What would you tell your younger self about grief?

Understanding Grief / Understanding Grief : Eleanor Haley

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When my mother died, I knew nothing about grief. Truthfully, I knew nothing about life either. Like most, I entered grief with only a handful of assumptions and a few preconceived notions. Despite being a bit of a navel gazer, I was unwilling to slow down and evaluate what I was experiencing; I had no idea what to expect and a flair for negative coping.

A lot has changed in the years since my mother died. Somewhat by chance, I found myself working in the field of death, dying and bereavement; even more random is the fact that Litsa and I started this website and have yet to burn it down. I now know way more about grief than any reasonable person should. 

In retrospect, I sometimes wonder what I would tell my 24-year-old self if I had the chance. Would I have listened? Actually, I'm pretty sure my future-self is about the only person I'd have listened to because...you know...time travel is mind blowing.  So far as I know though, speaking to my younger self is out of the realm of possibility, so instead I've written her a letter that I obviously will never send.

For those of you a bit further out in your grief, this is a good journaling exercise.  What would you tell your younger self about grief?  What do you wish you had known?  Reflecting on these questions allows you to identify the ways in which you've grown and the lessons you've learned, and provides perspective on how far you've come.

Dear Self,

Your (our) mother just died.  It sucks...I'm sorry.  Everything is going to change from here on out.  Be patient, it will be a while before you feel normal again.  I am 10 years older than you and much wiser (yes, you do get better with age), so I'm writing this letter to tell you a few things that I've learned about our grief.

Before you get excited, I should tell you that you don't grow up to become a comic strip artist.  The reason I drew the rest of this letter is because you're grieving and your brain is a total mess; I just thought pictures would be easy to understand. Here goes...


6 copy

I know you still have a lot of questions, but some things you have figure out at the right time. Be careful, be smart, and go easy on yourself.



What would you tell your younger self about grief?  Share in the comments below or on Facebook; you never know, it might help someone else.  Also, don't forget to subscribe.

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28 Comments on "What would you tell your younger self about grief?"

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  1. Karen  March 10, 2021 at 12:17 pm Reply

    Thank you El for all your wise words. This article was written a year before my major losses. I would tell my younger self. Stop working so much, take in all the things around you. Spend time with your family , take more pictures, videos. Remember everything about your daughter’s laugh, sense of humor, things she loved, so you can someday share all that with her son Sam who was only 3 when she passed. I would tell my younger self it won’t be easy as you will loose more than your sister and daughter , you will loose family, friendships and feel the worst heartbreak. You will go on for your family, and be there for your grandsons, but there will always be someone missing.

  2. Sandra Fitzgerald  February 7, 2019 at 3:58 am Reply

    It has been fifteen years since the loss of my soul mate. I tried so hard to keep going for our son, who turned 13 only two weeks before his father died. Within a ten year period I lost my grandfather, my mother, my other grandfather, my brother, my husband, my father, my step-mother, and my grandmother. I had been the primary caregiver for three of these people. I start to think that I am doing better. I think that after working for mortuaries and then working as a Coroner’s Investigator and after all of my experience with all of these losses, I am ready to put this experience to work, now studying to be a Death Doula. I have the qualities required, compassion, caring, background in dealing with the dead and dying. I think I am ready. But then some movie or song or person will drag out my loss of my love again and I will find myself simply weeping, or even crying uncontrollably at his loss. How can I move on and be able to help people with a peaceful transition when I can’t even control my fifteen year old grief? I don’t know what to do. I want to start by volunteering at a local hospice, but what happens if one of my triggers sets me off? I can’t be crying when I am trying to help make others as comfortable as possible with their own issues. I feel so trapped.

  3. Hannah  August 28, 2016 at 9:53 pm Reply

    This is a wonderful idea and one I’ll be using. I lost my mom two years ago (I was 32) and I have thankfully started to learn some of these lessons. Thank you for sharing. I also love the cartoons.

