It seems crazy to think that the world would keep on spinning after someone you love dies. Yet, on the morning of your loved one’s funeral, you peer out from behind a tinted car window and find life going on as usual. Befuddled you watch as strangers engage in odd and purposeless rituals and you think to yourself, “Why is that man out jogging and what could that woman possibly be laughing about?” How could so many people be doing so many meaningless things even though your world has been turned upside down? When something life-changing happens, like the death of a loved one, it seems only fair that the earth should stop rotating until you’re able to find your balance. But as you know, nothing stands in the way of life’s inertia, not even grief.
Even though life looks entirely different after the death of a loved one, grieving people commonly feel as though they have to pick up right where they left off. Yes, they may be granted a brief respite, but before long bereavement leave ends, the kids return to school, bills start to pile up, and their friends start to wonder when they’ll be back to their old selves.
Yeah, you remember your old self? The guy who was fun to be around and didn’t cry in the grocery store and liked to wear pants. It’s time to bring that guy back. Deal with grief on your own time, or at least whatever’s left of it after you’ve packed up your loved one’s belongings, thanked everyone who sent you flowers and food, called the insurance company, called the lawyer, and closed the bank accounts. A break? Oh, there’s no time for a break and also, please stop crying in your cubicle because we can all hear you.
When I consider the above reality and then consider what is sometimes thought of as grieving well, I quickly realize how idealistic we can be when it comes to our grief expectations. Ideally, grieving well would mean having a combination of time, resources, and support that I frankly don’t think the average person has. This would include having things like…
- Space, time and flexibility to understand, process and express complicated grief emotions
- The ability to set one’s own pace when adjusting to life without their loved one
- Encouragement and support in establishing and maintaining a continued bond with deceased loved ones
- A safe, secure and supportive environment
- Access to coping tools like therapy, books, support groups, and outlets for self-expression.
- Time to find balance before the dominos of secondary loss start falling
- Time to catch one’s breath before being swept forward in the unrelenting current of life and survival.
This brand of grieving is clearly a luxury. Those who have time may not have resources, those who have resources may not have support, those who have support may not have time. It’s a rare thing to have all the time and tools that sometimes seem necessary.
I had two daughters within 2.5 years of one another. On both occasions, I was given discharge instructions before being allowed to leave the hospital.
No heavy lifting. Eat a balanced diet. Get lots of sleep. Avoid driving for 1-2 weeks. Limit housework.
With my first child the instructions seemed like a noble set of aspirations; with my second child, they seemed like a joke. As far as I was concerned, these directions were written for someone who had far more help than I did or way less responsibility. So goes the ideal prescription for grief.
In a perfect world, we’d all be able to take a time-out from life after a loved one dies. Additionally, we’d be able to process our emotions at our own pace; feel supported by our friends and family; take our time when dealing with belongings and other practicalities; have the insurance to pay for therapy, and sleep well at night knowing no further bad things will happen. But in reality, most people have to cope with grief while simultaneously living life and life is unpredictable and full of challenges. Some will face more hardship than others, some will need additional time and some will face obstacles so great they never fully deal with their losses. If ever there was a case for not judging or comparing grief, this is one. We’ve all been dealt different hands from different decks and our challenges and resources are not all the same.
In the past, we’ve written about the Dual Process Model of Grief. This grief theory posits that when dealing with grief people alternate between three things: coping with stressors directly associated with the loss, coping with stressors associated with life and secondary loss, and seeking respite from grief entirely. Today I want you to take from it the idea that it’s okay to deal with grief in doses and to focus on the grief/life jumble one challenge at a time.
I’d like to propose a new concept of grieving well; one that acknowledges two key features: persistence and patience.
You need persistence to…
- Keep getting out of bed
- Continue to care about the minutia
- Try new coping tools until you find the ones that feel right for you
- Keep believing you’re doing okay even when it seems like you’ve moved two steps backward
- Insist others don’t pressure you into moving faster than you feel comfortable with
You need patience to…
- Understand that it will take time to feel better
- Understand that sometimes you will have no choice but to focus on life
- Understand that sometimes you will be unable to avoid focusing on the loss
- Allow yourself to have bad days, fail, and grow
- Be present and experience the painful feelings associated with the loss days, months, and years after the death
Darn…I just realized I’ve summed up the moral of The Tortoise and the Hare – slow and steady wins the race – and here I thought I was being profound. But seriously, there is danger in rushing, because when you’re overwhelmed, overstressed and out of breath it’s easy to rely on negative coping like avoidance and numbing.
Finally, don’t get frustrated if the help you find when dealing with your grief seems to subscribe to an unrealistic ideal. Take advice with a grain of salt; keep the parts that make sense for you and throw the rest away. As you continue to move forward and seek help from various places, do so with the knowledge that you will have to modify your course of action to best fit your life, your experience, and your unique grieving style. If the help being offered seems to barely scratch the surface, too aspirational, or overgeneralized, or not for you – then keep moving; even if this means moving on from us (even though we’d prefer you didn’t).
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