by Amanda Geffner
Jeannie couldn’t understand why, two years after the sudden death of her husband Bob, she still felt a hole in her life. Why can’t I move on? she wondered. Why can’t I control these periodic waves of sadness?
It was especially trying when the Fourth of July rolled around. She and Bob had always organized and hosted an annual party, a genuinely gala affair. She knew how much these gatherings meant to her son and daughter, both teenagers, and she wanted to make it the same for them this year, but she couldn’t. She felt exhausted, overburdened, sad and abandoned. She wasn’t up to making the extra effort or pushing herself. She wanted someone to reach out to her, not the other way around.
But most of all, Jeannie felt guilty for feeling all of these negative emotions.
She was beating herself up for not being able to pick up the slack or overcome her own pain. She wanted her life to be like it was before, but she couldn’t make it happen. She couldn’t change what she felt. Jeannie understood, on an intellectual level, that it was time to move on with her life, but part of her was still unwilling to accept the finality of her loss. Would she feel better over time? Was healing even a possibility for Jeannie?
Yes, certainly, but grieving doesn’t happen on a schedule. Though we can do things to facilitate the process, we do not control it.
No two persons grieve in the same way, even when it’s the exact same loss. It plays out differently for each of us. In Jeannie’s case, the rapidly progressing illness and death of her mother one year after her husband’s death was another primal loss, which only served to prolong and intensify her grief. Caring family and friends, as well as her therapist and members of her support group, all urged her to ease up on her guilt, to have a little compassion for herself. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to coping with grief, yet there are certain things that can help.
What makes grief “good enough”?
- When it comes to grief, the phrase from the classic children’s book, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt, applies. “We can’t go over it. We can’t go under or it. Oh no! We’ve got to go through it!” That refers to feeling pain, but you don’t have to do it all at once, and it’s okay to go back and forth between facing the loss and focusing on other aspects of your life, including enjoyment of humor and other distractions.
- Whether you get there quickly or slowly, it is important to reach a place of acceptance. As one therapy client expressed it, “I have come to value what I have and to accept what I don’t.” He added that it has been helpful for him to take concrete steps to build new good things and connections with others into his life.
- Talking or writing to the deceased — whether as part of a spiritual practice or as a therapeutic exercise — can be a powerfully helpful and healing thing to do. Writing memoir essays can also access good memories of the person you’ve lost. It can help you connect to a deeper sense of self, allowing feelings of loss, and pleasure, too, to flow and integrate. Additionally, your writing may be a welcome gift to other grieving souls.
- Sports, exercise, swimming, stretching, yoga, tai chi or other practices, including meditation, can help to re-create balance as you grapple with feelings of loss. Some people find affirmations, gratitude lists and journaling to be helpful as well. Still, others take a class or join a discussion group to give their healing minds a focus. This can ease isolation, while also minimizing the pressure to be socially “on.”
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help or embarrassed that you can’t do it alone. Nobody can. If you’ve always been the strong one in your family or your group of friends, this is the time to let yourself be carried for a while. Sometimes grief can turn into depression. If you’re having lingering thoughts of wishing to join the deceased, or turning to drugs or alcohol to numb the pain, or just feeling like it’s all too much and you can’t face the routine tasks of the day, then this is when you should reach out to friends, family or your clergy. This is the time to speak with your doctor and/or seek bereavement counseling.
Grief, like birth and death, is not a medical condition — it is a part of living. We all experience it in big or small ways at one time or another as we progress through life. Grief is a difficult process and can be a different experience for each and every person. Be gentle and patient with yourself — give yourself some leeway as you learn to live your life anew. Grief is good in that we have loved fully. And that love, rest assured, never dies.
Amanda Geffner, MA, LCSW, is a clinical social worker with Family Centers, serving Greenwich, Stamford, Darien, New Canaan, CT, and Westchester County, NY. Family Centers is a United Way, New Canaan Community Foundation and Community Fund of Darien partner agency that offers counseling and support programs for children, adults and families. For more information, call 203-869-4848 or visit www.familycenters.org.
Photo by Manuel Alfonso Fotografía.