When grief has struck, and you’re reeling from a tremendous loss, it’s hard to remember that you will come through it on the other side. In fact, the healing of an emotional rent is a process not unlike the healing from a physical injury. I am grateful someone reminded me of that when my 38 year-old son died three years ago.
“It will get better,” someone said. “You will go through the process as you must. And you will heal.”
Fortunately they didn’t say, “You will forget your son,” “You will stop hurting altogether,” “After a while, it won’t matter any more.”
Because if they had said so, I would not have believed them. And I would have been right not to.
In fact, it does still hurt and I will never forget anything about my child—his looks, his graceful, athletic body, his laughter, and his teasing. I surround myself with his pictures to keep his face, his sparkling eyes, and wide grin before me. It will always matter because there is no one who can fill the void in my life.
Sometimes, when I come in from a trip away, my instinct is to head for the answering machine to check if he’s called from his home in another state, something that happened often when he was alive.
When the sad realization hits that the state he’s in has no telephones, there’s a jolt of grief in my solar plexus that feels like a blow from a heavyweight champ.
No, it will always matter.
But in truth, this instinct isn’t triggered quite as often anymore. And I don’t find myself gazing absently at his photographs for tens of minutes, day after day.
I still cry sometimes, especially in church when I hear a song that was played at his funeral or memorial mass; I still wrench with pain recalling the empty space in our lives, and the questioning of God—“Why? Why?”—continues.
But I have to admit, it’s better. Maybe it would be better anyhow just because of the passage of time, but I think some steps I learned about and tried to take do help. Just sharing them, passing them on where someone else might be tempted to sample them, brings a clearing of the lump in my throat, and gives me a burst of energy.
A few of these “survival skills” are offered here.
THINK JOURNEY. When you have lost someone dear, remember you are in a process, a process that will take you from one place to another, a journey of sorts. And every journey has, if not a definite end, at least a passage, a movement.
Those who are sorrowing need to know they can be open to the movement of healing in their lives. Most grief counselors agree: trusting in the process of recovery is essential. We must trust—it will get better.
DO NOT TRAVEL ALONE. Recognizing the help we need to grieve helps push us along on the path. Actually, for some people, reaching out a hand for help may be crucial. Particularly if you’re feeling out of control, are considering an action you may later regret, such as harming yourself, or if you feel totally isolated with no one to turn to, it is definitely time to seek help.
Perhaps you sense a friend or relative won’t have the time to listen, or care to. On the other hand, they may. Ask. If there is no one close you can turn to, ask your doctor to refer you or call the Social Services Department of your town, or even the local funeral parlor. Most funeral directors now employ or have access to grief counselors or know of groups which will be supportive on your journey of recovery.
It’s a huge task to move from the early stages of grief when we move in slow motion, feel too numb to know what to do, or are tempted to turn to addictive substances to make ourselves more numb.
Why are we so arrogant as to think we can do such a monumental task alone? While it’s true that everyone grieves differently, some in silence, some loudly, some focusing on anger, others weepy and helpless, we all need a hand up, As surely as the slaves building the pyramids couldn’t have done it singlehandedly, so, too, are we unlikely to be able to grieve effectively on our own. For men, especially, it’s a hard realization to come to, that we might need help. Our men are so culturized to think they are self-sufficient. Maybe they are, maybe this is the one time they need to reach out or be reached out to.
KILL DENIAL. Effective grieving moves the person from one place to another on that journey from pain to relative wellness, but no one would ever take the trip if they denied they had to get somewhere. Maybe your journey will actually get you from a dead-end to crossroads, or at least to a rest stop. Maybe the pain will only lessen and never end. Take the step anyway, admit your need.
To pretend we are not grieving, to let feelings well up beneath the surface until they are as roiling as a volcanic outpouring with no place to go, is dangerous, and unhealthy–for the one grieving, his family, his friends, and associates. Even though I had an extensive support group with which I shared my feelings of loss and pain, sorrow and regret in the months following my son’s death, I eventually called a counselor friend five months later, because I felt I desperately needed to move from the point I was at. I was not immune to need; no one is.
MOVE YOUR BODY, TOO. Moving physically helps get your healing process moving, too. The first time I scrubbed pots and pans after the funeral, the first time I took a walk, the first time I looked through a seed catalog and mailed out the order for the next season’s garden, I felt movement and a slight sense of hope that began to grow in me. In the earliest stages, those in grief may be able to manage a few household chores, a walk around the yard, and no noticeable effects will be seen.
But the next time, and the next, or when the walk is extended around the block, and the chores increase to cleaning out the closet of the loved one, or making a cake for a church event or a friend’s birthday, or digging in the garden itself, things begin to change. Our perspective changes, our energy level and appetite change. We may at last be able to think of the future, next week, if not next month or next year. Or maybe just tomorrow.
When we think of tomorrow, it’s important that we set a small goal for our physical movement for that day, eg., tomorrow I’ll go grocery shopping and buy five items. Tomorrow I’ll ride the stationary bike for five minutes. Or I’ll do five sit-ups, or I’ll hold a child in my arms and dance for five minutes, quietly.
The authors of How to Survive the Loss of a Love, Melba Cosgrove, Ph.D., Harold H. Bloomfield, M.D., and Peter McWilliams say that in the first stage of mourning, our bodies slow their outer movements in order to provide the energy necessary for inner healing. Speech may be slowed, and the ability to use the brain effectively in once simple tasks will be hampered. Not to worry, say the writing team. These slowdowns are normal, and as we work to take more steps, we help the healing to progress.
Don’t push yourself. Relax. For a while, go slow. But go, and find hope in your passage. This journey to wellness has been taken before by others. You are not alone. Admit your need, and then move.