Suggestions for Someone Who’s Grieving
By: James E. Miller
Something has left your life and changed it. However much you may wish otherwise, you will never be the same.
What has happened to you may be the most heart-wrenching experience you have ever known. Perhaps you have lost what you thought you could not possibly live without. Perhaps something has been taken from you that has given your life deep meaning and great joy. Perhaps you have been given news that threatens to be your undoing.
You may find that each day has become an agony for you, that you cannot escape your anguish. You may know what it’s like to finally fall asleep, only to discover that your torture does not leave you; it follows you in your dreams. When you awaken, it stabs at you once more. You may wonder how long you’ll be able to go on living like this. You may wonder if it will ever get better, or if there will be anything to hope for or live for again.
It’s possible that what has happened to you may not be the worst thing you’ve ever known. You may be able to recall times in your life when your situation seemed more trying than it does now. And yet, you may still find that the experience with which you’re now confronted leaves you shaken and unnerved. Your feelings may rush over you unpredictably, beyond your control. You may hurt deep inside. You may wonder how long your life will go on this way.
However long this troubling time lasts, chances are it will seem too long.
Almost always it goes on too long for people around you, especially those who do not understand how much your life has been affected. They may want you to return to normal more quickly than you’re able. They may not realize that your “old normal” may not be your “new normal.” They may act concerned if your sadness persists. They may resist your needing to talk about what has happened to you, and what is happening within you.
Your grieving may go on longer than you want it to. You may tire of feeling always tired. You may grow weary of your weariness. You may feel weakened by the continuing pain. Your task, however, is to remain in your pain long enough—not a day longer than you need to, but not a day less than your loss demands. For however uncomfortable this time is for you, it is serving a purpose. It is helping you heal. And all wounds heal the same way—from the inside out.
If you remember nothing else, remember this: you are not alone. Others have made the journey before that you are making now, and they have returned to lead lives that are both engaging and fulfilling. Others are making a similar journey at this moment and they are learning as you are learning. Others are around you who wish to support you and to do what they can for you. There are companions for you along the way. You may not have experienced that yet, but they’re there.
Not all the thoughts written here will be equally appropriate for you. Some will fit your situation better than others. Take the ideas and suggestions that suit you the best and offer you the most. Then leave the rest for other people, or for another time in your life. May you find here a sense of hope and the assurance that all is not lost. Yes, you have been hurt. Yes, your path is not easy. Yes, the way seems long. But, no, you do not have to suffer forever. No, you do not have to be completely overcome. No, you do not have to travel entirely alone. You can do what you fear you cannot. You can find ways to help yourself and ways to be helped. You can make this a time of growth, and you can become the person you wish to become.
In other words, you can heal. You can be whole again. You can be you.
The best way to handle your feelings is not to “handle” them but to feel them.
You may receive unhelpful messages from others about how to deal with your feelings as you go through this chaotic time of your life. You may receive such messages even from yourself. Here are three examples:
“You must be strong now.” Sometimes you’re expected to be strong for your own sake, and sometimes it’s for other people, usually those in your own family. “Be strong,” of course, has another translation: “Don’t show that you’re weak by putting your emotions on open display.”
“You’re handling this very well.” The translation here is, “You’re not crying and acting upset in front of others.” It’s reported that an entire generation took important cues about handling their loss from Jackie Kennedy on national TV in the days following JFK’s murder. Her private, reserved way need not be yours.
“Cheer up. You’ll be over this soon.” Many people know how to respond better to happy faces than sad ones. They have special difficulty when those faces stay sad for a long time. In a subtle way they’re saying to people like you, “Hurry up now. Let’s get this part over with.” They’re saying this more for their own comfort than for yours.
If you hear these or similar messages, you will do yourself a favor to ignore them. The best way to go through this process of dealing with loss is by following your own timetable and with your feelings firmly in place. The healthiest way to deal with your emotions is to feel them as they happen, whenever that is, wherever that occurs.
You may experience feelings you’d expect. You may be sad about what has happened and what it means for your life. You may feel depressed, even despairing. You may find that you’re more afraid than normal. You may feel lonely. You may be even more lonely when you’re with other people, including people you love. You may feel tired all the time. You may be easily distracted.
There are other feelings you may not expect to have. You may be angry, if not enraged. You may be unusually anxious and not understand why. You may feel a real sense of relief, as if a burden has been lifted from you. Afterward you may feel embarrassed that you felt so relieved. You may feel guilty, unexpectedly so.
Another sensation you may experience is this: almost no feeling at all. You may feel empty and numb. That’s a common reaction at first. It’s a sign that your body may be protecting you for awhile, until you are more ready to process all that has occurred.
What you are going through is an ordeal. It takes courage to face all you must face. It takes a huge amount of energy, and at a time when your energy reserves are in short supply. It takes dogged determination to keep doing day after day what is yours to do these days: to feel all that you feel.
You cannot escape your emotions. Your choice is simply this: you can experience your feelings and move through them as they surface, or you can put them off until another time. But you do not have the choice of putting them off forever. Somehow, sometime, your feelings will demand your attention. By then they may be even stronger and deeper than now.
Remember: the best way out is always through. The best way to get beyond your feelings is to experience them as fully as you can and as often as you need to.
Sometimes it makes perfect sense to act a little crazy.
Actress Helen Hayes describes her experience of adjusting to her husband’s death in this way: “I was just as crazy as you can be and still be at large. I didn’t have any normal moments during those two years. It wasn’t just grief, it was total confusion. I was nutty.”
Yes, these can be nutty times. Your sense of security may be shaken. Old ways of thinking may no longer be valid. Former ways of doing things may no longer be possible. You may feel you have lost your center.
In such circumstances it’s normal for you to act differently. You may have a hard time concentrating, and you may be more forgetful than you’ve ever been. You may find it difficult to make decisions. Or you may make decisions quite quickly, only to change your mind just as fast and just as often. You may not weigh carefully the consequences of what you decide.
Close friends may tell you that you’re acting a little strange. They may not tell you that with their words, but you can see it in their eyes. You may see it in your own eyes when you look in the mirror.
German dramatist Gotthold Lessing once wrote, “There are things which must cause you to lose your reason or you have none to lose.” If your loss has been severe, and if your pain is intense, you may have cause to lose your reason. You may feel and act not quite normal. That happens naturally when everything around you feels abnormal.
If there are signs this is happening to you, keep the following ideas in mind:
First of all, try not to panic. You’re actually in good company. Lots of people pass through “the crazies,” emerging with all their faculties fully intact. Remember that you sometimes need to fall apart before you can come back together in a healthier way.
Select one person whom you trust for their honesty and their maturity, and ask them to be your gauge. If you want feedback about how you’re responding, or if you want assistance with your decision-making, turn to that person. Don’t attempt to follow everyone’s advice — it won’t work.
Talk things out. Speak whatever is on your mind. You may find that some of your thoughts are irrational, but you won’t know that until you’ve heard yourself saying them out loud. Sometimes it’s only after you’ve spoken opposing ideas that you know both thoughts cannot be true at the same time.
Keep a journal about what’s going on inside. Then go back in a few weeks or a few months and see how your thinking is changing. Notice the ways you’re growing.
Take yourself lightly at times. While your life may feel justifiably heavy these days, it’s still possible you may begin to see the humor in some of the things you’ve said and done. Smile at yourself, and be forgiving. Remember your stories so you can retell them one day as a way of helping others, just as Helen Hayes has done for you.