Voices of Experience: For Those Whose Grief Is Relatively New

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By Harry Proudfoot

While grief is fresh, every attempt to divert only irritates.  ~ Samuel Johnson

Jane died 15 days before Christmas in 2010. We buried her a week before Christmas. That first Christmas was nightmarish. I spent it with my father outside Seattle. He'd lost my mother to Alzheimer's 10 months before. It was our first Christmas for both of us without our other halves.

My father had a stroke this past August. He was brain dead before my plane took off and body dead before it landed.

This year was my fifth Christmas without Jane--and the first I spent in the house Jane and I built together. I went out to be with friends Christmas Eve and went to a Methodist church service. I knew those things were purely to get me out of the house for a few hours that night. Neither Jane nor I were particularly religious in any traditional sense. The next day, I had my in-laws in for Christmas dinner. I surprised them with a couple of presents. They left about 3 p.m. Jane's father was released from a rehab facility the day before. He has prostate cancer that has metastasized to his bones. He tires easily. I watched "It's a Wonderful Life" Christmas night and sat for a time in the glow of the Christmas tree. Jane made me promise I would always have a tree--even that first year. Gradually, I have dressed the house for Christmas more and more since then. It is hard to do, sometimes, but I do it anyway. 

For many of you reading this, your losses are fresh. You are trying to adapt yourself to the most horrible losses imaginable--and there is no easy way to get there. Holidays can be the worst because they have so many memories and triggers built into them. But sometimes the "ordinary" days can be just as difficult. 

I am not a grief counselor but I have been at this for a very long time. I've listened to a lot of folks who understand this state far better than I do. They have been certified as grief counselors as well as going through their own grief. And I remember well what they told me in the early days after Jane's death. First, it is OK to cry and feel miserable--and to feel that way for a very long time. People talk about the "Year of Firsts" as though once you've been through each of the events in a 12 month cycle you are magically OK--that you are back to who you were. For some folks, this may be the case. But for most--especially if you had a good relationship with your loved one--it doesn't work that way. You are never going to be who you were before they got sick. You've lost a major part of the life you had and of the person you were together. "The deeper the love, the deeper the grief," is the reality. When someone says to you that you should be over your grief by such-and-such a time, they are generally people who have not lost someone important to them in the way your spouse was important to you. They've read an article or a book or taken a course and think they understand. Most of the time, they really have no idea. 

But while you are never going to be the same, that does not mean you will never be happy again. Right after Jane died I didn't think I would ever smile again, let alone laugh. But the smiles did come back--as did the laughter. I am never as happy as I was when she was alive--but the grinding sorrow and depression have lifted to a great enough extent that I feel alive again. 

The holidays--Christmas, Halloween, her birthday and our anniversary, in particular--remain especially difficult, but I no longer feel I am drowning most of the time. You do get better at coping as the months and years pass. You can speed that up in several ways. Not fighting with your feelings and trying to control them is the first step in that. Grief often comes in waves and all any of us can really do is ride them out. Fighting your grief is like fighting the undertow: fighting it will just make things worse. 

Let yourself have that good cry when you need to. You will feel better afterward. Crying, of course, is more dehydrating than people realize. It is important that you drink plenty of water--especially in the first months when the tears are falling like a torrential downpour. Avoid alcohol, however. It is a depressant and will only make you feel worse. I didn't have so much as a beer in the first 14 months after Jane died. Even now, I drink alcohol sparingly. Crying also burns huge amounts of energy. That means eating properly is important. Unfortunately most of us bury ourselves in comfort foods when we are stressed or--worse--eat nothing at all. You want to establish good eating habits as quickly as possible. Have a good breakfast, a good lunch, and a good dinner every day. Begin cooking for yourself as soon as possible--even if you are cooking only for yourself and hate every minute of it. It will give you better portion control and make you feel like you have regained control over at least one aspect of your life. 

Gaining control over your life is an important thing. Grief makes us feel like everything is out of control. Start small in regaining control. When you get up in the morning, make the bed, pick up the bedroom, take a shower, shave and have breakfast. Little acts of control like this are the beginning of regaining control over your life. The sooner you begin to establish regular habits, the better it will be for your state of mind. One of the toughest patterns to re-establish is regular sleep habits. I'm still wrestling with that, four years out. You don't want to go to bed because if you do, you have dreams. You don't want to get out of bed, sometimes because of the dreams and sometimes because of the corrosive reality that awaits you. But I set the alarm every night and try to get up at the same time every morning. And I try to go to bed the same time every night. The former is easier than the latter--at least for me. 

Get exercise regularly. It doesn't need to be strenuous. I try to walk for an hour every day. In bad weather, I drive to a local mall and walk there. In good weather, I go out my front door and walk through the neighborhood. Exercise releases endorphins into your bloodstream that make you feel better. Even a half hour walk gets them cooking through your system. Do see your doctor before you undertake any kind of new exercise program. 

Join a grief group. Your local newspaper will have listings for groups in your area--as will your local hospice organization. Many hospitals and cancer facilities sponsor groups. Just talking with other people who are going through what you are going through can be very helpful. There are a number of groups available online as well, though there is nothing like being in a physical group where you can receive and give hugs. Online groups, however, are especially good when a huge wave of grief hits you at 2 a.m. 

For me, one of the toughest things was the social loss. Jane was not just my wife, she was also my best friend. We did everything together. I try to have at least one social event every week--even if it is just going out for coffee with someone. I do lots of volunteer work, in part, for the same reason. Much of my work is cancer-related, so it really does double-duty. I am avenging Jane's death and getting some human contact at the same time. I didn't think about the social aspect of that work when I started doing it, but the social aspect does help me get through the rough patches. One of the problems we all face is that the grief really gets worse just about the time everyone around us has gone back to their daily routines. Their lives get back to normal just about the time the shock wears off for us and we enter the real heart of our loss. Finding something to do to help others can provide us with social outlets beyond our traditional circle of friends. 

Another thing I find helpful is writing. Sometimes I write for no greater purpose than to move my grief from inside me onto the page. Keeping a journal can be a good way of doing that. You can write things there you don't want others to hear or see. You can rage against the gods, the doctors, the insensitive person who asks three months in if you are going out with anyone yet.... 

That's another thing you are going to encounter. Sometimes people can be so insensitive you can't stand it. Most of the time that insensitivity comes from their ignorance. Most people see TV and film as reality. There, grief is over in an hour or two. It just doesn't work that way for most of us. There are others who try to compare this loss to a divorce. One of my brothers did that to me barely a month after Jane died. He'd had a divorce many years before. He did not see why I was not already out there dating. He didn't understand that while he and his wife stopped loving each other, Jane and I hadn't. That alone makes the situation different. But people don't see that. In fact, rushing into another relationship is frequently a bad thing. You are wounded and vulnerable and incapable of making a rational decision about financial matters, let alone emotional ones. 

I swore off making major financial decisions for a year after Jane died--a vow that has lasted until at least now as I write this, with the exceptions of getting my will written and committing as much as I can toward NET cancer research. I'll also admit to having had a number of crushes in the last two years. I have acted on none of these because I still feel emotionally too fragile to do so. After four years and 19 days, I'm still wearing the wedding ring Jane put on my finger 25 years, three months and 27 days ago. 

I hope those of you who are relatively new to grief will find what I've written above useful. Grief is not a sprint. It is not a marathon either--though it may be an ultra-marathon. But there is no finish line and there are no prizes for those who finish first. And unlike a competitive race, we can help each other get through it.

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