When the person you love died, you probably weren’t even sure you could make it through the funeral. You did make it, but only because you found yourself surrounded by support. Friends and family members cried with you. They shared memories of the person who had died and made memorial gifts in his or her name. Those good people offered a lot of practical help as well, bringing in meals, offering to baby-sit if that was among your needs, running errands, helping with the details of the funeral. A few weeks later, the phone stopped ringing, the thank-you notes were written, and the relatives had all gone home. The whole world seemed to have returned to normal-the whole world, that is, except your corner of it. You found yourself swept away by a storm of emotions: disbelief, sudden stabs of pain or floods of tears, a paralyzing inability to accomplish anything, maybe some smoldering anger. You may have begun to think you were losing your mind.
Working your way through
- Everything you feel is perfectly normal. You’re not crazy; you are grieving. Grieving is the long and difficult task of letting go of someone who has died and rebuilding your life without that person’s physical presence. It may be the hardest thing you have ever done, but it is absolutely necessary. This CareNote will describe four tasks that will help you move along the road to recovery.
- Allow time for the reality of your loss to sink in. The heart is a slow learner; it cannot be weaned from its tender habits overnight. Expect to find yourself thinking of something you must remember to tell the person who is no longer with you, or seeing something you think would make the perfect birthday gift. You may hear that person call to you in the night or you may start to follow someone down the street before you realize it is a stranger. Be patient and gentle with yourself. If you were sick, you wouldn’t push yourself to get well. Now, too, your energy level is likely to be lower than usual. Put fewer demands on yourself. Of course there are things you have to do, but you can tackle them slowly-and congratulate yourself every time you manage to check something off your list, however small. Free up your calendar as much as you can. Go where you have to and keep necessary appointments. But right now the most important task you have is to
grieve your loss.
- Gather support. The understanding you need is most likely to come from someone who has been there. Where do you find such a person? Start with someone whose loss is not recent, someone who seems to have recovered from their loss. It needn’t be someone you know well. Even a fairly casual acquaintance will quickly grasp your need the minute you say how confused and troubled you are. Consider looking for a support group. Many have a specific focus: the loss of a spouse or a parent or child (of any age), a loss caused by murder or suicide. Look on the internet and in the yellow pages under social services and check out both government and religious agencies. Many groups whose concern is a particular disease, such as the American Cancer Society, also offer support for people whose loved one died of that illness. See what your faith community can do to help. Many have volunteers who not only help plan funerals, but will also walk with grieving people as long as they are needed. Some offer special prayer services at certain times of the year. (My own does a “Blue Christmas” prayer service for people who can’t muster much “ho-ho.”
“You can’t rebuild your life in an instant, but you can take a small step or two at a time.” Consider professional counseling. A clergyperson might be able to provide help, or your doctor can make a referral. Check local social service agencies and hospitals for someone whose specialty is grief counseling. Don’t forget the family members and close friends who share the pain of your loss. If they are also new to grief, they probably can’t offer the wisdom of a professional counselor. But they n commiserate with you and give you the assurance that you are not alone in your sorrow. With them you can enjoy sharing precious memories of the person too many folks avoid mentioning at all.
- Make adjustments in your life. The ties that bound you to the person for whom you are grieving are woven of many intricate strands. You shared memories and interests, activities and friends- perhaps for many years, perhaps for far too short a time. However much you may want to shut out the memories just now, they are precious treasures you will one day be glad to have. But right now they are painful reminders everywhere you turn. You can’t rebuild your life in an instant, but you can take a small step or two at a time. Try making some changes in your routines, activities, and connections with others to keep the pain from cropping up so often. Rearrange your living space a little. It may feel like an alien place as it is; if it looks different you can begin to revisualize “home.” Try sleeping in a different room or eating your meals in another spot. If you are thinking of cleaning out your loved one’s closet, get someone to help you start. You don’t have to do it all at once. In fact, you may want to keep something- a favorite sweater perhaps- to snuggle up with. You may want to avoid the places you strongly associate with your loved one, at least for a while. Choose a new path for a walk, stay out of his or her favorite store, avoid for a time your favorite restaurant, take in the latest film at an unfamiliar theater. Explore some new activities. Try your hand at a new hobby, perhaps, or join a club that focuses on an interest you never explored, or align yourself with some unfamiliar association. You may not find a perfect fit immediately, but you can always try another direction. Neither are you making a lifetime commitment. You are free to drop out when the effort no longer meets your needs. A volunteer job may give you an outlet for the care you once lavished on your loved one. Years ago, a few women whose children were killed by drunk drivers founded MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), whose efforts to educate and stiffen law enforcement have no doubt saved many lives. You may not change the world to that extent, but you will feel better for discovering that you still have something to give.
- Find ways to express your loss and memorialize your loved one. Give your emotions an outlet in a journal. Make a habit of reading back over it, for it will map your journey through grief. You can spot the things that send you into a tailspin and learn which triggers to be careful of. You will also be able to see signs of recovery-rarely at first, but they will be more apparent as time moves on. Write letters to your loved one, too. Pour out your heart to him or her-you can also do the same with God in prayer. You might want to make a ritual of burning the letters, imagining that the rising smoke is carrying them toward heaven. Set up a small memorial space in a private corner with a picture and some tokens that recall your relationship. Put that favorite sweater there, and provide a comfortable chair. Go there as often as you need to evoke the presence you will always carry within you. If you designated a charity for memorial gifts at the time of the funeral, continue to support it as much as you can. Tell family members to put that on your wish list for birthdays or holiday giving. You can also commit your memories to paper-not only for your own sake, but also to enrich the memories of other people to whom this person was dear. Think of it as creating an heirloom not only for the people who share your sense of loss, but also for future generations.
However dear the person you have lost, you have not lost the memories you spun together. Neither have you lost the impact that person had on your life, the values you learned, and the interests you developed. What you have lost is a physical presence. As you do the hard work of grieving, you will begin to make peace with that loss and find comfort in your belief that the two of you are held together in the hands of God.
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