  4. Holly Asciutto  March 2, 2016 at 11:10 am Reply

    Yes!!! My mom died when I was 12. I have spent most of my life doing all the pictures above. Especially the looking for her part. Just recently, and I am much older, I have begun the process of trying to continue the relationship as I have just found out after 30 some years that that is ok to do so. My siblings and I were encouraged to totally forget that my mom existed. I thought it was normal to move on without her or her memory. So I silently searched for her every where. Convinced she was still alive and everyone was lying to me about her death. We were so let down by the “adults” in our lives. Thank you for being a voice to help those of us who have had extremely unhealthy grieving processes, to heal. I have learned so much from you all. I would LOVE to meet some day! You guys ROCK!

  5. Cheri  March 2, 2016 at 11:07 am Reply

    Thank you, just lovely. Love the drawings, so spot on. I still look for my son everywhere, even in places i have already looked many times before. I would tell myself – love well, do not miss an opportunity to say “I love you”, and know too – doing this will not ease your grief. Nothing will. Be kind to yourself when your heart breaks, Cheri.

  6. Tracy Russell  June 12, 2015 at 10:15 am Reply

    I love this. I couldn’t bear to tell my younger self that I would lose my Dad when I was 33 because, now aged 34 I still can’t believe he’s gone. I love the drawings – they describe a lot of feelings perfectly. I’m hopeful that I will grow from my loss but right now that seems impossible. I’m still at the “one day at a time” stage

    • Eleanor  June 14, 2015 at 12:03 pm Reply

      Hey Tracy,

      Yeah that whole ‘growth’ thing times a lot of time. We hesitate to even mention it because when the loss is new it’s hard to even imagine, but because I was talking about my own experience here I decided it was okay. I’m sorry about the death of your father. I’m sure you miss him a whole lot.


  7. Chelsea  May 13, 2015 at 1:05 am Reply

    Dear 8-9 yr old me,

    I’m sorry, but before you start 4th grade, something very, very bad is going to happen. Matthew is going to die. I know that doesn’t seem possible, he’s 2 and a half years younger than you, and right now you only know death as when Grandma and Granddad went to heaven, not as something that happens to kids. Unfortunately sometimes it does. Don’t blame yourself, or the doctors, there’s nothing you, or they, or anybody can do to stop it. They will try, but in the end it just won’t be enough. But just because he’ll leave won’t mean he’s gone, he’s already a part of you, as you are a part of him. I know it’s going to seem like the world you live in has shattered, but you can find the shards and rebuild. The pain and sadness you will feel will become a deep and jagged scar, but it will serve to remind you, to live, to love, to hold the people you love close to you, his memory has much to teach you about life, about yourself, you are about to learn what love really is, and realize that you really do love him, and you will not stop loving him, and yes, he loves you too.

    As the years go by, there will be times, the transition to middle school, then high school, graduation, your first year of college, when it will hit you that he will never get to experience these things and it will make you sad, my advice, put on a sad song, cry it out, and after you’re done crying for the moment, go to the park and watch a little league game, imagine him sliding into home. You’ll feel better

    • Eleanor  May 13, 2015 at 10:21 am Reply


      That was beautiful. Thank you so much for sharing. I really love your advice to yourself, so simple and so practical yet so poignant. I’m so sorry for your pain and the loss of your dear brother.


  8. Katy  April 23, 2015 at 9:06 am Reply

    Uplifting and truely insightful article. What I read touched my heart and made me smile. I am in my mid 50’s, I lost my father and brother in the mid 1990’s, then my sister passed away in 2010, my mother then died in 2012. So I am no stranger to the experience of loss and grief. Thank you Eleanor. And just for the record the cartoons are awesome….I am still smiling….:D

  9. Sheila Bergquist  April 4, 2015 at 1:19 am Reply

    I love the drawings…what a great idea! I wish I could give this to anyone, young or older, who is going through grief. A wonderful and helpful article!

