply you sink back under. Being able to consider thoughts like “everyone has a time”, “they are in a better place”, “I am so blessed to have had them”, and “I will have happiness again” can make all the difference in the world. You might not believe those thoughts in the moment. Just considering that they could be true, that you could think that someday gives you hope and gives your brain the distraction it may need to help you heal.
Grief is such a common and complex experience, oftentimes people need some help to get through. It’s such an important part of the grieving process to talk about it. To share your memories and your story. Having a witness to your process can make all the difference in the world.
When I’m grieving I write the best poetry. I don’t share it, but I write it whenever the mood strikes. Keeping a journal is also helpful. But the thing that is often most important is having someone you can talk to about it. Don’t bottle up how you’re feeling. Sharing the struggle and the good memories are both part of the process. Consider hiring a therapist or a life coach and reach out to people you love.
Remember Them & Imagine Them in Your Life Now
I recently lost one of my closest friends. She was diagnosed with cancer shortly after I told her I was starting a blog. Honesetly she wasn’t the biggest fan of the idea at first! When we talked about it, she firmly conveyed to me that I MUST write a book… NOT a blog… a BOOK! I explained the whole vision to her. She was pacified but not satisfied. She jumped right on board but I knew she’d still be hounding me to get that book written. That was just her style… always cheering you on and always dreaming HUGE!
The other day I was talking to my husband about her and how much I miss her, and I started laughing. When he asked what was so funny, I told him that if she were here, she’d be driving me nuts. I’d have to ignore her calls, texts, Facebook messages, emails… everything! She’d be sending me new ideas every day! We both laughed and cried and laughed. Because it’s true! She would be annoying the living daylights out of me right now and I love that about her!
You Still Have a Relationship
Talking about a person or even to them is healing. It helps you to remember that even though they are gone, you still have a relationship with them! They will always be a part of your life!
I want to talk about my friend, and my father and grandfather. They are a very real part of my life even now. Just because I can’t see them or call them on the phone doesn’t mean that they have no impact!
On the Other Side
I believe that grief always has a gift. You don’t have to receive it and you don’t even have to acknowledge it. But if you choose to, you may. Grief teaches us a lot about relationships and gratitude. It teaches us how incredible and fragile life is and how fleeting time. Oftentimes when we come to the other side of grief we find healing and wholeness we may not have otherwise.
I always thought that I would have more time with my father. I imagined my life with him in it. And, as a daddy’s girl, he was a central figure. Through grief, I realized that I had to live for myself and create my own happiness. I discovered that my joy couldn’t be dependent on anyone else. On the days I wake up missing him I still remind myself of the amazing life I’ve built. Whether he’s here or not I know that he would be so proud of me and happy for me.
Here’s the thing though, the most important thing I learned is that tomorrow isn’t guaranteed. This is part of how I got past all of my could’ve, would’ve should’ves! I realized that I was just wasting a bunch of time focusing on and regretting the past. My life would be so different had I actually changed the things I regretted. I would be unlikely to have the life I have now. Everything would be different! Because, you can’t change just one thing.
Not only that but I was wasting time regretting what wasn’t within my control to begin with. The illusion that I had perpetuated in my mind was that if I had only done this or said that things would be different. The truth is, they wouldn’t and there was no point continuing to waste time believing that they would and blaming myself.
Embrace the Moment
What was meant to happen, happened. The circumstances can’t be changed but I can change my thoughts. And since the future isn’t guaranteed either, all you have is the present! That makes this my only time to do and say what I need to. Now I love harder and fuller and I’m very open and candid about it! I can’t change what I did yesterday, and I might not get the chance tomorrow so I make sure to embrace this moment. And I am certain to let people I love know how I feel!
Want to know what isn’t boring at all about grief? LOVE! It is the most beautiful and breathtaking thing about grief, even though it’s the cause of it! What??? That’s right, the cause of grief isn’t death, it’s love!
So often people think that grief is the result of death (or some other loss). If this were true, we would grieve constantly since people and pets are always dying. Every second of every day MANY lives end. We don’t grieve them all though. Why is this? Because the actual cause of grief is love! You don’t grieve what you don’t love!
So, essentially your choices are to love and grieve or to never love and never grieve. Thinking of it this way made me much more comfortable with grief. I would rather love. I would rather put my heart out there. And I KNOW that I will experience loss. I will experience pain. But I will also experience incredible joy and fulfillment and that’s worth it to me. What about you?
Share this! You never know who is struggling with grief!
I love hearing from my readers… what do you think about this piece? Anything striking or that you felt was missing? Leave it in the comments!
What an incredibly powerful and helpful post. I have lost friends and family and there is not a day that I do not think of them. Now like you I think of the love we shared with each other. Thank you for your thoughtful words.
I’m glad you enjoyed it and found it helpful! I recently heard that grief is caused by the love we didn’t get the chance to give. I, for one, believe that the love is worth it.