"If you don’t learn anything from this, what’s the point?” a good friend said to me the day after Dad died. At the time, in the throes of unfathomable grief, I thought it was a brutal, heartless thing to say. And in no way comforting. Despite this, I could recognise the truth in it, so I filed it away for another day. I’m still on the convoluted and confusing grief trail, but you know what, I have learned some things. A lot of things about myself, but equally important, many things that might just help others trying to make sense of a new awful, upturned world.
Firstly, you can throw away anything you know about the stages of grief.
These were devised based on work with terminally ill patients and the grief associated with their own upcoming death, not the grief someone experiences in losing a loved one and the process of learning to live without them. Whatever you’re experiencing, it’s probably normal. There are no rules for how you are supposed to feel.
Secondly, be kind to yourself.
Please oh please, let go of all those expectations, particularly the ones that include words like *should*, *supposed to* or *gotta*. No, there’s no reason you “should get back to some of those work emails”. No, you’re not “supposed to feel better by now”. And no, you don’t “just gotta finish my to-do list”.
Here, in no particular order, are the other crucial things I learned.
Take one moment at a time.
Thinking about how you will get through the next months, weeks, days, or even hours is often unbearable. Now is not the time to worry about how you will get through your first Christmas day without them, how their empty chair at the dinner table will stare at you, or how you will commemorate their birthday. Approach it moment by moment. What do you feel like doing right now? What does your body and soul need in this instant? Do that.
You’re not alone.
It feels like you’re living all alone in a snow globe that someone has just shaken — violently. No one could possibly fathom what’s happening in your fragile glass sphere. The word ‘grief’ is simply a label, a word we use, for a hugely complex and individual experience; so while it’s true that no one has experienced this in exactly the same way that you are, there are other folks out there who know real pain too. You’re likely to meet, or already know, some of these people, and chances are they’re now living happy, fulfilling lives. There is a sliver of comfort in that.
Cling to happiness.
This is inspired by the following quote from Elizabeth Gilbert:
“And when you sense a faint potentiality for happiness after such dark times you must grab onto the ankles of that happiness and not let go until it drags you face-first out of the dirt — this is not selfishness, but obligation. You were given life; it is your duty to find something beautiful within life no matter how slight.”
Happiness comes in all kinds of packages, and it’s often surprising where it finds you. But we must allow ourselves to take comfort in these moments, no matter how fleeting they may be.
You’re still allowed to smile. And laugh.
Don’t feel that just because you’re in mourning you can’t share a laugh with friends and family. You are still allowed to feel joy and pleasure. For the first few weeks a smile may only be skin deep, but your heart and soul can — and will — smile fully once again.
Seek professional help.
It’s not for everyone, but in my own experience the perspective and expertise offered by an independent professional has kept me from wallowing in grief. The majority of us humans have expelled the concept and thoughts of death to a padlocked cupboard in the attic of our minds. So when it occurs in our happy bubble of the world we’re not well-equipped to cope. There’s a lot to learn in a hurry. You feel alone and like no one could ever understand or relate. If this doesn't feel right for you then perhaps talking it aloud with a friend, or just writing thoughts and feelings on paper to get them out of your head is beneficial.
Listen to your body.
This is for the exercise junkies among you. I’m the kind of person who enjoys some form of regular physical activity, sometimes preparing for an endurance event, sometimes just for fun. But grief took a huge physical toll on my body. It was as though all my energy just went poof, into the never-never. It was difficult to come to terms with. If you want to take a nap, take a nap. If you need to move, take a walk, or try gentle yoga. Maybe you just need to sit in the garden. If you don’t have the energy for something, like a group training session, just say no.
Ask yourself what you need.
What do you need, on all levels — practically, physically, emotionally, spiritually? Is there housework, gardening, childcare, or cooking you need help with? Maybe you need company for a walk, someone to listen while you fall apart, or a buddy for Netflix binging sessions? Putting a bit of effort into thinking about this goes a long way to you helping yourself, but also helps others to better help you. When you figure out what you need help with, ask for help to make it happen.
It’s all about perspective.
Putting the loss in perspective, if you can manage it just for a moment, can bring some relief. Each of us is one amazing organism that lives among billions of other amazing organisms on a tiny blue planet that hurtles through a never-ending space. Birth, life and death is all a natural part of it. That’s an extreme macro way you could look at it. On a more individual level, it is the end of an era. It’s the end of your time with your loved one, but the key thing is that it’s not the end of your own life. You’ve still got a lot of living left to do. This is something that I took a long time to discover, and it’s only recently that I’ve started to live vibrantly once again.
Take time to be alone.
I realise not everyone has this luxury, and the prospect of being alone is hellishly intimidating. Yet I found it to be immensely helpful. I took a week on my own to simply walk, spend time outside, write and cry; an attempt to make sense of the world again without any distractions. While I cherished the time with my family, I was carrying some of their grief too in watching them feel pain. It wasn’t until I was on my own that I could truly feel my own feelings, and ultimately face them.
It’s already miserable and tragic - try not to make it hell.
This is inspired by Jordan Peterson and his talk entitled “Be the reliable person at a funeral”. I don’t need to say anymore on this one, just watch it here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iDcOuTdjq8E.
Good things do happen again, especially to good people. It probably doesn’t feel that way now, but just keep holding on and taking your next best steps. No doubt you’ll learn a few things too, things about yourself, and things that you can also pass on to help others one day.
“Now every time I witness a strong person, I want to know: What dark did you conquer in your story? Mountains do not rise without earthquakes.” — Katherine MacKenett
Trust me, one day you will be a mountain too. Hannah x