Sunday, August 14, 2011

What I've Learned from Grief

[Reviewed and updated September 17, 2020]

There is only one thing more painful than learning from experience, and that is not learning from experience.  ~Laurence J. Peter

Over a single weekend, a remarkable series of posts appeared in one of the forums on our online Grief Healing Discussion Groups. Entitled What I’ve Learned, it began when one of our widowed members decided to share what she’s learned from grief—both positive and negative—and she invited others to follow suit.

The result is a remarkable list of helpful tips and insights, all containing the wisdom that only comes from the hard-won, gut-wrenching experience of having lost a loved one. We decided that such wisdom deserves to be shared with others who are grieving.

With the writers’ permission to reprint, here is a compilation:

What I've Learned from Grief
  • You are never really prepared for grief and you can't truly understand it unless you've been there.  It's only now that I'm grieving myself that I can empathize with other bereaved people . . . I've learned how to speak with others in the similar situations.
  • It gets easier. The pain lessens. When my grief was fresh and raw, other widows and widowers told me that the pain would ease up over time. I wasn't so sure. On this roller coaster journey I came to believe that I would be the exception. Nothing could ease this pain. It would be with me forever. But I was wrong. The grief is always there, like a backpack--sometimes heavy and uncomfortable, sometimes only noticeable, but the pain is fading. It may not have disappeared, but it is manageable. It comes and goes like the twinges in my sore joints. Sometimes, without warning, it hits me like a heavy migraine and I have to ride it out or find something quick to alleviate it.
  • Give yourself time.  Friends and family may expect your grief to be "over" within a certain time frame, often after 3-6 months, or at least a year. "Put the past behind you," they may say, "It's time to move on."  Ignore them. Move at your own pace.
  • You will learn how to take care of yourself if you have to.  A few tips:
    • Pay bills as they come if you have the money, and balance a budget . . . If you owe money and can't pay an entire bill, pick up the phone and explain the problem. Often you'll be allowed to pay a little each month. Don't stuff bills in a drawer and expect them to disappear. I know from personal experience that this does not work.
    • Cooking and eating healthy food is good for you . . .Your normal appetite will return. The challenge is to curb that appetite and appease it with healthy food.
    • Daily exercise will improve your mental health. Honest! I've been forced to take daily exercise because I have a dog. This does not mean you have to get a dog, but do try to take a walk every day. The wind and rain alone will air out your mind and hopefully move your thoughts into a better place.
    • Regular sleep is important. Try to get to bed at the same time every night, and get up the same time every morning. Aim for 6 to 8 hours a night, but don't stay in bed beyond that.  Trying to sleep too much is as bad as sleeping too little.
    • Establish routines. Make the bed every day. Do the dishes after every meal. Do laundry when the hamper is full. Don't beat yourself up when you fail to keep up your routines, but get back to them when you notice you've slipped. Sadness is easier to deal with when you don't add a pile of dirty dishes to the list.
    • Avoid alcohol and drugs--other than those your doctor prescribes. They will mask the problems and may numb the pain--but both will still be there when the drugs wear off.  And you'll feel all the worse as a result of your running away from them.   
    • A battery-operated drill is the most important tool in the house.  Don't bother telling the electrician or the plumber that you're a widow. They don't really feel sorry for you and they won't give you discounts.
  • This is the most important one: Take one day at a time.  Sometimes it's necessary to live just one minute--even one second at a time. I cannot emphasize this enough. It has been my mantra. If I think too far ahead, I panic. You can always make it through one more day. Then another, and another. Before you know it, you're living again. No matter how devastated you feel on any given day or at any given hour, you WILL feel better eventually.
  • Grief comes in waves and layers. The waves come in less frequently now. Some roll past me pretty easily...finding a mug can cause a small wave that washes up gently, making me feel sadder than I feel all the time, or it can be a tsunami. I never know what brings the waves of grief in, but the tsunamis are less frequent now . . . The layers are various hidden layers of grief that can be examined as they come up, with someone I trust who will listen without judging me.
  • Look for the new normal and the parts of you that are left here on this plane.  I have learned I can live without joy but I can't live without meaning and I can't live with the torture of neurotic guilt.  I am still learning what my "new normal" is.
  • Those you never expected to be there for you ARE there and some of those, like family, are not.  I am learning to lower my expectations of everyone including me and am far more compassionate towards myself and others. Others may not understand and may not know what to say, but most of them mean well.
  • Self care matters.  I came into [my spouse’s] death totally stressed and exhausted from care giving. I did not know how tired I was and have been sick several times, fallen and broken bones, had a car accident and more. Take care of yourself with adequate rest, exercise, food and meditation, and don't be too hard on yourself.  You have to be in good health and work on being in better spirits in order to make the coping possible. 
  • Denial is hell. As self aware as I am and have been, I was in denial of [my loved one’s] approaching death. I was devastated when he took his last breath in my arms . . . I have never known such pain. My world changed forever. I changed forever and will never ever be the same.
  • I did not believe anyone who told me that it would get better.  I KNEW mine would not, but it has.  I also know [this] death will always hurt—a LOT. The journey is different for everyone.  Respect your own.
  • You are not alone.  Ask for and accept help. Most people will respond favorably when we tell them we need help, whether that is emotional support or help with some maintenance thing we do not know how to do. Remember that grief support comes in all sizes, and one size does not fit all. Try support groups, grief counseling and even seeing your physician for some help if needed. I had to do that early in this journey to get some much needed sleep.  This board is always here 24/7 for help and companionship. Use it if necessary—it helps.
  • Don't try to avoid the tunnel of darkness. Unfortunately, to get through the grief you have to go through the darkness to see the light. Avoidance doesn’t make it go away. Sitting alone and crying is part of a healthy recovery, too.
  • Grief takes time and patience to process and to heal. I want the pain to be short-lived and to go away now, but God will give me the strength I need to endure. It takes courage to take the first step to do anything, and I'm surprised to find that I have more strength than I thought I did. I will survive this. I am learning to live in the present. It can take a long time to learn who the new me will be, but it'll all come out okay in the end.
  •  Laughter really is the best medicine. Watch bad comedies (or good ones). Try to laugh at least once a day, and don't feel guilty about it. Feeling more able to cope DOES NOT mean you are moving away from the memories you shared.
  • It's okay to cry, even in public. It's good for you, and if others don't understand, eventually they will.  Loss happens to all of us, sooner or later, and how you handle yours can be a model for them. When they encounter grief some day, you'll be better equipped to help them through it.
  • People who've not been through grief don't understand how all-pervasive it is.  If they do or say something offensive to you, treat them with some understanding the first time; explain to them the second time; and if they still don't get it, stay away from them.
  • It’s okay to be alone.  My beloved is not gone but lives inside of me, and although I still miss him, I continue to draw comfort and encouragement from him.
  • You have to do things for the first time, hard as they are, for there ever to be a "better" second time. In the early days, have an escape route planned: Take your own car; go with a sympathetic friend who will leave when you are ready; indicate on arrival that you can only stay an hour.
  • The anticipation of an upcoming event, holiday, anniversary or other special day will nearly always be worse than the actual occasion.
  • Listen to your own inner voice. If it's telling you "no" or "I'm not sure," then it's usually correct.
  • Contribute somewhere or to someone.  Whether that is work, volunteering, or helping someone in need, it will make you feel better to be productive. I am volunteering part time and am exhausted when I get home, but I’m glad that I am getting out.
  • Everything in this list applies, whether you are male or female.   
    Buddha says, "Life is suffering." We all suffer--but it is our compassion that makes suffering a burden we can bear. Share your burden. There are many hands here to lessen its weight.  But also share your joys--even what seems to you your smallest accomplishments--for it is through these joys we gain the strength to ease our pain and that of others.

