Grief is a word we don’t use often. When we do it is in hushed tones, a whisper, as though afraid to admit its existence. Like death, we tend to shy away from the subject. Yet it is a natural part of life, a normal, expected emotion that can be brought about by many experiences involving loss. As we have collectively come to learn, grief is not only a personal experience. All of humanity is struggling these days with grief surrounding COVID-19. The many lives lost around the globe and tremendous pain and suffering associated with this phenomenon has created a shared and terrible grief. If you are struggling, know you are not alone. All of our circumstances are different, but we are all feeling some measure of loss. In today’s world grief is palpable and communal, yet still simultaneously personal.
Three years ago I lost the love of my life to brain cancer, discovering a great deal about grief though an experience I was not at all prepared for. While struggling with my loss, finding support, reading books, doing research, and leaning into my own education and professional experience I learned many lessons. Piecing these together I faced the death of our family dog of fourteen years quickly followed by COVID-19 bringing months of isolation, uncertainty and layers of loss worldwide. This fresh grief brought more insight into compiling these eight things everyone should know about grief and loss.
Lesson One: Loss comes in many forms
Most of the time we think of grief related to someone close to us dying. This is, of course, the major cause of grief. The death of a parent, a partner, a friend, a child, a beloved pet will bring grief to our hearts. However, this is not the only type of situation that can result in grief. Divorce or a relationship break-up is a tremendous loss with grief a natural consequence. Job change, a move, a significant health change, or facing an empty nest may be felt as a significant loss. And it’s okay to grieve these things that may no longer be in or part of our lives. Often people who experience such losses don’t realize their suffering is actually grief.
The first lesson is to acknowledge that grief can be a response to not only loss through physical death, but also the “little deaths” of other parts of our lives. Consider the youth of today who have lost graduations and proms, the engaged couples whose weddings did not happen, the millions who have lost income and jobs, all of us who have lost much of our social connections.. All types of loss may cause grief.
Lesson Two: It’s a journey with no map
There simply is no exact map when one is on a grief journey and no wrong or right path. Each situation is unique and each road personal. People react differently to grief. Some may be lost, others motivated. Some may have a purposeful path while others wander through their grief. Whatever journey you may be taking trust that it is the path that works best for you. You may need some help along the way whether in the form of a therapist, family, friends, support groups, or all of these. No matter the journey we all need a little help as we begin to move forward.
The lesson here is that there is no formula or set of directions that will make a grief journey any faster or easier. We have to follow our heart, not a calendar or map. Others may have different ideas about how your walk through grief should look. Remember to follow your own path.
Lesson Three: There is no destination
Possibly the most important lesson is there really is no definitive destination. You aren’t going to wake up one day and have arrived. Like life, grief is continuous. Grief changes. The enormous tsunami becomes softer waves. The wild hurricane becomes a light rain. The treacherous mountain becomes a rocky hill. The pain that you can hardly breathe through becomes a sharp intake or soft sigh.
The lesson is that grief will never depart; it becomes a part of you. You will be forever changed. Some changes are small – a song, a place, a smell, a photo will always bring grief to the surface with a bittersweet memory. Some changes will impact the entire trajectory of your life. You will not find there is an ending to grief, but you may find new beginnings.
Lesson Four: Anticipatory grief is a thing
It is a real big thing. I often wonder which is actually worse, the anticipation of grief or the actual grief. I find that my answer changes. Anticipatory grief is the grief we experience before an actual loss has occurred. It may be during a loved one’s terminal illness, the last year before a child goes off to college, watching your marriage slowly falling apart, knowing your job is in jeopardy with a company takeover, or being in the middle of a home foreclosure. Anticipatory grief has an incredibly high stress level as anticipation creates an increase in epinephrine. Combined with other issues that may come along such as being a caregiver, having to attend to all of the “business” at hand in these situations, trying to fit in last experiences and saying good-byes, it is a difficult time.
The lesson here is acknowledging if you are in a stage of anticipatory grief and trying to utilize the same strategies one would use during a typical grief stage. Many of us today are grieving the losses that we are afraid may come our way such as loved ones who may become ill, jobs that may go away, savings that are quickly dwindling, and that we may never go back to our old normal. Take care of yourself. Ask for and accept help. Seek counseling and support. Meditate. Breathe. Take it one day at a time. Sometimes one hour, one minute at a time.