  10. Kate  April 3, 2015 at 8:03 pm Reply

    Lovely, Eleanor. The cartoons are perfect.
    I would tell myself:
    You will feel strange and isolated. You will miss your Daddy every day of your life with every fiber of your being. That is not an excuse to run when others try to love you. Let people love you and love them back with all the ferocity of emotion you are capable of. That’s what Daddy taught you to do – to be honest, loyal, fair and to observe the imperative that love demands to be given.
    Oh and you will laugh again, I promise (but at first it will be for very appropriate reasons in very inappropriate places).

  11. Kristi  April 3, 2015 at 8:43 am Reply

    Thank you! It is so hard to explain to someone who has not yet been changed by the death of a parent. I lost my mom 5 years ago and it still hurts like hell! Although there are now more good days than bad, those bad days are gut wrenching. My dad and mom were married for almost 55 years and he actually remarried in 2012. It was traumatic for me and my brother. Not that we don’t want him to be happy, just that it is so vastly different from what we knew. I miss her every time I see a butterfly, Tom Selleck, or Indiana Jones. I cry at the sight of daffodils, and tear up when I see someone reading a cheesy romance novel. I wear orange on days that I really need her spirit. I wish I could tell my younger self to not let her get her knee replacement at that time. I would tell myself to not to wait to have children, because she wouldn’t be there to see them. (I don’t know if I ever will have children now). Thank you for understanding so truthfully how grief can take your breath away!

    • Eleanor  April 3, 2015 at 11:12 am Reply


      I’m so sorry 🙁 I completely understand all these little reminders and still longing for her. I’m just sorry. That’s all I can say.


  12. Chris Guerin  April 3, 2015 at 12:11 am Reply

    thanks Eleanor – I’ve passed on your post to my fb friends and bereaved parents support group. your illustrations say a lot where words sometimes can be limited. i enjoyed them as they remind me of my daughter Annie who died. i appreciate your commitment to grief conversation. and i do think you need to give hope as there are better days than not but they don’t come to everyone at the same time. also, there is a need to work at grief.

    • Eleanor  April 3, 2015 at 11:14 am Reply


      Thank you for your support and for sharing. You know we are so wordy on this site, sometimes I get tired of myself talking so I thought cartoons would be nice 🙂 I’m glad they reminded you of Annie. I agree…I think finding a place where there are more good days than bad is the point we’re all working towards and sometimes the pendulum can swing back in the direction where there are more bad days…but we’re all trying our best and it does indeed take work.


  13. Jennifer  April 2, 2015 at 8:32 pm Reply

    My grief is a monster that I have to dance with. He always leads.
    It paralyzes me and makes me a prisoner.

    My grief makes me pray for death, makes death my only hope or desire.

    Grief is my master and I have become it’s slave. And it teases me and plays with me- it gives me a day of peace when the bottom gets to be too much.
    Then I wake up the next day in it’s grip.

    It is cruel and heartless and pointless.

    Oh ya- nobody will do shit for you- you scare everyone. The people saving whales stop approaching you.

    My sister, who I was terrible to and attacked, is the only person (and my step-father) are there for me.

    • me  April 3, 2015 at 2:55 pm Reply

      boy, do I ever understand what you are saying. I have been in the grip of that monster for some time now, and it doesn’t get better. It will get different, but not better. It does make you want to die just to get away from that….to have peace. But you are lucky if two people have stood by you. Some don’t have even that, because as you say everyone runs away. It is as if they think it is contagious or something.Or they “don’t know what to say”. As if saying something is even the point. Sometimes you just need someone to sit there with you and they would not even have to speak, just share the space with you. But most people cannot even do that. They just want you to “get better” so that they have back again the person you used to be. And when they realize you will never again….can never again… be that person, they don’t come back. It takes a very rare and true friend to stick with you.

