The Grief Journey
Back in 2014 when my older sister was diagnosed with stage 4 colon and liver cancer, my grief journey began.
Now it is 2017 and I have lost not only my sister, but my grandfather-in-law, my aunt, an uncle and, finally, my mother.
In the span of almost two years, the grief journey has increased in complexity with greater obstacles placed in my way by circumstance and also by myself. I admit it. I made it harder than it had to be.
Now that I look back, I can see how understanding the grief process has helped me.
But not everyone understands grief nor how to handle it.
Unless you have experienced it firsthand, you cannot possibly understand it. You can sympathize with someone, but you will find it very hard to empathize with them.
Time to Move On
I suppose the main thing about grief that I never understood was the impact it had on my thinking.
Before I sought grief support, I walked around daily in a fog.
It truly felt like a fog had clouded my mind. Everyday tasks that were once easily completed became difficult. I became annoyed with myself because of all the mistakes I was making in my work. I became annoyed with coworkers and my students. I mean, everything bugged me!
I also became very jealous of people. I envied their relationships they had with their moms or sisters. I was shocked by how upset I would become by people's conversations about the mundane.
Eating became routine. I no longer found pleasure in food. I simply went through the motions. I lost a lot of weight, but not in a good way.
And don't get me started on sleep! It almost never came. Flashbacks came nightly. And when I finally did fall asleep, waking up to go to work became a chore. That shocked me because I was always punctual. I found myself struggling to get to work.
In fact, I didn't want to go to work anymore. I had anxiety on a daily basis.
Try to imagine what it is like to live like this.
Most of the time, I would tell myself, "Isn't it time to move on? Shouldn't I be over this already? What's wrong with me?"
Moving on from grief is a myth. But I could tell people expected me to have already moved past it. When I would bring up my lost loved ones, I could see how nervous it made my coworkers. So, I would remain silent and try to "move on" on my own.
This, I found, was almost impossible.
What I found through grief support was the explanation I didn't know I was searching for.
Grief was what had caused my brain to fog over. Grief was what had caused my annoyance toward everyone and pretty much everything. Grief had caused my anxiety. I look back on those early days after my sister had passed and remember how I would cry from listening to a song or a TV commercial or a line in a book. I remember jerking awake at night from the slightest noise. I had never experienced that before. I remember sitting still and just staring into space for long periods of time. Why was I doing this all the time?
In grief support, I had my "ah ha" moment, as Oprah likes to say, and felt the heavy burden lifted off my shoulders. Once I gave myself permission to feel the way I felt, the relief came. Once I gave myself permission to grieve at MY OWN PACE, the relief came. And once I learned how to communicate to those around me about my thoughts and feelings, the relief came.
Get Over It Already!
If you know someone who is grieving the loss of a loved one, there are things you can do to help. But there are also many things you can do to cause more harm than good.
What can you do to help?
Just be there to listen to them talk about grief, their feelings, their memories, their struggles. Listen without feeling like YOU have to solve or fix everything. No, you are there to help hold them through this hard time that will pass. You cannot fix anything that they are going through.
What can you do to harm them?
Tell them to get over it already. Tell them it's time to move on. Tell them to get back in the game, that's what their loved one would want.
All of these sayings aren't about helping them, but they are about helping YOU and this isn't about you. Wanting your loved one to be like they were before the tragedy or loss occurred is normal, but it can never happen. They are forever changed. And that's ok!
Asking them to "get over it already" is like asking someone who just broke their arm to "get over it already" because you need them to help you do yard work or paint the house. Yes, their injury does inconvenience you for a time, but that's just the way it is.
Healing takes time. So does grief.
Simply be there for them when they want to talk. Listen to them, laugh with them, and cry with them. In doing this, you are helping them heal faster.
I Didn't Mean to Say That
Yes, you will make mistakes.
In grief, some things will be said that may cause pain. I know I yelled some things to my husband in a fit of rage that I didn't mean to say. He was gracious and understood it was the grief talking and not really me. There were times people said things to me that they really didn't mean to say, so I learned to understand this.
If you don't know what to say to someone who is grieving, it's okay to tell them this.
"I don't know what to say, but I'm here with you now." By saying this, you are being honest with your loved one or friend. You are letting them know you are with them during this difficult time.
Good days will come! I promise! Rest assured that your loved one will laugh again. He or she will smile a genuine smile again. Your friend will show some semblance of who they were before their grief journey began. And you will treasure it more than you did before. It will almost seem like old times. But know that it isn't. The good days will begin to out number the bad days.
The Year of Firsts
I remember as the first Christmas without my mom approached, I was given advice to do something totally different. I followed this advice and ended up having a wonderful Christmas with my family.
The year of firsts is the hardest one of all. Every birthday, anniversary, or event will remind you that your loved one or friend isn't there. The one thing I learned is to communicate throughout that first year. Write notes or emails or letters to family, friends, and coworkers about the upcoming milestone to prepare them for how you might be that day. This way, people around you will know why you are gloomy or homesick or depressed on a certain day. I did this as my mom's birthday approached and it really helped. I felt like I had permission to be sad that one day and everyone around me would understand.
Communication is key to surviving that first year. Loved ones and friends will be there for you if they know about it beforehand. Remember, they cannot read your mind and they cannot comprehend what you're feeling. To expect them to know isn't really fair. They are living their lives, too. They are dealing with their own issues, too.
Communicating with each other is what will help you learn to help others.
Some people are too proud to reach out for help. Or they may think they aren't grieving at all. They may think their grief is over with.
But seeking out support is the best thing you can do no matter how long it has been since your loved one has passed. I attended a support group with a man who had lost his father over 60 years before. He had never sought help with his grief, so he decided there's no time limit. We all helped him deal with the anger he still had bottled up inside.
By talking with others who are grieving, you can learn more about your behavior. For instance, you could say to a friend, "I was happy yesterday and I felt so guilty about it." Because your friend has never experienced grief, she won't know how to respond.
But those who have lost a loved one will understand exactly what you mean and will be able to help you work through that guilty feeling.
Support groups can truly be a blessing.
Yet, they can also hinder your progress. It's important to know when to step away from a group. You know your needs better than anyone else. Sometimes a group of sad and angry people might not be what you need at this stage in your journey.
I had to step away from a support group that seemed to be "stuck" in their sorrow because I needed to be around people who had worked through that stage into acceptance and resilience.
Paying attention to your needs is most important. You need to know when your group is no longer helping you move forward.
Getting Over It
I once read that grief isn't a destination, but a journey. This is so true. Getting over the death of a loved one isn't easy. Their life will always be with you. Getting over a traumatic loss doesn't happen overnight or at all. Like a marathon, it isn't easy, but it is possible. With support, educating yourself, and persistence, you can make it through.
With family and friends, God's love and help, you can get through it. Learning to live with grief takes patience, determination, and grace. In the end, you are stronger for it and can begin to help others on their journey.
I hope this blog helped! There will be more posts coming up about the grief journey.
Your turn: Are you dealing with grief now? How have you been able to progress through the journey? Are you living with someone dealing with grief? How have you been able to help them progress? What part of the grief journey has been the toughest for you?