When Grief Changes Our Priorities (aka should I join a commune?)

I have this very vivid memory of sitting in the lobby of my college dorm talking to my boyfriend at the time about my decision to quit college.  In my mind it was so clear at the time – life was too short to spend in a classroom, I couldn’t relate to other college students anymore, the world seemed empty and college wasn’t filling it for me.  The more he tried to reason with me, insist that I was being rash, the more adamant I became.  When he couldn’t support me, it only reinforced my belief that I was right, I had to get out of this place.

What was so strange about that moment was that I loved school, I always had.  I loved my friends and roommates and professors and boyfriend and the perfectly beautiful college campus where I was lucky to live.  Just a few months before I had been wholly content in my waterfront dorm, living the quintessential American small, liberal arts college experience.  I rarely had to wear shoes and I could check a sailboat out with my college ID – I mean, come on, does life get any better than that??

Then my world came crashing down around me.  I finished my freshman year, went home for the summer, and 6 weeks later my dad died.  When I went back to college in the fall the world looked like an entirely different place.  I felt like I was supposed to pick up life where I left off, but everything I had valued before seemed . . . empty.  I wasn’t sure what I was doing there.

Pop Quiz
I was most likely:

  1. Going crazy
  2. An angst-filled 19 year old
  3. A normal griever
  4. All of the above

Here’s the deal: grief changes our priorities and values.  The way we view the world becomes fundamentally different.  This unimaginable moment comes in which we lose someone and the floor falls out.  You look around and suddenly the things you loved, that seemed so important before, mean nothing.  An existential cloud sets in and soon you are looking at the people around you, judging all over them.  They keep striving for good grades, promotions at work, planning parties and events, buying new clothes,houses and cars.  And you?  You suddenly feel that all of those things mean nothing in this fragile life we live.  You feel at best, isolated, at worst, resentful.  You definitely feel like you are going crazy.

The good news: this change in priorities can be empowering, positive and transformative.  The bad news: this change in priorities can make us feel empty, bitter, resentful, lost and confused.

Before: I cared about my job, moving up the ladder and keeping my boss happy.

9 to 5 gif

After: Why on earth would anyone care about going to work?  Don’t they see that life is about more than work?

office space

Before:  It is important that I exercise and watch what I eat for my general health and wellbeing.

the rock

After:  Who cares about 20lbs and heart disease?   

cookie monster

You get the idea.  And you probably see how this shift could be positive or disastrous.  It is disastrous when it edges on nihilism or depression.  Something like: I don’t value the things I used to value because I now value nothing at all; I think the world is a meaningless place.

It can be powerful when it goes something like: I don’t value the things I valued before, because this loss has helped me find new values and new priorities.   

If you can relate to this shift in priorities, there are some things you can do to ensure this change propels you forward, instead of into the deep, dark depths of existential despair.

1) Keep in mind you may be in the ‘nothing matters at all’ category for a little while, and that’s okay.  It is just important that once a few months pass you are finding value again in the world around you, even if it is valuing different things. If you aren’t, seek professional support.

2) Be careful about rash decisions.  It may be tempting when your grieving to quit your job, drop out of school, join a commune, whatever.  These may be good decisions, they may not.  We suggest you give yourself 6 months to a year before you make any major life changes based on your new value system.  Check out our post on major life decisions for more on this.

3) Cut other people some slack.  Chances are you will find yourself getting really annoyed with the things other people are stressing about.  While you friend is stressing that her husband doesn’t make enough money, you are screaming “at least you have a husband!”, that is all that matters!  Try (and this is easier said than done) to remember that they cannot fathom the shift in perspective you have had from your loss.  If it is people close to you, communicate this to them so they can be sensitive to your feelings.

4) Be open to joy and purpose.  Though it can feel, especially early on, that nothing will ever have purpose or value again, be open to the idea that you will eventually start to feel the value in things again.  You may find value in new things, it may be value creeping back into the old. Don’t close yourself off to the possibility that these emotions are going to change over time.

6) Do new things in memory of your loved one.  It is common after a loss to experience the ‘life is too short’ feeling (once the feeling of caring about nothing passes, that is!).  You may be feeling that you need to fill your life with new adventure, with doing more to help others, and with valuing every moment to the fullest.  Changing and growing opens the door for new things you can do in memory of your loved one.  You may wish to get involved in causes they cared about, activism around a disease that touched them, travel to places they loved (or that they never had the opportunity to visit), etc.  All of these are ways we continue bonds with those we lost and do new and amazing things in their memory.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, I didn’t drop out of college.  I did change my major, I did readjust my life course, many of my values did change.  And I like to believe I am a better person for it all.