  14. Widow  April 2, 2015 at 6:46 pm Reply

    First, do NOT expect anyone to really ‘be there’ to comfort you. Your soul mate, your comforting mate, has died. You and he were always the nurturing one of your circle of friends and family. His family will blame you for his death and that will only add to your burden of grief and guilt, tho it was in NO WAY your fault!!!! Don’t expect any sympathy or comfort, nor any help raising your two babies or help for your college age son moving forward. If you don’t expect it, you’ll be less disappointed when it doesn’t happen. You will NEVER not be sad. You will ALWAYS grieve. You must put on a fake smile and fake being a normal, OK person from here til you die for the sake of your kids. His death took away your options….just know the kids have to have a strong mom they think is still alive, when in fact you are faking it 24/7. But that’s OK – kids need to think life is still worth living, even when you don’t, so that they can find their soul mate.

  15. Jean  April 2, 2015 at 2:59 pm Reply

    You will, Jeanne, experience joy again. It won’t be as loud or as bright but it will be deep and profound and it will share it’s space with deep sorrow. They will sit with equanimity in your soul and it will be very sweet. Just don’t be afraid of it, don’t put it aside but let it flow. Take your time.

  16. Lorie  April 2, 2015 at 12:42 pm Reply

    I wouldn’t tell my younger self anything about grief. I’d tell my husband’s doctor to do something NOW before it’s too late. Then I’d still have him here.

  17. Paula  April 2, 2015 at 12:38 pm Reply

    So, so sweet. Thank you Eleanor!

  18. me  April 2, 2015 at 10:54 am Reply

    I like your cartoon approach to this. 🙂 But I want to say, first, you say that you “know more about grief than any reasonable person should”, and I think it is too bad that you feel this way. I truly believe that a huge contributor to the ills of this society is the fact that we do not deal directly and honestly with death and grief. If this society had a healthy attitude towards death and grief no one would ever make such a statement as yours. In a blog intended to help people to deal with these issues in a healthy manner, it is a shame to see a statement like that made, but it does illustrate how far we have to go.
    I also would like to caution you about making statements like “you will have more good days than bad”, and “it will lead you to do something positive”. These things MIGHT happen for an individual, but they are certainly not a given. When someone in grief reads such statements what it does is set up an expectation in that person, and if that doesn’t actually happen in their life they may very well feel they are doing something wrong or are inadequate, which only makes things worse. Personally, I think it would be much better to use the word “may” instead of “will” when making such statements. It still gives the idea, and sounds optimistic, without making it sound like a prediction that no one can make about another’s path. Thanks for reading.

    • Eleanor  April 2, 2015 at 11:38 am Reply

      Thank you for your comment. I do understand your statements and, please believe, we acknowledge that the experience of grief varies drastically from person to person. We are extremely hesitant to tell any individual they will grow from their grief or feel better at any particular time; not because this might not eventually be true, but because we know that if people are going to get there they have to do so on their own time and when they’re ready. When talking generally we are careful to speak in “mights” and “mays”, but for this post I was writing a letter to myself about the things that are true about my grief experience. I encourage everyone to try to write their own letter as a journaling exercise and hopefully through the exercise they will discover their own truths.

      As far as dealing directly and honestly with grief, I couldn’t agree more. This is entirely what our site is for. I would hate for anyone to take that statement to mean that we don’t support a dialogue around grief. I merely made this statement because we eat, sleep and breathe grief – we write two posts a week, do a weekly podcast, and so on. While I absolutely think as a society we need to be more open about death and grief, I would seldom recommend that anyone immerse themselves to the extent that I myself have.

      Again, thank you for your comment. I certainly wouldn’t want any future readers to feel discouraged or alienated by anything we’ve written, although we know it may happen from time to time.

  19. Beth Marshall  April 2, 2015 at 9:16 am Reply

    Favorite WYG post ever. And who knew you were an artist?! Your stick people make my heart smile. Thank you, Eleanor!

  20. Mark Liebenow  April 2, 2015 at 9:00 am Reply

    I write a lot about grief, but your artwork makes me wish I could draw. So spot on! “Are you under there?” Ha!

  21. Patrick  April 2, 2015 at 8:59 am Reply

    Well done Eleanor….that’s lovely

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