I lost my father when I was 8 and a husband at 32. In between there were siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends and pets. I consider myself something of a doyenne of death; as both therapist and doyenne, I am dismayed by the complete absence of any cultural container for loss. Living in a country that fears and avoids death leaves us awkwardly positioned to cope with it when our turn to mourn arrives.
In light of this, I have created a guide for those who are grieving that I provide to grieving clients and at workshops, which I share below. I hope it will both aid and comfort those who are “walking through the valley of the shadow of death.”
1. EXPRESS. As horrifically painful as it is, allow the grief to have its way with you. Let it rip while it’s fresh and tearing your heart to shreds. Cry an ocean. Write. Paint. Do whatever you do to get it up and out. Don’t worry about being a certain way for other people. Do not censor yourself. Repressing is not normal and it is not healthy: it will make you sick.
2. NO JUDGEMENT. Do not judge yourself for anything you feel or don’t feel. Don’t avoid your feelings or think you should be “better” by a certain point in time; don’t think something is wrong if you fall apart at a movie ten months down the line. Likewise, do not think something is wrong with you if you have a good day. You’re allowed. This is normal.
3. DO NOT CONFUSE HEAD WITH HEART. You may know that the death was inevitable, or that the person is better off, or not suffering any more, but this does not obviate the feelings you have about them being gone. Don’t confine yourself to the realm of logic, as if that should take care of everything. You know what you know, and you feel what you feel.
4. CHOOSE YOUR FRIENDS WISELY. Be careful about whom you allow into your experience. Choose only those people with whom you feel safe — those whom you believe will understand and be able to comfort and support you. Try not to tell the whole story to the clerk at the grocery store, or the casual acquaintance who you brush by at Walmart. This does not serve anyone, especially you. (See #9)
5. DON’T PUSH. Don’t try to do things you are not ready to do. Don’t try to be cheerful if you’re not. Don’t allow anyone else to push you to “get on.” Be honest with yourself and remember, no judgment.
6. BREATHE. It’s not easy to breathe when you hurt. The body tends to hold the breath under duress, perhaps because breathing releases emotion. I often found my chest hurting and would think what’s wrong? only to realize that I’d forgotten to breathe. Breath is life. For better or worse you’re still here. Breathe.
7. ALLOW GRIEF IN. Because it is so god-awful painful, there is a strong temptation to avoid grief at any cost — through diversions of work or alcohol or even clinical depression. This only serves to prolong and complicate the process; trust me, I know. The Sufi poet, Rumi, wrote “That hurt we embrace becomes joy/Call it to your arms where it can change.” If you don’t embrace your grief it will sit and fester and rot at the edge of your heart. It will steal your life.
8. TAKE YOUR TIME. It is normal to grieve for a long, long time. A year is considered completely normal by psychological standards. Take two if need be. You do not need to be medicated (unless you are in danger of hurting yourself). There is nothing wrong with you. You have lost a part of yourself; It will take time to put yourself back together. There’s no schedule, no order to this process. It’s a slow, spiraling return to life.
9. BE HONEST. When someone asks how you are or how your day is, you can be vague but be honest. You do not need to lie and say that you’re fine. You’re not fine. If it’s someone you know, you can say that you’re struggling. If they can handle more, they will ask you to say more. If it’s someone you don’t know, my way out was always to make a simple, innocuous remark like “It’s a beautiful day today.” This also helped me to remember that despite my sorrow, there was still something good in life. Which brings us to #10 —
10. REMEMBER LIFE. Even in the midst of your sorrow be aware of the solace and beauty around you. Find just one, small something to be grateful for each day. And remember, death is not the opposite of life, it’s the opposite of birth. There is no opposite of Life. Energy cannot be created or destroyed: it only changes form.
Updated: April 19, 2013