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.
I was most likely…
- Going crazy
- An angst-filled 19-year-old
- A normal griever
- 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.
After: Why on earth would anyone care about going to work? Don’t they see that life is about more than work?
Before: It is important that I exercise and watch what I eat for my general health and wellbeing.
After: Who cares about 20lbs and heart disease?
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!