Just not the typical stuff that everyone always told you about.
This is about the things no one says and most people seem to pretend isn’t happening. So in no particular order, here’s a list of what you might face and some tips to make the process less painful.
- Justification will get you into trouble and you will have a VERY good supply of justification. Have any old bad habits that have died the good death? Grief resurrects those fast. You will want comfort. You will feel justified in taking comfort where ever you can. And if you don’t set some boundaries and get some help, you’ll be having a relapse into the cigarettes, bad boyfriends, chocolate cake, and self-loathing you used to deal with. Find a way to indulge that will be healthy for you. Go to a movie, call in sick and lay in the park, have coffee with friends and take good care of yourself. Do NOT say you’ll give in to a bad idea “just this once” and think that actually works.
- Crazy is attracted to vulnerable. And we’re all vulnerable in grief. I would like to think that if I’m grieving, crazy people will leave me alone and have a little respect. That’s not happening. Think of these people as vampires that want to suck from your tear ducts. They are attracted to your pain because they like feeling needed, and they expect that filling any of your needs will give them a license to own your life and your time. Your best friend being there for you 24/7 is awesome. But you do not have to accept every offer of help from anyone that comes along. Your grieving, not destitute. Say NO and say it often enough to keep your sanity.
- One loss will be a reminder of every other loss. You can’t just grieve them one at a time. And you’re not crazy because you started crying over the death of your friend and wound up re-living the moment in 3rd grade when the other boys wouldn’t let you be part of their spy kids club. Grief revives grief. Expect to be awash in memories and remember to roll with it until that wave passes. It does pass. Trying to shove it all back and ignore it will give you an ulcer and probably won’t work anyway. Sooner or later you will ride that wave. Set aside some time and let it roll.
- You will grieve what you WISH you had, what you SHOULD have had, and not just what you actually experienced. Death & Divorce are the final blow to our fantasies that change can happen and happily ever after might still exist. You can hate someone and still wail uncontrollably at their funeral because of the wishes you didn’t even know you had. If you had the lousy relationship or time was too short with a good one, expect to be raging angry and unbelievably sad. Both emotions are normal and will need outlets that don’t get you locked up. Find a place to scream. Go run until you puke or fall down. If you can’t run, find some other activity that will get you sweating and exhausted. Once you’re worn out you’ll cry more and that’s part of the process. Physical activity is one of the few sure ways to flush all the stress out of your system and give you a fighting chance at a calm tomorrow.
- Other people will be struck with a sudden case of stupid and that’s the platform they will attempt to help you from. I put down my horse a few weeks ago. I cry just typing that. Just a few days after it happened someone helpfully told me about a stage 4 cancer victim and her struggle with pain. Randomly brought that up and spent 10 minutes detailing the horror. And then he said, “So it could always be worse. I mean really, you don’t have that much to complain about!” No, I don’t have stage 4 cancer and I’m very happy about that. It doesn’t make the pain less that I’m not afflicted with a life threatening disease. Actually, I just feel totally angry at that moron because he wants me to feel guilty about my pain and shut up about it already. People will also make judgements about the length of time you should be crying, and how much grief you should be allowed to express depending on a formula of how “close” you were, how long you knew the person/animal/marriage, and how disrupted your life has been. If you are a Christian or have Christian friends, you will also hear about God’s will. Please don’t deck anybody. Do feel free to walk away.
- There will be a series of lasts and firsts that have to be lived through. The last time you saw them, the last Christmas, the last time in the hospital. It’s like you’re looking through the back window of a car as it pulls away from some place special. At some point you start looking forward and see your first landmark that you can’t share anymore. Expect at least a year of firsts that send a shock through your life. These can be large or small and it won’t matter what you need to get done or where you are. Surround yourself with people that can hear that same story again, as many times as you need to tell it. Encourage them to talk about themselves and their own lives even though you might not really be listening. Connecting with people is important to your long term health but it’s going to feel impossible as you travel through your lasts & firsts. Treasure people who will know how to do the work for you and re-pay them in kind some day.
- Guilt and regret will do their best to find you and kick your ass. We don’t like the total lack of control that loss brings into our lives. Guilt is a way of pretending you could have stopped the bad thing, if only….. There are rare times when we actually caused the problem that led to the loss. If that’s true for you, accept your responsibility and learn from your mistakes. The rest of the time we’re fooling ourselves that we could have controlled a situation that was never in our hands. Regrets are usually centered around the things we meant to do and never found the time for. No one has any time anymore. I’ve been to too many funerals where we all said, “It shouldn’t take a death to get us together!” And then we don’t see one another until the next funeral. If you are overwhelmed with regret, you have a problem with the busyness of your life. You will either force a slow down, or live with the next set of regrets after the next funeral.
- Time is going to go a little screwy on you. Your perception of time passing will speed up and slow down with your emotional state. Other people will not be on the same roller coaster and may “helpfully” try to rush you or slow you down. If you’re at least aware of what’s happening, you won’t take it as personally. Wearing your watch may not help. Grief can make everyday objects and concepts suddenly complex and disturbing. Your brain will get overwhelmed by the amount of emotion it’s processing. Make someone else be in charge whenever possible while remembering you’re still the boss. Do not give up all decision making for funerals, burials, parenting plans, divorce proceedings, etc. Delegate as you need to but remind everyone you’re still checking the outcome.
- Yes, you will be annoying for a while. And your friends will love you, remember who you usually are, and stick with you. It’s going to be your turn soon. You’ll have to listen to someone else cry, hear stories about their family/marriage/pet, and hold their hand until they can go it alone. When you let people help you, they are more comfortable asking for your help later. Let people see the full melt-down. You’re building the trust they’ll need to show you the same someday.
You’ve been here. You’ve known pain and the moments nobody prepared you for. Please take the time to share any other shocks from your own experience. Someone else will benefit from your story.
The picture is called “Lost Tree” and is from flickr by h.koppdelaney