Can you relate to the idea that grief changes priorities?  Leave a comment to let us know!  Don’t forget to subscribe to get our posts right to your email.  We have tons of posts coming up on dealing with the (dreaded) holiday season!  

October 24, 2017

24 responses on "When Grief Changes Our Priorities (aka should I join a commune?)"

  1. Thank you for this article and all who responded to it. I’m 37 and I am now a widow and a single step-mom. My spirituality has helped me to see some bright spots through the darkness these last 4 weeks without him, but I am deeply struggling with the same ideas of wanting to escape, run away, help the world.
    Someone above absolutely nailed the feeling when they said, ” To be alone is easy, compared to the energy I must summon to pretend I am still me.” Starting back at work this last week has been horrific. From being found on the floor of the handicapped stall uncontrolably crying to the hemmeroids I now have for the first time, the dizziness before the panic attacks, the phone calls from our sweet kids having the same issues and needing me to help them. I work at an amazing company with wonderful people who are rallying around me, supporting me with kindness…and all I want to do is quit. It means literally nothing to me anymore. And that’s not “ME”, I’m not a quitter I have a huge work ethic and am proud of what I do. I hope those feelings will come back as I take the advice of the 6 month waiting period before making any big decisions.
    I am sending love to every single one of you, because we are in this club together and your understanding means the world to newcomers.

  2. My 2 year old son drowned last month in our backyard pool. I found him floating lifelessly in the pool. I performed 6 rounds of CPR before EMS arrived. After 10 days in the hospital he went to be with Jesus. Most of the time I feel numb, and disassociated from life happening around me. At times​ I cry uncontrollably, I sleep alot, I find myself looking at his pictures and watching videos. I forget to eat, drink, shower, appts, and take care of my surviving 9 year old. I was on anti depressants prior to the accident due to postpartum depression. I had been a stay-at-home​ mom and was about to start a new job the week we ended up in the hospital. The hiring manager agreed to hold my position until I’m ready to start. I know that it’s not fair to rely on my son’s father to pay all the bills, expecially since he is grieving too. I just can’t wrap my mind around going to work and trying to be productive. People have told me that it will be good for me to have something to focus on and distract myself with… That is the biggest laugh I’ve had since the accident. Nothing stops the constant reminder of him no-longer being here. I need to make money to pay bills but feel like it should be something that is not technical or complicated… Something that will not take too much brain function. I hope that someday I will be able to have joy in my life again.

    • I don’t know what to say besides that I am so terribly sorry for your heartbreaking loss. Logged on to this site as I am returning to work one month after the death of my father and reevaluating my priorities.
      The scope of your loss is unimaginable and my heart hurts for what you must be going through. We don’t know each other but your story has really touched me and I am thinking of you, sending you love and wishing you the strength to get through each minute, each hour, each day.
      May your pain lessen and Lincoln’s memory bring you joy in time.

  3. I just found out today that the doctors have decided to move my father to hospice after a 4 year battle with cancer. Until today, I had some hope he could pull around again, but today those hopes were dashed. We have known it was terminal cancer, but had been encouraged by new treatment options and had hoped he had 2-3 years left. Unfortunately none of that matters now because the doctors today said there is nothing more they can do for him and it’s best to stop treatment and let him pass. My father has likely less than 3 months to live and he is suffering and very confused. So terribly hard to watch him suffer. I feel completely shattered knowing now that he will no longer be alive soon. He has been my rock and one of my best friends through my entire life.

