This post also published at The Mighty.
It seems that everyone feels they know about grief. Everyone has a story to tell, or advice to dispense. Many people do know about grief, but yet, it’s a very personal thing. The information I’m about to provide may help you. It may allow you to understand a loved one just a bit more. Or it may make absolutely no sense to you, as your grief just isn’t the same.
Yet, I’m going to tell you what I’ve learned about grief in this past year. Things I wish someone had told me, or more likely, things I would have told myself had I had the opportunity. Some of these things, I learned through trial and error, while others I seemed to know instinctively. This is my story, my experience. Use it as you will, but I hope with it you can glean just a bit of insight into the sordid underbelly of grieving. If I had been able to impart wisdom to myself when this journey had begun, this is what I would have said to me:
It’s not what you wanted, and it’s certainly not what you planned, but you are now a widow. This will be a very emotional, difficult time for you, and although you’ll have help and support, you really must go it alone. This journey is yours and yours alone, so only you will really know what steps you need to take. These are some of the things you need to know to make it just a little bit “easier”:
- Be Kind to Yourself – First and foremost, you have to take care of yourself. If you’re not eating, eat. If you’re not sleeping, try to rest where you can. If you’re finding life too demanding, take a break. If Saturday rolls around and you’ve got piles of dirty laundry and really should go to the grocery store, but all you feel like doing is eating Cocoa Pebbles in bed while watching The Gilmore Girls on Netflix, grab the remote, hunker down and don’t feel guilty about it. Tackle what you can when you can.
- Be Kind to Others – Grief is difficult, and many people just don’t get it. It is messy, and raw, and ugly. There will be people who want to help, but don’t know how. There will be people who will push you to grieve faster, or more efficiently. There will be those who believe you aren’t grieving hard enough or taking the necessary time to do it properly. And there will be those who truly allow you to use them as support as you see fit, the ones who understand that the best they can do is simply be there for you, the friends who aren’t arrogant enough to believe they can – or should – advise you. Try to understand that most people really are trying to help, but they just (thankfully) haven’t been here yet. Be patient with them and be ready to support them if and when their time comes.
- Your Memory is Going to Suck – There is a common syndrome referred to as “widow’s fog”. It’s real. You will buy groceries you don’t need and forget the ones you do, until your cupboard is filled with 6 jars of mayonnaise and no ketchup. You will wander through several months without knowing what you did a week, a day, even an hour before. You will look back on this time as though through a haze, and will still only remember parts of everything. This is why you should…
- Carry a Notebook Everywhere – Use it for grocery lists, reminders of appointments and To Do’s, the memories that randomly appear, and anything else that may crop up. Even when you think you’ll remember, and despite repeating something a dozen or more times to help you do so, you’re probably going to forget. It’s frustrating, but it’s normal. Just carry the notebook.
- Don’t Throw Anything Away Yet – Due to Widow’s Fog (See #3) you will try to get rid of things that you see as “junk”. A random scrap of paper in A’s handwriting, those shorts that were so worn that he looked like Robinson Crusoe, or a bag of old golf balls. When the fog wears off, you’ll wonder why you got rid of these things. Unless what you’re throwing away is absolutely, positively junk, put it aside to go through when you’re better able to make the decision. By that same token…
- Don’t Wash A’s Clothes Right Away – There will come a time when it will be necessary to wash his dirty clothes, perhaps sooner rather than later, but try to keep at least one shirt that he has worn (as creepy as that sounds) just to remember the smell of him. Try to preserve his scent because you’ll want to remember – often, at first, then just occasionally, and finally, only during really trying times. You’ll sometimes spritz yourself with his cologne, and if it comforts you, do it. As long as you’re not endangering your health, and it’s reassuring to you, do what feels right.
- Your Health Will Suffer – Despite being of relatively good health, you will now be susceptible to every cold and minor illness known to man. Your immune system will be at its lowest point due to all the stress you are about to undergo. Grief will take its toll on both your physical and mental health. Understand that, prepare for it, and take care of yourself when it happens (See #1).
