What a life changing, terrible, excruciating experience it is to lose a loved one. It is a journey we all find ourselves on. One we would never choose.
I lost my father to cancer when he was 45 years old. I had just finished my freshman year of college. It has been almost 5 years since he passed. I cannot imagine how I have gone 5 years without talking to my father. I cannot imagine spending the rest of my life not talking to him. It has not been an easy road since losing him. I have grieved well and not so well. I have at times stuffed it down and tried to be strong. I have also cried and cried and cried. It was messy. It still is. I do not know how to grieve well, as I have made many mistakes, but I do know some important points to know about grief that help during the first few weeks, months and years.
Here are some ways to support yourself during those initial weeks, months and years.
1. Give Yourself Grace
“Grief is a process, not a state.” – Anne Grant
“The thing about grief is that it’s a roller coaster – it’s up, it’s down. The emotions sometimes take over.” – Brent Sexton
Grief is a maze and often it appears the lights are out. To find our way through is a miracle. When you find yourself pulled into this journey, let your first rule be to give yourself grace. Don’t check off the “steps of grief” list or compare your story to another’s. Don’t fret about the fickleness of your emotions. Allow yourself to be. Allow yourself to feel the way you feel. Grief has a mind of its own.
There will be days when you don’t want to do anything. Some days you can just allow yourself to do nothing. Some days you need to force yourself to get out of bed. There is no formula to grief. But the best thing you can do for yourself is to be on your own team. Support yourself by allowing grief to take the reigns and letting go of guilt that comes with not being “okay”.
2. Listen To Advice
“Deep grief sometimes is almost like a specific location, a coordinate on a map of time. When you are standing in that forest of sorrow, you cannot imagine that you could ever find your way to a better place. But if someone can assure you that they themselves have stood in that same place, and now have moved on, sometimes this will bring hope”
― Elizabeth Gilbert
Some of the most wonderful support I had after losing my dad were friends who had also lost a young parent. I lost him during college years, a time when most of my peers were focused on lighter and more positive things. To have a few people who knew this experience, this foreign world I was thrown into, was the most comforting support I needed at that time. The wisdom they passed on to me and the way they knew to love me was just what I needed. When those people come your way, allow them to speak to your grief.
3. Don’t Listen To Advice
“But there is a discomfort that surrounds grief. It makes even the most well-intentioned people unsure of what to say. And so many of the freshly bereaved end up feeling even more alone.” – Meghan O’Rourke
Everyone told me that the holidays would be the hardest. The holidays came and went and I noticed that the pain of loss was no greater and no less than any other day. For many people the first holidays, birthdays and anniversaries without the loved one are incredibly painful, but for me I found other moments without my dad to be more painful than Christmas or my birthday.
Those of us who have lost loved ones will likely have hilarious stories about comments that were made to us during the first few weeks and months. We remind ourselves that the people who have said some shocking statements to us were “well meaning.” Maybe, but they still hurt and surprise. Though our grief may be different, letting some ignorant and ridiculous comments from onlookers roll off our shoulders is something we all have in common.
We are all so uniquely different right? We will grieve that way. Let your grief be your own. Let it be your own story. The advice from others is incredibly helpful at times, but other times it can make you feel as if you are on their agenda. Take what you need and leave the rest behind.
4. Remember Your Person
“Grief and memory go together. After someone dies, that’s what you’re left with. And the memories are so slippery yet so rich.” – Mike Mills
Don’t be afraid to remember your loved one. Spend time talking about them with the people who will cherish those memories with you. The memories you have will be precious to you for the rest of your life. The beautiful thing about memory is that is sustains us. It is never as good as having our loved one right next to us, but it is much better than no trace of our loved one having ever existed. It is good to remember. One day those memories may bring smiles without tears.
5. Befriend Grief
“There is a sacredness in tears. They are not the mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition, and of unspeakable love.” – Washington Irving
Grief is a response to the power of love. Grief is the price we pay for deep, wonderful love. And when grief arrives at our doorstep, we must let it in. Unaddressed pain will not heal. While grief can feel excruciating, unbearable, it is imperative that you one day show up and choose to feel it. The only way to the other side is through the pain. One day there will come release and peace. Let your tears and your emotions free. Part of giving ourselves permission and grace to grieve is allowing ourselves to feel what we feel without judging ourselves for the erraticism. It is good to cry.
6. Hold On To Hope
“The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same nor would you want to.”
― Elisabeth Kübler-Ross
The loss of the loved one will be like a tattoo on your heart. Permanent. Forever. Grief, however, is not forever. Through time and tears, your heart will mend and heal. Do not feel pressure to “move on”, but in time you can and will move forward, forever carrying their memories along with you.
Yes it gets better, and no it doesn’t. My grief is infinitely less painful, hopeless, devastating and breathtaking than at the beginning. It is better because now I have learned how to live without my dad. The pain of his absence is no longer surprising or shocking. When I think of him I smile and laugh. I can do so without crying, and when I do cry my soul is filled with love and joy at those memories. Peace has taken over my heart in the place where grief reigned upon his death. Peace is a fresh wave of relief in the sea of grief. In the same way that grief gets better, it also does not. I will never forget my dad. My heart will always and forever have a bruise, in the sense that if you press on it I will feel pain. I will carry my dad’s life and tragic death with me in my heart. I will forever mourn that my dad will not get to meet his grandchildren. He would have been such a wonderful grandfather. I am so sad for the things he won’t be able to teach them, things he taught me like singing the alphabet backwards or other silly dad things. I wish he could watch hockey with my husband, as both of them are Canadians and could have used a hockey buddy. I mourn his absence, but I would rather carry his memories with me forever no matter what they cost me.
Allow your grief to flow through you. Choose to cry hard and laugh hard, remember hard and love hard. Grief will awaken every part of you, if you allow it. It will be painful, excruciating is the word I use. It will feel like you could die from the pain. Sometimes I was surprised that my ribs didn’t crack. Keep showing up. And eventually, healing will make its way into your heart. Grief is not without hope. Hold on to hope.
Featured photo credit: Thomas8047 via flickr.com