    Reading your post was very helpful and I really related with what you said about life loosing meaning and activities not making sense anymore . Knowing my father has had terminal cancer and has had limited time has left me in a state of prolonged limbo of extreme dread. Many of the passions I once had have no meaning to me any more. I have been very depressed and have often not felt like being social. I used to be very career oriented. Now, I could care less. I have been doing care taking for the past several years and now I can’t fathom returning to the stress of the corporate world. It just doesn’t make sense to me anymore. If someone wanted me to work overtime right now I would just not have it in me. I wouldn’t care at all. I wouldn’t put up with crap that I have before. Now, I just want a brainless job that has little stress. I can’t take anymore right now. I am crying every day and we are dealing with financial emergencies on top of the heart break of watching my dad suffer knowing he will pass away. I don’t know what I’ll do after he passes. I really don’t. I don’t feel like I can carry on with life as normal. Today I viewed my home town so differently. It won’t seem the same without him. My mother is still here, but that’s it. I just feel like I’m loosing my anchor in life and I have no idea how I will cope. This is like my worst nightmare unfolding in slow motion. So hard to try to be happy now. Hard to spend time with friends without feeling like I’m being a drag.

    I guess I have started the mourning process before his passing. Everything you said has made perfect sense. I hope I can hold it together. I hope somehow I come out of this for the better. My heart literally aches. I hope my life will have joy and meaning again someday. Right now. I just feel empty and scared.

    • Slow down, stop, take a few deep breaths. treat yourself with kindness. You are taking and feeling too many diverse issues, no human could cope with all the conditions of your Dads illness plus your anticipating your feelings and reactions your grief. When he passes deal with your actual grief then. Slow down and hold onto hope. Hope helps us navigate the horrors of grief. Hope and believe in tomorrow. Think about honoring and celebrating your Dads life in a permanent way. Know u have new grief friends. Love u

  4. Chгislyn is aϲtually as earnest and also upriցht aѕ Јourdan is advanced and resourceful.

  5. I can relate to this so much. Since my dad died suddenly, nothing feels right about my life anymore. Why am I living in this random town that I chose so he could see his grandkids regularly? He’s gone, so what am doing I here? I have no history here. I want to move far away, to my husband’s much bigger family. I’d feel so much safer with more people around. It hasn’t been a year yet, but I cannot shake this intense urge to move away and start over completely. I can hardly stand it here anymore and it’s killing me sometimes. I feel trapped!

  6. Hi, my brother just passed almost 3 months ago… First death in the family. I can relate alot to your story, and everyones comments. I’m so sorry for all of your losses. Death is a painful chapter to go through…

  7. I can relate to this article. I am in the process of grieving two deaths. My father died of a terminal illness in April; my spouse died unexpectedly less than 4 weeks later. To say that my world as been turned upside down would be an understatement. I know my priorities have shifted and that many days I feel like nothing matters. I am trying to process all this grief and figure out who I am now. It is a day-by-day thing. I can’t say that I know how all of this will turn out for me, but I am sure that life will look different, and that I will be different, than before.

  8. Retired early, bought a house, and work very part time. I had come to hate what my profession (teaching) was all about and was already planning for my retirement. And when my husband passed away it just didn’t seem worth 2.5 yrs for a few extra dollars a month. I’m blessed with a great support system that has allowed me to truly grieve this almost 2nd full yr. I’m also excited about 2016 even though I still have grieving to get through. Already shed a few tears. Thank you for for this site as it had been part of the hardest year thus far.⚓️??
    ⚓️ – Hope anchors the soul,
    Hebrews 6:19
    ? – Just keep swimming
    ? – I’m a survivor

  9. Thank you for the post. As for changing priorities – I can definitely relate to that. However, in my case priorities seem to have gone haywire. I have also ready your post about major life decisions – I and my husband have always wanted a family, but after my Mum’s death 4 months ago my maternal insticts seem to have somehow gone away… I don’t feel about kids the way I used to feel about them, and I’m not really sure as to where I stand about having kids right now. I have always wanted to share my motherhood experiences with my Mum and – as I no longer can do that – I somehow cannot imagine her not being there for us when/if we finally have kids…

    • Hey Ola,

      I hear you. In fact I think some of what you’ve expressed reflect relatively common thoughts and feelings following the loss of a parent. I think it is certainly normal to shift what you want with regards to kids and family. If you think that your feelings are directly related to your mother’s death though, I might say give it a little more time. Four months is still very recent and you may be experiencing a lot of the acute pain of loss. Over time this pain should become a little less extreme and perhaps in time the idea of having children in a world without your mother will feel less like of a source of pain and more like an opportunity to continue your bond with her. I’d actually like to write a post on this topic in the next few weeks, I’ll let you know when we have something up.

