When my mother died unexpectedly of a stroke, there was no shortage of platitudes offered:
“It will get easier with time.”
“One day this will all make sense.”
“She’s in a better place now.”
As I’ve written before, I found these types of sentiments, at the time, to be rather empty and unhelpful. Nonetheless, I learned to appreciate the fact that the people who said them were just looking for something, anything to say to ease my pain. And I can’t fault anyone for trying to comfort me as I faced the unimaginable. Dealing with death is not easy. There’s no playbook. You simply offer your condolences and try to be there for the bereaved as much as you can.
But there are so many things I’ve learned through grieving; things the platitudes never mentioned and that no one ever warned me about. Things I wish somebody had told me before I started the process. Things I want to share with all of you so that you might be able to better understand a friend who is grieving, or your own feelings if you’re going through the process yourself, like:
The world won’t wait for you.
You will stand still, very very still for a long time. I cannot say how long. Everyone’s journey is different. You may try to fight against this stillness by filling up your calendar, or going about life as normal, or ignoring your pain. The world will continue to move at a breakneck speed, but try as you might to keep up with it, inside the stillness will remain. You will not be ready to move on; to pretend as if it’s all ok. Not for a long while. I call this the zombie phase. As I wrote in the Long, Lonely, Road of Grief, it went a little something like this (for me): “I looked on at those walking amongst the living, exasperated, wondering if I would ever join them again; wondering if promotions, moves, petit social slights, new workouts, or politics would ever matter to me again. I wondered if I would ever again feel anything but longing and despair.“
Your friends may stop asking you how you are doing after a few months, assuming your loss is old news and that you must have compartmentalized it by now. They may talk to you like they always have, assuming if you wanted to talk about “it,” you would do so — they don’t want to upset you by bringing it up. You will learn to forgive them; for both assuming that you aren’t conscious of your loss every moment of every day, and for failing to address the elephant in the room, when you just don’t have the strength.
You will be angry at the world for spinning, and frustrated because all you want is to get back to moving with it. Eventually, you will get there. But this time, this space of stillness is sacred. It means you really lost something; that you’re learning to live with a massive hole in your life. It is normal, and it is ok.
Grief knows no timeline.
One day, you will start to walk amongst the living again and you will be thrilled at your re-acquired excitement for life. It is the surest sign that you are healing; that you will move on, even if you’re never quite the same again. You will start to feel excitement, rather than dread, at the big happenings coming up on your calendar. Your good days will outnumber your bad. You will breathe a sigh of relief — I am getting there, you’ll think, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Until, after many months of feeling great, the tunnel closes in on you and you are thrown back into despair. Just as you’ve gotten the hang of your new life; your new normal, you’re thrown for a loop. You might need advice on your taxes, or a new career path, but you find that nobody can guide you like your mother could. You feel the loss all over again as if it happened just yesterday, even though it’s been years. You are depressed. Nothing feels right. Your skin crawls with an unshakable wave of grief. I thought I was past this, you will chastise yourself, dammit, things were really looking up!
They’ll look up again, but give yourself time. The “active” grief comes and goes. Things get easier until they aren’t anymore. This is because grief knows no timeline. There are no definable stages to be found. Grief is fluid and, at times, unpredictable. You can only take your time, roll with the tide and accept that sometimes the waters will be calm, sometimes you’ll get smacked in the face with an unexpected wave, and sometimes you’ll be thrown violently by a tsunami of pain.
The ripples will affect every area of your life.
Nothing in your life, or in your psyche is an island. Your loss will have a “ripple effect” and touch every aspect of your life. You might get easily knocked down by small setbacks (like an injury or your car breaking down), and start to feel like the world just isn’t fair. You could find yourself suffocating those you love; terrified to lose them — or pushing them away to avoid the inevitable pain that their loss would bring. You may become anxious at holidays, unable to explain why.
You might adopt a puppy and struggle to bond with him, because you are so afraid to love him, knowing that you will most likely outlive him. Yet, the hole inside you that your mother’s death left begs, screams to be filled and you let it, partly, by a sweet dog with a red beard and boundless joy. 10 months later, that puppy might get very sick and now that you love him unimaginably, the concept of losing him is already too horrible to bear. The anxiety grips you as you make your way through the snow to the emergency veterinary hospital at 2 AM on the first night of spring, tears streaming down your face, as you relive your middle-of-the-night drive to the hospital the night of your mother’s emergency surgery.
Some of the ripples you will see and understand, and others will elude you. You will learn to accept these ripples, even though they make your life more complicated. They are part of you now.
You will be changed, forever.
This one is hard to swallow. Nobody wants to be defined by their trauma, and we go to great lengths to remain “ourselves” in the face of earth-shaking sadness. But the truth is, it is nearly impossible to avoid these changes. Losing a close loved one will most likely irrevocably change who you are, for better or for worse. There is a growing body of evidence that trauma can actually change our neurobiology. You may find that your priorities suddenly shift, or that grudges you’ve long held against loved ones simply aren’t worth it anymore. You may decide to sell all of your stuff to move to an island somewhere, because the grind seems totally worthless to you.
You might grow up nearly overnight, finding yourself making decisions about end-of-life care and funeral prayer cards when just 6 months ago, you were seriously considering moving to Buenos Aires on a whim. You might lose your wanderlust, or your deep love of watching sports, and not understand why. You could suddenly hate crowds, when you used to thrive in them. You might move to the Jersey Shore (an idea that would previously have seemed absurd to you) to get away from a city that was once the only place you felt at home. You may find yourself holding onto ridiculous things, like a shirt your mother bought you that you always hated, for the simple fact that she’ll never buy you a shirt that you hate ever again.
The good news is, these changes aren’t all bad. You will likely grow in ways you never imagined, and find yourself more easily prioritizing what’s important to you. You can even come out better than before: more empathetic with your ear and far more careful with your time and limited resources.
Everyone grieves differently.
This one is very important. In your pain, you may have a hard time understanding the pain of others, especially those in your family dealing with the same loss you are. Remember, everyone handles grief differently. Others’ actions may be truly confounding to you. One person may experience PTSD or battle depression (or both). Another may try to go on as though everything is normal, but be haunted by nightmares and anxiety. Still another may compartmentalize their pain. None of these reactions is “right” or “wrong,” though, in your pain, you may be pulled to assume differently.
You may find yourself angry with your family as they ignore the empty chair at the holiday table, rather than bringing her memory into focus. It might be difficult to talk to them about your pain, because they process things differently than you do. You might judge them, and assume they’re doing it all wrong. You might find yourself at Hamilton: The Musical, a full two years after your mother has died, unabashedly weeping, realizing your resentment towards your family is wrongheaded, as the cast sings:
There are moments that the words don’t reach,
There’s a grace too powerful to name,
We push away what we can never understand,
We push away the unimaginable.
They are standing in the garden,
Alexander by Eliza’s side,
She takes his hand-
Forgiveness… can you imagine?
There is no wrong way to grieve. Some grievers may not be able to relate to a word of this, and that’s ok. We are all different. It’s important to remember to give a grieving person the space to do it their own way, on their own timeline, even if it makes no sense to those of us on the outside.
With that said, I hope these words can be of some help or comfort to those struggling with grief, whether you’re just starting the journey or feeling stuck.
I can’t tell you that it will be ok, and I will not feed you a beautiful platitude. But I will offer you this: You are not alone. Please know that.