Grief & the Struggle to Go Forward

It’s as if a giant stop sign has been dropped into your life when someone experiences grief. The process of grief, like a fingerprint, is unique for each one of us. A year or so ago I read a “My Turn” essay in Newsweek written by the best friend of a woman who had died. She told the story, of caring for this friend’s adopted daughter, who did not cry over the loss of her mother for two years. This disturbed the writer and worried her because she didn’t understand it. Then the family dog died which unleashed buckets of tears, from the now twice-abandoned daughter. I repeat this story often to drive home the point that there is no right way to mourn, only your own way. Some people stop praying, some start praying. Some people numb themselves with alcohol, others lose their place in the world, while some find a new way to define themselves. Grief is profoundly humbling and devastating. In America, there is not enough support for talking about grief  because we are creatures of comfort. Grief makes us uncomfortable.

If grief is expected, it’s easier to bear because there’s been time to say goodbye, complete unfinished business and imagine how the loss will feel. If grief comes as a surprise then these steps can only happen within yourself, over time.

When a parent or a child dies and hardly anything is spoken within the family or shared after the funeral, I believe it makes it harder for those left behind to deal with the loss. In Pittsburgh we have The Caring Place and The Good Grief Center, places where people can go to explore their grief with others. The Caring Place has a quote from Fred Rogers painted on the wall: “It is only natural that we and our children find many things hard to talk about. But anything human is mentionable and anything mentionable can be manageable. The mentioning can be difficult, and the managing too, but both can be done if we’re surrounded by love and trust.”

For most, grief gets easier to bear over time. How much time goes by? Depending on the original depth of connection it can take 1-1/2 to 3 years. In the blog post I’m linking to, the author labels herself  “a toddler in grief ” because it’s only been three months. http://ptbertram.wordpress.com/2010/06/27/i-am-a-three-month-grief-survivor/ When grief saturates you and you don’t reclaim your life then there’s a larger problem. Some people want to honor their loved one by ‘keeping them alive’ as if sacrificing their own life will accomplish the trick. This is not OK. Getting stuck without any movement at all is not OK.

Making a panel for the Aids Quilt was a powerful experience that helped me grieve over the loss of a best friend. Creating a fabric representation of the underwater life that he loved so much and collecting “fish” from those who loved him, honored his passion for scuba diving. Receiving help from unexpected places in this project contributed to my healing. Even after more than 15 years, I still miss him and have never met anyone with his easy access to fun. The author Roger Rosenblatt wrote Making Toast about life, after the death of his adult daughter, in order to help him deal with the awful loss. Reading his words may help you to cope just the tiniest little bit. Reading or attending a grief support group or viewing the Aids Quilt panels all serves to remind us, we are not alone.

Tears and crying honor what’s important. At first it seems there will never be any space between the tears and then you’re surprised to find that it begins to happen more often.

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9 thoughts on “Grief & the Struggle to Go Forward

  1. Melinda says:

    For me the stop sign metaphore was perfect. When my mother died I continued to function on “auto-pilot” for many months, not fully engaged, not completely realizing how distressed I was. Thinking was an effort. In fact I made a simple mistake on my tax return that year which I had never done before. It was a little scary to realize that no matter how hard I tried, my thought processes were not up to par; I couldn’t trust myself. Two years later I’m back to normal, but still cry when I think of her. Now when I see people moving on with their lives after someone they love dies, I admire them for doing their best in spite of how difficult the smallest task might be. The hardest thing about discussing grief is that one doesn’t believe there is anything that can make it feel better so there is no point in subjecting people to those feelings. Now I can use my experience to derive empathy for others who are grieving and help them accept that they may not function up to par for a while and that’s normal.

  2. rhodasommer says:

    I absolutely agree with you & appreciate you sharing your experience. Your comment adds depth to the post, Thankyou! Rhoda

  3. Adam says:

    I think it’s important to note the extreme difference between losing a (grand)parent and losing a partner/fiance/child. A child is expected to survive their parents while the loss of a partner or child is something that cannot really be fathomed. Not that it is any less important, but the experience is totally different. I feel like the most effective description is that life has broken a promise and losing trust in life is something that I’ve found incredibly hard to recover from. Before her death I was the most type A personality that you could imagine, (4.12 High School GPA, Prominent Member of the Swim Team, The Youngest Deacon in a Century for our Church, and Volunteer). I was a planner, organized and punctual. After she died, while I was a freshman in college, I couldn’t imagine living in a world where she didn’t exist. Before her I walked around thinking I was a whole person, after I had realized that I was only half and she completed me. After she died I was only half again. I stopped planning, what was the point? She planned a life for herself and at 27 why shouldn’t she? Let me tell you from personal experience that when you lose the motivation to make plans and literally live from one moment to the next, it’s hard to imagine a point in going to class/work/whatever. You question the purposes of everything, as a proclaimed wasp God was gone. Absolutely Silent. Losing someone that you choose to love is incredibly different than losing someone chosen by genetics (or a higher being). It’s not a stop sign, it’s a collapsed bridge in the middle of the woods with no posted detour. You’re lost, and moving backward sometimes seems more painful than just driving into the ravine. You go on, sometimes because you don’t know what else to do, sometimes because you realize the negative impact that it would have on others.

  4. rhodasommer says:

    Patrick died at 40 & I found that to be startlingly too young, I can hardly wrap my mind around 27. Losing a child is the most dreadful of all & I’ve been through that abyss with many. And it still matters to find meaning and not get lost. You too, have added depth to my post & I am grateful. Rhoda

  5. caitspace says:

    I really liked what Adam wrote about the bridge being collapsed. My husband died in Iraq by sniper fire. I never got to say goodbye to him, I didn’t get to talk to him the last time he called on Tuesday night. He left a message saying that he would call after he returned from patrol. That call never came, which wasn’t unusual so I didn’t worry. When the Army officers came to the door, then I knew my life has forever changed and I’m not going to particularly like it. People have said really stupid things to me, and told me I need to move on with my life. Well I am moving on. I get up everyday, most days take a shower, get dressed. I talk to people on the phone, I even call friends and see how they are doing. I go to school because it gets me out of the house, and I’m learning new stuff that I enjoy. Yet people seem to believe that because I’m not dating, nor do I really want to, I’m not moving on with my life. When your soulmate dies, life changes drastically and I believe it can take several years to get back on the track again. Personally, I’m not sure if I ever will get back on the right track, but at least I’m looking for that track.

  6. rhodasommer says:

    I appreciate you taking time to write. It sounds to me like you have movement & that’s a good thing. Dating would indeed be absurd. I think the looking for that track is what matters. Again, Thanks for sharing. Rhoda

  7. Adam says:

    caitspace, I have been in a place where the the people around you do not understand… where they think you should date and simply move on with your life… i never thought that i would have to date again, even after Amy was diagnosed with cancer I thought that i could pull every doctoral string i could in Pittsburgh and some how we would find a way… and when it didn’t happen i felt like i would go on living like half of a person for the rest of my life… the only thing that saved me from that abysmal depression was the fact that one of my lifelong friends let me know that if depression ever took me that it would end him… when i got to that lowest point in my life i recognized that i had to go on for someone other than myself…

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