      Eleanor

  10. Thank you for this post. Right now I’m struggling, I do not feel like I have a purpose or meaning to my life since my boyfriend passed 4-months ago. He was my purpose & meaning. Our dreams were cut short. He left behind a 15 yr old son & a 23 yr old daughter. The daughter is out on her own; however, his son wanted to stay with me. I was prepared to give up my good job & move back to where he lived; however, my gut instinct stopped me, not too mention the fact that Steve’s parents aka grandparents to his son guilted him beyond believe to stay with them. Nothing since Steve’s passing has meant anything to me. We used to be big into our state’s college football team & a NFL football; however, I have barely been able to bring myself to watch any of it this year, just not the same. Nothing or no one seems to have an importance to me. I recently spent time with his son last week when I found out how miserable he is living with his grandparents. His change in personality were evident. The kids would like me to move back so they could have a place to call home. They lost their mom to a car accident 3-yrs ago. I’ve actually thought that maybe this is my new purpose or priority in life. Not make a drastic move, but one that I could do over a period of time of 6 mos to a year. However, I also become hesitant. There is just so much to consider & then the finality of Steve’s passing hits me hard & I’m back to isolation & depression. I just don’t know how I can move forward without the one person who was my everything.

  11. hello. i am 6 years in with the loss of my beautiful son of 22 who will be 28 this month on the 22nd….i want to just move.i want to do what reese witherspoon did in “wild” just runaway..the rollercoaster of emotions pretty much makes me just want to be alone.which i am ok with. i have 2 other sons and 2 grandsons from my son .i truly believe if i had not had them in my life i would not be here today. i trusted my”god” to protect my sons when i couldnt.My son was shot by while trying to retrieve his stolen bike.
    everyday is a challenge. i do feel like running away. the things my son left behind make me realize that i need to clean up my home so that i dont leave such a mess behind for my other sons as it is heartwrenching to let any of my sons things go..what mattered before..the junk . the unimportant. the simple is what is important. more time with family. finding that comfort in your life…thank you for listening..

    • Me again on this unbelievably compelling topic. Just feel to weigh in again after hearing Julie’s story and sentiments about running away. The loss of her beautiful son. His lovely life cut short ny those who would cause such harm because of a bicycle. It must be haunting for her. And you have nailed it, Julie. Even though we do not share the same loss, “the I just want to go” theme is always present. And I don’t mean in the sense that I intend to do self-harm. I just want to move. To trade in all my baggage and leave. Like the witness protection program. New identity. To be alone is easy, compared to the energy I must summon to pretend I am still me. There are so many days that I feel I may be able to discover a moment of joy in a new place. With new people. People who didn’t know my husband or the old me. And I am curious, Julie. You mention the important things. Less stuff, but more time with family. Yet I believe I am a roadblock in my family’s healing. I can see the pain in their eyes and on their faces if I am not “okay”. I continue to get the feeling I’m living, but not authentically, and the expectations that I continue my old life and be my old self are just stifling. I am becoming a burden. And I don’t like it, and so I pretend even more! Like you, Julie, I have beautiful children and grandchildren who have kept me here. I am thankful for their love and support, but they do not and can not know that I am simply “not home” in my soul. They are the magnets – connection to all that used to be fun and meaningful. But they want their old Mom and Grandmother. That is where the pretense is. I am gone. In my fantasy, I believe that mayybe there are other people who could embrace the person I have become, and that would set the rest of the family free. Irrational? Unrealistic. This is what I tell myself when I go too far in the running away moods. So, for What’s My Grief, My question is this: are there some grievers that are actually hampered by memories? The reading I have done and advice I have been given is to focus on the memories, but they cut like a knife. Forgetting and placing myself in a new environment where they are not so intrusive seems so appealing sometimes.

  12. I am just over a year into the loss of my husband. I have a 20 yo daughter who was also 19 and in college when her daddy died. She’s still there but struggling and not enjoying it like she did before this happened. Its hard to enjoy anything with him missing from our family. I haven’tt gotten to that point yet in this process.

  13. I am barely over a year since my husband of 7yrs died a sudden and unexpected death. we used to joke and say it was our last relationship. and it still is. My problem was that i lived with overwhelming grief at a time when all pur friends were retiring moving and entering a new phase of life. So I resented them terribly. My solution lay in making efforts and finding new friends that had not experienced time with us as a couple. This has evolved into a more capable me and is a new audience to hear my memories. I do relate to the grief in others and have tried to keep some old friends.

