[Reviewed and updated July 24, 2022]
A reader writes: I feel like I am losing it. Both my mother and my sister were killed in an auto accident two months ago. I find myself talking about it over and over again, to anyone who will listen. But no matter how many times I tell the story, I can’t seem to wrap my mind around it. I am trying to believe that it really did happen, because at this moment in time, I really cannot believe it myself.
I do not understand how anyone could tell me, or can tell me that when I talked to my mom on the phone at 8:34 PM that night, it would be the last time I would ever talk to her again! I teared up just writing that. And even if I do something fun that makes me laugh, I feel bad and go back into tears because I feel I am wrong for laughing or even doing anything. I wrote a check just yesterday and dated it the same day as the accident! I am stuck in time, and can't seem to find my way out. I am not really sure where to turn or even which way to go from here.
My response: My dear, I am so very sorry to learn of the tragic accident that took the lives of your mother and sister just two months ago. I can assure you that your need to talk about them and to tell your story over and over again is not only normal, but essential to your coming to terms with this awful reality.
In his compelling book The Lively Shadow: Living with the Death of a Child, bereaved dad Donald Murray writes about the sudden, unexpected death of his 20-year-old daughter:
We have to tell and retell the story of [our daughter's] dyingUnfortunately it is true that others tend to be finished with our grief far sooner than we are finished with our need to talk about it. That is why grief support groups (both in-person and online) are so helpful and necessary: They give us a place to tell our stories and expose us to other people whose stories may be similar to our own. They let us know that we are not alone in this grief journey ~ and they give us hope that if others have traveled down this path and survived, then somehow we will find a way to do it, too. Without question, grieving is very hard work, but you do not have to do it all alone. I encourage you to investigate what bereavement resources are available to you in your own community ~ and of course you are most welcome to join our online Grief Healing Discussion Groups.
to convince ourselves that it has happened. It was so
unexpected, so quickly serious, her illness so mysterious
and hard to understand, that we have to burn the story
into our consciousness. The pain is in every telling, searing
sharp. It hurts anew, yet it has to be told. It is not comforting,
not healing; we do not understand after a telling why this
had to happen to our sunny Lee. We just have to make it true
by its being told. Lee mysteriously got sick. She got worse.
She died. She died.
Your statement that every time you do something and laugh, you feel bad and "go back into tears because I feel I am wrong for laughing or even doing anything" reminds me of this piece by Stephanie Ericsson in her beautiful book, Companion through the Darkness:
Dare I Smile?
One day, about five weeks after you died, I was happy. It was
a bright and brisk winter day, and I was buying Christmas
presents. That day I thought about what might make my
friends happy, and it made me happy. I bought funny little
gifts that cost too much, and wrapped them in a rainbow
tangle of ribbons.
I was ashamed that I was smiling. What if someone saw me
happy? Would they think I was glad you had died? Was I?
Don't get me wrong, I had smiled in those five weeks, I had
laughed at black humor, or smiled constipated smiles that
tried to relieve people of their utter helplessness. I had smiled
and said I was fine to avoid the true answer. No one could do
anything about my pain, and their pain, at the sight of my
pain, was too much for me to handle.
This happiness was unprompted. It came from within. ItI suspect you already know that getting over the death of someone you loved so much is impossible. We never "get over" such losses; instead, over time, we just find ways to endure them: to get through our grief and live in a world without the physical presence of our loved ones in it.
came from a reinstatement of love within me.It came from
getting out of myself for a few hours to give to others. It was
healing. I wanted to hide my smiles, but at the same time I
wanted to relish the warmth of them. I had earned these
smiles. I had missed them, missed happiness. That day I began
to realize that I would, someday, be happy again (pp. 49-50).
I can also tell you that the bond you have with your mother and sister will remain with you always. Death ended their earthly lives, but it did not end the relationship you have with them. They will always be your mother and your sister, and they will be with you just as long as you strive to keep your memories of them alive in your heart and in your mind.
I encourage you to do some reading about normal grief, so you'll know better what to expect and what you can do to manage your own reactions as you face the weeks and months ahead. If you haven't already done so, I hope you'll pay a visit to my Grief Healing website and spend some time on each of the pages there. (See also the Marty’s Articles and Voices of Experience tabs at the top of this page.)
At the very least, please know that I am thinking of you, and wishing you peace and healing.
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- Are You Reluctant to Seek Counseling for Grief?
- Bereavement: Doing The Work of Grief
- Finding Grief Support That Is Right For You
- In Grief: Support Groups vs. Individual Counseling