The Ideal of Grieving Well

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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October 30, 2017

12 responses on "The Ideal of Grieving Well"

  1. Hi! Love all your posts. I only wanted to address that avoidance has recently been researched to be an important grieving tool. We all have this idea that it’s dangerous and it can lead to complicated grief, but there’s new research that founded that avoidance and intentionally distracting ourselves are useful tools for the grieving process.

  2. I’ve been thinking from early in my experience that we need a movement to extend bereivement time. My office gives 3 days. The closer someone is to you, the more time you need. I was in a bewildered state and if I had been thinking clearly I would have taken all my personal time as well. Bereavement policies would protect the grieving at our most vulnerable early stages.

  3. My family seems to be on a different grief level than I am and I feel they are pushing me to get to where they are, it’s truly overwhelming. My Mom passed nearly one year ago and though I think I have made progress I am no where near the end of my grief journey and frankly I might never be. My biggest struggle is life moving on without her here.

  4. I wish I could tell others when they are stressing me out:( My father died almost a year ago, I’ve been driving four hours each way for months to clean out a home that’s been in our family for over 80 years…and my cousin keeps texting to find out about things…not how I am doing, just “what’s the status of the house?” (She will receive some of the proceeds of the sale as well as my sister) no matter how many times I say “I’ll keep you posted!”… She also said a while ago, she was in no hurry for the proceeds…and yet, here I am in tears because she doesnt have the sense to quit pressuring me, and I don’t have the nerve to tell her to to back off:(

  5. We all are struggling to balance life after the death of a loved one, my daughter, committed suicide in May. The waves of pain, at times feel too much, but we must go on, not only for them; but us, as hard as it is. Sorry to all of you for the loss of your loved ones. I am going to read the book that Mary Jo suggested.Sharing helps!
    Peace

  6. Debbie Bruno DaltonOctober 6, 2014 at 1:40 pmReply

    I remember feeling that way.. Everyone was going about usual stuff and I was stuck.. At times I felt relieved cause no one was around to tell me to get dressed and get out.. All those things I took for granted seemed like a chore.. Now, nearly 11 months later, I am able to get up and I do realize that life can go on.. It’s not the same without my husband Tom, but it’s the new normal life I have to live..

  7. Thank you for writing this. Your points on patience and persistence are very useful. This advice is simple and accessible.

  8. Very well written. You do address so many of the feelings associated with grief. I lost my daughter in Jan. Of this year and saw a book whose title I would like to share because I think it says it all. “Getting past what you will never get over”.
    N

  9. Thank you! I’m so grateful.!!

  10. Linda,
    It has been just over 2 years for me too. You are not alone, at least not in this moment. Someone is thinking about you and holding your spirit in solidarity.

  11. Marty Tousley (@GriefHealing)September 30, 2014 at 10:02 amReply

    I think this is one of the most difficult aspects of grief, Eleanor: that life keeps happening around us, even as our own world has fallen apart. You’ve addressed that beautifully in this piece, including practical suggestions for how to deal with it. Well worth sharing ~ and I thank you!

  12. It will be two years in November since I lost the man I love. I used to consider myself strong but since he died, I’m as weak a a baby. I see no end in sight to the helplessness and grief I feel. Of course I try but I am as miserable today as the day he died. I see a therapist and the pain is eased for an hour or two but then it returns with a vengeance. My children don’t want to discuss it as this man was not their father. No sympathy from them at all. So here I am. all alone and feel as though no one cares.

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