My father died a month ago, after a short and painful descent into dementia.
While I expected his death, what surprised me was the path of grief that the loss of my father took me on. I found myself consulting colleagues, friends, and even Google in an attempt to identify if what I was experiencing was normal.
What I discovered is that there is no normal in grief. Each grieving person has his or her individual journey to take. It’s a journey that can make you wonder if your grief is healthy or normal. It’s a journey where a person is forced to give up control and ride the wave of emotions. And for me, it was and is about accepting that what I’m feeling, thinking and experiencing is healthy and okay.
These eight truths about grief have come about through research, conversations with colleagues, and my own experiences.
- There is no normal grief. Forget the idea of normal. Get it out of your mind. Each person’s journey is his or her own. You can Google for days and weeks trying to find the roadmap for grief. And while there are some generalizations and theories out there, none will completely match your own.
- Accept your reactions to grief unconditionally and without judgment. It’s okay if you scream with sadness in the car. It’s okay if you break down with a friend over something small that reminds you of the one you loved. It’s okay to be happy and to experience joy. It’s okay to cry only in private, and it’s okay to be overcome by sadness when there are others around. Grief is like floating in the ocean. At times you will feel peaceful and calm. Other times you’ll feel as if you’re being tossed around and about to crash on a rocky shore. Your mood and energy levels will fluctuate. Your sleep patterns will be disrupted.
- Be kind to yourself. There might be times when you feel like you need to nap away a Saturday afternoon. Nap away. You may feel like hiking in the woods alone. Hike. Eat comfort food. Give yourself a break from the housework. Write a poem, make love, swim in the ocean, hug your dog, go rock climbing. Take care of yourself.
- Remind others to be kind to you. It would be fantastic if other people knew what we needed before we ask, especially after the death of someone close. But often they don’t. If you have a partner or loved one who doesn’t seem to understand your grief, help them understand. Print an article. Email a link. Best of all, talk to them. If you find yourself more grumpy than usual, it’s okay to apologize and explain that you’re still reeling from the loss. If you’ve had a terrible day, tell your loved ones this. It’s perfectly fine to ask for some extra kindness and understanding.
- Be aware of your needs. For example, you may need more sleep, time away from others, the company of others, or to write in a journal. You may feel the need to spend time doing an activity that you used to do with the person you lost. For some people, exercising helps, while others lack the energy. Give yourself the gift of time to do nothing or anything.
- Your thoughts, feelings, and experiences may not seem to have anything to do directly with your grief, but this doesn’t mean that they’re not connected. I was blown away by how physically exhausted I was. I was getting my average amount of sleep, but grief takes both a physical and an emotional toll. It can help put things into perspective and can give you insight into how you are coping.
- Do what feels right. Some people talk out loud to their loved one. Some write letters. Others sit in silence. Trust yourself. And if you find yourself wanting to curl up with your loved one’s sweatshirt, do it. Some people want to talk about their loss to friends and family. What is good for you might not be something someone else needs, and that’s fine.
- Know when to get help. While most things that people experience when they are grieving are healthy and within the accepted frame of loss, there are times when the pain of loss can become so overwhelming that outside help is needed. Here are some things to watch out for: wishing that you had died instead of, or with your loved one; blaming yourself for the death; feeling like life isn’t worth living anymore; being unable to function on a day-to-day basis months after the loss. Look for a therapist who is experienced with grief, or find a support group. You don’t need to struggle with your loss alone.
There are many great books and articles out there about grief. My favorite one is called Tear Soup, by Pat Schwiebert and Chuck DeKlyen. While it is filled with illustrations and appears to be a children’s book, it’s appropriate for all ages. The book provides a way of understanding and explaining grief in a unique and beautiful way.
When someone you love dies, it can feel like your world is turned upside down. And in a way it is! Whether sudden or expected, child or adult, relative or friend, your life will never be the same. We all know that death is an inevitable part of being human. We can be aware of our own mortality and that of others, but grief will still hurt, and hurt terribly. Ignoring your own grief, trying to push past it to avoid the feelings, will not make it better. Feel the sadness, the loneliness, the pain, but also know that you will not feel like this forever.