    There is oh so much more—but a day at a time, sometimes an hour is the key. Listen to your own heart....take your in your not swallow it down or ignore it as it will come back to kick you if you don't honor it now.

    In the Comments section beneath this post, please feel free to share with us any pearls of wisdom you’ve discovered in your own personal grief journey.

    Your feedback is welcome! Please feel free to leave a comment or a question, or share a tip, a related article or a resource of your own in the Comments section below. If you’d like Grief Healing Blog updates delivered right to your inbox, you’re cordially invited to subscribe to our weekly Grief Healing NewsletterSign up here

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    1. Marty,

      I wish I had've had this list when my first loss happened. It it priceless for grieving people and will help them so much.

      Thank you for all your wonderful help towards people who are stuggling with grief.

      I think one of the best pointers is to take baby steps, not to look too far ahead as it is so overwhelming. Some days I took minute by minute or hour by hour...I still do this on hard days.

      Also, to surround yourself with people who understand and will support you, no matter what.

      With love to you,
      Diana x

    2. So very true, Diana ~ and thank you so much for the feedback! xo

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    4. Marty, thank you for this!
      Reading through this list has been a wonderful help. I find it has little snippets that I can take to heart, and others that remind me of my own times of leaving the dishes for three days, giving in to a day of lassitude, and mostly, it helps to remind me to give myself the compassion and loving care I gave to Doug all those years of his illness and our struggle. And a few things made me smile at the reassurance of the words.
      Thank you so very much. feralfae xo


    Your comments are welcome!