Surviving, as brutally hard as it can be at times, doesn't necessarily suck.
I recently realized I have taken traumatic events that happened in my life and framed them in the language of loss – first the devastation of my world and personal balance with my husband John’s illness and death, and before that, the extreme heartbreaking changes endured after Hurricane Katrina.
What other language would I use besides the language of loss? That’s what it was. Massive, messy, soul-rearranging loss.
Can I re-frame it as life goes on? Yes. Maybe. I don’t know. Probably.
Getting through grief is a lot like getting out of a car or house in a flood. “Do not think of your self as a victim but a survivor” they tell you. Frame your actions with that thought. If you end up in the water, pull up your feet so you don’t get caught on the dangers underneath, roll, and let the river carry you. It’s mightier than thou. Don’t fight it. When you can, swim for safety. If you spend precious energy flailing, it’s wasted energy. Your energy must be purposeful.
It’s survival we’re talking about here, after all.
I have floated a lot. I have flailed a lot. I have failed a lot. Especially at this recovering from loss thing.
Grief assassinated my former self, blew my heart apart in slow-motion Technicolor and mercilessly beat on my weak spots. It even weakened my strong spots for a few years.
But I survived.
How? What did I do to survive and can I even tell you how to do the same?
I don’t know. But let me try.
You have to have hope. Hope is in short supply when things are bad. But life is cyclical and every landscape leveled by natural or un-natural disaster eventually sprouts life again. Your life landscape will too. It will happen with or without your agreement, because that’s what the natural world does. Nature grows and renews despite the worst storms, earthquakes or tsunamis. And you are part of nature.
You have to have friends. This is a tricky one, because not everyone, even people you love, are going to understand or stick with you during extended grief. Some will. Some will, with conditions. Some won’t.
Some will deal with your grief only to the point where it makes them uncomfortable and then they disappear. That’s on them, not on you.
Your grief is perfectly normal even if you feel nowhere near normal. Other people’s aversion to your grief is about something they simply can’t, or don’t want to, handle.
It’s hard to lose friends for a while or forever when you are deeply mourning, but it happens. The real ones will stick with you or circle back around once they’ve faced their own discomfort. That’s how you know who your true friends are. What a hellish time to find out, right?
If a person only wants to be your friend during the high times, or finds excessive fault with you when you’re grieving (either directly to you or in talking to others) then their departure means you have lost nothing you really needed.
If you’re someone dealing with a friend or family member who is mired in grief, it’s important to remember they haven’t simply been “made sad.” Oftentimes they have been traumatized. You’re experiencing a friend or loved one dealing with actual trauma. If you’ve ever experienced trauma yourself, keep that in mind.
It doesn’t mean if people bail on you in your time of need that you won’t miss them. Of course you will. But in a moment of survival you have to decide what is worth grabbing from a burning house. Not everything can be saved in a crisis. Don’t try.
Believe it or not, if people fall out of your world when your life is so abnormal, it really is okay. Bless them from a distance and hope like hell if they ever go through what you have, that no one treats them the way they treated you.
And go on with your healing.
You need your allies and friends. Being mired in grief is one way you’ll find out who they are.
Professional friends are good too. You won’t see me knocking grief therapy or grief-support groups.
And when the flood waters finally recede, when the landscape starts to grow and the sun starts piercing the darkness, you’ll discover you are surrounded by people who care. And that’s who should be there with you. And you with them.
You’ve endured too much to deserve anything less.
It’s okay to be angry. Why wouldn’t you be? Your world has been torn asunder. Your plans are in pieces, along with your heart, and a lot of times your brain function and sleep cycle. Anger is a normal part of grief and one of the hardest parts to deal with, both for you and for other people.
It’s understandable to be angry over things you can’t control. Especially when the hurt runs so deep. It’s common to experience feelings of helpless anger or even rage after the loss of a loved one.
Some people have uncomfortable feelings of envy toward others who still have the blessing of a living spouse, sibling or loved one, and that’s normal too.
I didn’t feel envy but I certainly did feel sorry for myself. I couldn’t attend a wedding for three years after John died. I didn’t think I could handle something so full of love and promise when my own love and promise had been unceremoniously ripped from my life. When I finally could accept a wedding invitation, I did, and it was a lovely day. I enjoyed myself throughly.
Don’t put pressure on yourself.
Read that again. And again.
For those dealing with the anger of a grieving friend or loved one, give them the break you’d want in the same circumstance. Their anger is not about you, and making it about you is one of the worst (and if you’ll excuse me, most egotistical) things you can do. These are not normal circumstances, so don’t act as if they are. If you can’t sit with them through it, then give them the space and grace to process it in whatever way they need to, without judgement.
There is no time limit for grieving. So don’t put yourself on a clock, your own or anyone else’s. One of the great fallacies about deep grief is “it gets lighter.” It doesn’t. You get stronger. The load is not as heavy because you learn to carry it. It doesn’t shrink. You grow.
Some losses will find their way into your life story as sad storms, lessons, dismal dips or other understandable bereavements. You may eventually bounce back to normal or a new, better, more motivated, normal.
Other losses will be a constant, although not always visible, companion. A companion that serves sweet memories and feelings of gratitude, or wistful tears and a sharp ache when you least expect it, even years later. Sometimes you never stop missing someone. You simply get accustomed to them not being there.
After big loss you never go back to the way you were before. But that doesn’t mean you’ve lost your way entirely. You really haven’t. You have a life now with the bonus of having known great love, support and comfort in a world that isn’t always loving, comfortable or supportive. Some people never have or experience that. You did. You were lucky.
So very lucky.
Yes, you were shoved onto a new path, one you never asked for or wanted, but if you’re reading this you’ve made it this far. You can and you will go even farther.
Be so proud of you. Your loved one would be.