Lesson Five: You are not alone, but you are
Through your grief journey always remember you are not alone. Family, friends, therapists, support groups, even online communities – and we’re all discovering remote resources these days – can help. Knowing there are others who are experiencing grief and loss makes a difference. It helps tremendously to talk to others and know you are not alone. That said, you are still sort of alone. No one will have the same exact experience you have. No one else will walk the personal path you take. Even people very close to you who may be grieving the exact same loss will likely react differently than you. Siblings, partners, children will all experience their loss from their own perspectives and history. Sometimes spouses have such opposite responses there will be strain on the marriage. This is true for all relationships. Try to remember lesson two – there is no map and we all have to do it our own way.
The lesson here is that while you may be solitary in your exact, unique experience you are not alone. All of humanity through the ages has walked through grief. And we are all taking this journey in some form right now. Be kind to each other and yourself. Be patient with each other and yourself.
Lesson Six: It will come sooner or later
Some people have the great fortune to make it far in life before a major loss. If you are one of those people, it would be in your best interest to consider that, eventually, it will happen to you. Life can change in an instant. A single moment and then you look at life as Before and After. As we are all born, we all die. It would be wonderful if every high school included a class on death, dying and grief. We prepare for the job force, for SATs, for driver’s license tests, yet there is little preparation for the milestones in life: marriage, parenting and death. Know that sooner or later it will be in your personal sphere.
The lesson here is to expect grief and learn strategies now to help move through grief with grace later. The circumstances of our world have brought grief experience to many much sooner than life before might have. There are good resources to help cope and seeking help is a sign of strength not weakness.
Lesson Seven: Time is a funny thing
Time is a strange concept. Who came up with our 24 hour day, 12 month calendar, daylight savings time? Is time even a real thing? Have you ever been so involved in something that time seems to have passed at the speed of light? Or perhaps it has felt like time had all but stopped? Grief and time are frenemies. Yes, it is true that time does heal yet we still yearn to go back in time. Time will pass so swiftly you will realize it has been three or five or ten years since the loss that changed you, but it feels like yesterday. We mark our history by the milestones of both joy and loss. Time is also a way to remember. The first year is the hardest. The first holidays, birthdays, anniversaries. The date when an accident happened, a diagnosis was made, a funeral held. The first year is so hard. Yet we must remember those we’ve lost. Celebrate their birthdays. Tell stories. Look at photos. Laugh and smile at those precious memories, even through your tears.
The lesson here is to remember time will pass and we honestly have no control over how it chooses to do so. The wounds your heart has sustained will heal though scars will form. Consider that time stops for no man, so live your best life. Today is really the only thing we have. Yesterday is gone and tomorrow is not promised. Be present. And take the time to remember those who have gone before us.
Lesson Eight: Mortality
At some point when we may be only waist deep in the depths of grief instead of struggling to keep our head above water we suddenly begin to realize that we ourselves one day will be on the other side of grief. Someday we will be the one others are grieving. Mortality. We all know part of the circle of life is death; that the time comes for everyone. We know this vaguely, we see it from the corner of our eye, in the distance, somewhere, someday. When you are faced with the death of another, however, that personal idea of mortality comes into bright, sharp focus. Looking at our own mortality could bring us to our knees; instead allow it to bring you to joy. We are all somewhere in line for when our time comes and we have no idea how close or far we are from the head of the queue. Embrace this truth and don’t sweat the small stuff.
The lesson here is that life is precious, even with grief, despite grief, maybe even because of grief. Rather than mourn our own death seize the day every day. Live so that when the time does come you will have fewer regrets, far more happy memories, and a sense of peace.
Grief is a reflection of the love we may have had for a person or pet; the significance of a relationship; the value of our work; the meaningfulness of a home. Great grief mirrors great love. Loss and grief are the risks we take when we live life to the fullest. If we are fearful and play it safe then we lose the sweetness of life and our very purpose for being here. I promise you that grief does get better, that you can find your way, not back to your old life, but to a new life.