Updated: Mar 31, 2019
Jeannie was wondering why two years since the sudden death of her husband she still felt this hole in her life, the periodic welling up of waves of overwhelm and sadness. Why wasn’t she moving on? It had been the 4th of July. She and Bob had always been the ones to organize and host the parties. She knew how much these gatherings had meant to her teenage son and daughter, home from college, so she’d wanted to make it the same for them this year, this second Independence Day without their father, but it wasn’t the same and she couldn’t. Jeannie felt exhausted, overburdened, sad, abandoned, wanting to be reached out to, not up to making the extra effort or pushing herself, but most of all … Jeannie felt guilty she felt all of those things.
She was beating up on herself for not being able to pick up the slack, ignore her own pain, her ongoing need to be comforted, and carry double the burden to make things be the way they’d been before – but things were not the way they’d been. They couldn’t be, and this was where Jeannie was getting stuck. Although she knew it intellectually, part of her was not yet ready to accept being powerless to change the fact of her loss and its finality. Would she feel better over time? Would healing and a new sense of well-being be possible for her? Yes, certainly, but grieving doesn’t happen on a schedule. Although we can do things to facilitate the process, we do not control it.
No two persons grieve – even the same loss – in the exact same way. 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, and understandably added to her sense of overwhelm, prolonging the intensity of her grief. Caring others, her family and friends, members of a support group and her therapist helped remind her to ease up on and have compassion for herself. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to coping with grief, yet certain things may help.
What makes grief “good enough”? Ideas and actions to consider:
1) Grief – like birth and like death – is not a medical condition; it is a part of life. We all experience it in big or small ways at one time or another, and then again, as we progress through life.
2) When it comes to grief, the phrase from the popular 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 means 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.
3) Whether we get there fast or slow, it is important to come to 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.
4) 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 give us ongoing access to good memories of times spent with the person we’ve lost. It can also help us connect to a deeper sense of self, allowing feelings of loss, and pleasure, too, to flow and integrate. Additionally, your writing may be a gift to others who care about you and/or are also bereaved.
5) Sports, exercise, swimming, stretching, yoga, tai chi or other practices, including meditation, can help to center and balance us as we grapple with feelings of loss. Some also find affirmations, gratitude lists and journaling to be helpful. Others take a class or join a discussion group to give their healing minds a focus. This can ease isolation, while minimizing the pressure to be socially “on.”
6) 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 one to be strong for others, this is the time to let yourself be carried for a while. Sometimes grief can turn into depression. If we can’t seem to face the tasks of the day, are having lingering thoughts of wishing to join the deceased, are turning to drugs or alcohol to numb the pain, or feeling like it’s all just too much, then this is when to reach out to friends and family, community, or clergy, speak to your doctor, and/or seek bereavement counseling.
Good grief! As everyone whose ever heard this plaint of Charlie Brown can tell you, it’s a cry of irritation and upset. It is a way of saying, help! I hurt! It’s something we want to be gentle and patient with ourselves around, as we learn to live with it, transform, and over time, let go.