  14. This was exactly what I needed right now. Right after my Dad died in September 2013, I wanted to quit my job and find the first job I could find that actually helped people. I followed the 6-12 months “rule” on life changes so I simply took a night class to see if going back to school is something I wanted and could do. When the opportunity came to leave my job with severance, I took it to go back to school and work toward becoming a physician assistant. It took months of planning an talking with family and professionals. I’m happy, excited and scared for what will come with going back to school, but having been through the worst life-altering event of losing my Dad nothing seems to hard anymore.

  15. The grief has overcome and turned my family upside down. We have 3 deaths in 3 years. 2 of my son in lAs, leAving my 2daughter’s widows before they turned 30. August 25, 2014 my 25 year old son died. Our 30+ year marriage began to fall apart while we were taking care of our son in law with brain cancer. After Mark, my son in law died my son in I finally left. Both of my widowed daughter’s were living in my house. I begged my husband for changed. Instead he got more and more angry and distant. Always defending the girls I moved to Michigan from Arizona, taking only 2suitcases and our son. That was 9 months ago. My husband refuses any kind of therapy. Says he choses the grandkids so he lets the girls live there. Also doesn’t take his prescribed depression meds. Now, our son died and I am empty. I can’t fight for my former life. It is gone. I notice I have no fight left in me. I just wAnt peace I do have some peace and joy here but it is hard.

    • Oh Fran, that is so much loss in a short time. I am so sorry. Unfortunately, it isn’t enough for one person in a relationship to want to find a way to grieve together. It takes work from both people and sadly, especially in grief, not everyone is able to find the strength to do that work. If you haven’t read our post on cumulative grief it may be worth a read. http://www.whatsyourgrief.com/cumulative-grief-aka-grief-overload/ I am glad you are finding some joy where you are. Sometimes change can be good, but it is often slow and gradual progress in grief. Take care.

  16. This article is so well done and I totally relate as well. I just hadn’t defined this feeling very carefully. It has been nearly 2 years since the sudden death of my husband of 40 years. I functioned because I had to, not because I had any interest in anything. Some interest and clarity is creeping back, but many days my mind wanders to thoughts like – house doesn’t matter, job doesn’t matter, friends and family don’t care or understand. Should I move? Someplace warm? Back to school? Get a dog? Random and intrusive ideas that are contrary to my old identity. Things are a little better, but still – who am I now? What should I care about? Still searching, and middle age is a weird time to do that, and patterns of my life are so firmly intact. Except they’re not.

    • Tricia – I imagine many can relate with exactly what you describe. It can be exciting, confusing, terrifying, and many other feelings when you start considering new possibilities. Though the feeling of things ‘not mattering’ is dangerous if we take it to far, it can be liberating if we keep it balanced with creating meaning in new areas. I sometimes hate the ‘journey’ analogy when it comes to grief and, that said, it’s a journey! 🙂

  17. I can so relate to this! (And, thank you for writing these articles and sharing your experience). I am 9 months into a very sudden and hard loss of my husband and I pretty swiftly wanted to become a Bhuddist nun, go to Africa and save orphans and so many other things. I had trouble staying still, went to see family in all parts of the world, and am only now just able to stay ‘ at home’. Home did not feel like home once he died, it felt like a prison of memories and loss. I’m only just starting to ‘even out’, and sometimes that feels like such a scary place to be. Just more normal again, believing there is a tomorrow and that I might find happiness again. There is such an urge to run away, but when I am honest with myself, I know am trying to outrun the truth, the pain and there is no doing that. And, yet, perhaps change is good, to move on to something new eventually. A new place, a new version of myself. I am living in the big , I don’t know, the uncertainty that shifts under our feet all the time. I loved my husband so dearly, and only had him in my life for 5 short years. You never know when your life can change on a dime. I do believe losing people makes you stronger. You see sides of yourself and find ways to cope you didn’t know existed before. And, the love you had, have is inside you always.

Leave a Message

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Disclaimer

WYG provides general educational information from mental health professionals, but you should not substitute information on the What’s Your Grief website for professional advice. Please check out terms and conditions here

National Suicide Prevention Hotline

National Suicide Prevention Hotline - 1-800-273-8255

PhotoGrief

Share Your Snapshot

Grief In 6 Words

Submit a Story to Us

What's Your Grief Podcast

Listen to our podcast

top
X