- Be with People in Public – As tempting as it might be to want to hide out from the world, you are going to have to learn to live your life without your husband by your side. Whether or not you’re actually with others, just being out and about with other humans around is helpful. Reading a book in the corner at Starbucks while customers wander in and out with their Triple Venti Soy No Foam Lattes serves to remind you that the world did not end when yours shattered, despite how you feel right now. Hearing a child’s laughter is sometimes a major pick-me-up. People watching can be an amusing pastime and may enable you to smile or laugh for a moment or two. The point is, to try to move forward (which you’ll learn is a very different thing from moving on), no matter how difficult it may be…
- Until It Becomes Too Much – As important as it is to get out and start doing things on your own, becoming comfortable being out as an individual rather than half of a couple, doing so will also make you feel off-balance and exposed. You will feel vulnerable in a way you haven’t for a long time (if ever), and you will eventually need to retreat for awhile. This is OK. In fact, it’s more than OK. Just having been out there long enough to have had enough means that you have challenged yourself and you are making progress.
- Try New Things – You need to learn who you are as an individual. If you are really to heal and grow, you cannot do so by hiding out at home. You have to venture into the world sometime (See #8). Step out of your comfort zone. Do things you’ve never tried before. Take chances – small, safe ones, at first. If those work out well, push a little further. Taking risks doesn’t mean engaging in risky behavior. Try new things, but be smart about it.
- People Will Abandon You (or at least it seems that way) – When the dust settles, the flowers fade, and the last of the casserole-wielding grief army has retreated, remember that people are going back to their own lives. Just because they don’t have as much time for you anymore doesn’t mean they aren’t thinking of you just as often. But there will also be those who won’t think of you, or who are overwhelmed and find it difficult to be around someone who reminds them of their own loss. Remember the old adage about people who are in your lives for a reason, a season or a lifetime and just know that if they do abandon you, it simply means their season has passed. Don’t hold grudges.
- But… You’ll Make New Friendships (if you allow yourself to) – You will suddenly have this strange connection with others in a similar situation to yours. You will find and relate to other widows and widowers. No matter how they might have lost their significant other, they are truly the only people who understand just what you might be going through. You can commiserate, vent, and pour your heart out to these individuals without fear of judgment or retribution. Then, too, when you begin to go out in public, and especially when you begin the process of learning who you are solo (See #10), you will meet new people and forge new friendships. Allow this to happen without feeling that you are trying to fill the void in your life. New friends are not intended to be a replacement for what you’ve lost.
- Feel Everything – The biggest gift you can give yourself is to feel. As much as you will want to hide out from the world, and as difficult and painful as this time will be, you must “feel to heal”. Much like coming back from an injury, if you don’t make an effort to push yourself, you can’t move forward. You will struggle. You will hurt. You will absolutely hate the heart wrenching sadness and anger and guilt you are forcing yourself to acknowledge and deal with. Do it anyway.
- And Don’t Feel Guilty About It – You will also have moments of joy and excitement and laughter and days that are better than others, especially as time passes. Feel these emotions, too, without judgment. Just as others don’t have the right to tell you that you’re grieving improperly, so too, should you understand that you are the one going through it, and it’s perfectly acceptable to have feelings other than grief or sadness. Allow the pleasure as well as the pain, no matter what anyone else may think. It’s all part of the healing process.
- Finally… You are Stronger than You Know – Although when all of this starts, you can’t imagine how you’ll get through the next day or even the next hour, you have made it through a year. A year of challenges, a year of new experiences, a year of discovering who you are as an individual again. You have shattered, but you haven’t been broken. You have experienced pain like you’ve never known, but you have kept going. You have learned that it is possible to lose half of your heart and your whole world without losing yourself in the process. And you now know that you are a survivor.
- But It’s OK When You Aren’t – With all of this being said, despite your ability to be strong (and the necessity to do so), it’s also acceptable to have moments when you just simply cannot be strong for a second longer. Give in to those moments. Cry the tears that will cleanse the pain. Breakdown so you won’t break completely apart. These moments can be cathartic and restorative and necessary. Just don’t stay there.
If all of this advice could be summed up in a nutshell, it would be simply that whatever you are feeling, as long as it is genuine, is perfectly normal, and although it may not seem like it now, you will make it through.
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