If there is something I feel overly qualified to speak on it is grief. I have had more than my fair share of loss due to death, both traumatic and natural. I lost my father suddenly of a brain aneurysm, my sister committed suicide, my mother died of chemotherapy poisoning and I had to turn off life support, my aunt died at the hands of a drunk driver (which left my mother with a brain injury), my uncle died in our home of an aortic aneurysm, my grandmother transitioned peacefully at the age of 89. These are not all my losses due to death, just the most significant ones.
Grief is not limited to death of course, and I’ve had many of those experiences as well. I’ve been fired. I’m divorced. I’ve had significant friendships end abruptly and badly. I have estranged family members.
I experienced all but my mother’s death by the time I was 25. I then lost my mother when I was 40. My early exposure to death led me to become a hospice social worker. I felt that Life had given me this experience so that I could help others in their journeys of dying, death and grief. I did that for 10 years, which is extremely unheard of because of the high burnout rate. I walked with more people than I can count in those 10 years. I continued to walk with their grieving loved ones for a year after the death.
So I know grief intimately.
I don’t tell you this to toot my horn, elicit sympathy or diminish anyone else’s experience. I tell you this because I don’t take this subject lightly. There are few who have as much experience as I in this arena and if it’s put in front of me (the topic came up in another blog) then I feel it is the Universe’s way of telling me to speak to it. At least that’s how I look at it.
It is a common misnomer that time heals all wounds. Time has nothing to do with it. Attention is the one and only thing that affects grief and sets about the healing process. That attention will vary not only mourner by mourner, but also loss by loss. You may be surprised by your varying expressions of grief for different losses. You cannot have the expectation that you will grieve each loss similarly. Grief is kept in a box in our hearts and every time we experience a loss we open that box and all the losses we keep in the box come flooding out. The grief gets all mixed up together. It is very difficult if not impossible to grieve one loss and not all the others that came before it. This happens in the very best of circumstances, in the healthiest coping. We never “get over” a loss; we learn to live with it. Complicated grief is what it’s called when we don’t learn to live with it.
A loss changes you forever, but you decide how it changes you.
That is what grief is about, the more significant the loss the more significant the change. It doesn’t matter what you lost. Society seems to think that there are certain relationships that are more significant and more worthy of grief and sympathy than other losses. The reality is that what that relationship meant to you makes the difference in grief. While you may have one parent with whom you have an ideal relationship and one from whom you are estranged, you may find you grieve both equally hard in different ways. While you will grieve the loss of the now and future presence of your ideal parent, it is the loss of the potential of a better future you will grieve regarding your estranged parent. We all have expectations of the future in all relationships and they factor into grief more than anyone considers. When we lose an estranged parent we lose the hope that one day that relationship will improve. This is something that often takes people off guard. In addition you may experience more profound grief over a family friend who was more like a mother to you than your own mother. Don’t let relationship labels dictate “how much grief” you should be experiencing.
Paying attention to your grief will ensure you get through it to the point that you live with the loss but without the active grief. Ignore the grief and no matter how much time goes by you will not heal it one bit. Using alcohol, activity or anything else to “keep busy”, “keep your mind off it”, or any other platitude will only stifle your grief at exactly the point you began to ignore it. I’m NOT saying that it isn’t good to resume activity or engage in things that get you out of the house, re-engage you with your life, or give your mind a reprieve. I am also NOT saying that you should sit home and wallow in the loss. I AM saying that these phrases are misleading and as misinterpreted as “time heals all wounds”.
Paying attention to your grief means take care of yourself like you would after a major surgery. Sleep when you are tired. Eat healthy meals, even if they are just small ones. Make no major decisions. Take on no new responsibilities. Let others help you in whatever way they can. Your grief will touch their grief and not everyone will be able to walk with you the way you want them too. Feel free to say no if you are not ready or up for something. Don’t let others pressure you into something you are not ready for…like getting rid of personal items, selling a home, going back to work and “getting over it”.
General guidelines to determine complicated grief: 3 months after the loss you should feel as though you have moved slightly in a better direction. 6 months you should recognize that you are in a significantly better place than you were the day of the loss. After the first anniversary you should recognize that your grief is no longer intense.
If you don’t recognize these improvements by these benchmarks then you are in complicated grief and may need someone else’s assistance in moving through.
I’ve reprinted this article from another blog I had in 2015. It seemed a good time to share it here.
As always…I love you.