Welcome to the club, a club no one wants to be in. And yet somehow more and more of us seem to gain entry each and every single day. I learn about new members on the news, through a friend, a friend of a friend, a family member, a neighbor.
Even though I may not know your name or what you look like, I know you. I was you. I am you. I joined this club over 16 years ago after losing my mother to cancer. She was 57. I was 30. Some of you may be younger or older than me. Some have lost people closer to you or not as close to you. Some had fraught relationships with those you loved. Some of you had seemingly perfect ones. Some of you said everything you wanted to say to your loved ones before they died. Some didn’t say enough. Some of you have regrets, and others, no regrets at all.
I used to hear from you every now and then. As I get older, and as my world grows bigger, I hear from you more than I think I should. I am referred to you through a friend or a colleague. Some people call me the grief girl. This makes me laugh. I laugh, a lot. I think that helps. I talk a lot about grief. That definitely helps. I’ve written about grief. I sometimes send you the most recent book I wrote on the topic or one of a slew of other books (see recommendations below) that I have read several times and that have helped me. I have so many pages of these books dog eared that it’s hard to remember why I refer back to any one particular page. I provide you with a list of movies to avoid in the first year of your grief including but not limited to Beaches, Terms of Endearment, Wild and surprisingly, Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again, which left me in ugly tears with a massive migraine.
I have a grief note I’ve written to grieving friends on my personalized stationary. Close friends refer to it as “the note.” I don’t want to send so many of “the notes” but I seem to be cranking them out in record droves. Since I don’t have enough stationary to write to all of you by hand, here is what I can share with. I wish someone had told me this when I first entered the club.
Grief is not linear. I’ve read a lot about the five stages of grief and even tried to go through each and every one according to some kind of schedule, but this didn’t work for me. I don’t think it will work for you. Grief is not linear. You won’t feel one thing at year one and another at year five and then feel all better by year ten or even fifteen. You will go days, weeks, even months without feeling the raw, guttural emotion of loss. And then one day, seemingly out of nowhere, you will break out in tears in the middle of the grocery store or while watching your daughter get her ears pierced or on a beautiful sunny day taking a walk around your block all by yourself. Don’t expect to feel any one thing at any one time and know that you will have good days and bad days.
Put one foot in front of the other. When you are in one of those moments feeling overwhelmed by sadness and loss, not knowing how you will ever feel better, just make the next move. Get out of bed, get dressed, make a cup of coffee, start your work even if you think you can’t focus. You will get there. It takes one small step to get to the next one.
Time is your friend. Although grief is not linear (see above) time really does heal. I am not a fan of clichés but I have to give it to this one. There will be things that you can’t imagine doing or saying or feeling right now that you will be able to do one day. I promise. Years from now you will drift off to sleep with a smile on your face recounting what a happy and normal day you just had even without your lost loved one. It will feel good and then weird, but ultimately, good.
Do the work – the work of dealing with your grief. This may mean letting the sadness wash over you and dwell in it for as long as it feels right. You may need to deal with unresolved issues with other family members feeling the loss of the same loved one. Talk to your family members about this, even if it’s hard – especially if it’s hard. These conversations need to happen. You will feel better after having had them. Express what you are feeling. Do not hold it in.
Do what makes you happy. Many grieving people feel like they have to be sad for a certain period of time, some think perhaps forever. You do not. You should feel happy again and hopefully, a lot. So go and do what makes you happy, whatever that may be. Call a friend, go for a run, watch a funny movie. Cook, read, laugh. Do what you used to be before you experienced your loss. It may not feel exactly the same, but it will feel good.
Don’t ask the what ifs. I’ve gone down that road before and it doesn’t end well. I used to wonder what would have had happened if only my mother went to the doctor sooner, if only I could somehow have miraculously predicted that she would get sick, that I said more or did more. You are where you are now and asking what would have happened if you had done something differently will only cause you unnecessary pain that will get you nowhere. Don’t go there. You have better places to be.
A note on the word bittersweet. I think of this word often. I feel it even more. After losing someone you love, so much of your life will feel bittersweet. Bitter because you are feeling the giant hole left by that person you lost and sweet because of the happiness and joy you will be able to feel even after loss. This is a powerful emotion. You feel the bitterness more so because of the sweetness. It’s a healthy feeling to have. Feel it, all of it
Books (with many dog eared pages) that have helped me in my grief:
Dancing At The Pity Party by Tyler Feder
Modern Loss: Candid Conversations About Grief. Beginners Welcome by Rebecca Soffer and Gabrielle Birkner
Motherless Daughters by Hope Edelman
No Happy Endings by Nora McInerny
The Goodbye Diaries by Marisa Bardach Ramel and Sally Bardach
Wild: From Lost To Found On The Pacific Coast Trail by Cheryl Strayed
Rachel, this is beautiful and excellent advice written in a straight forward manner that isn’t preachy but is thoughtful. Having lost my Dad at 30 and both my sister and brother way too early, I can relate to everything you have written. The holes in my heart are still there, but they are smaller and tempered by really good memories. My big regret is that I didn’t take enough interest in our family history because I had my sister to rely on for information. Now she is gone and I have no frame of reference for the past. That’s hard…
I enjoy your success and know that your mom would be and probably is kvelling every minute. She should be!
Thank you Rachel. Said beautifully. Aside from losing parents, siblings or close friends I’m in a place that is feeling worse than ever before. Now at age 76, I’ve been alone 7 years yesterday. Lost my baby daughter in 1971, 2nd husband in 1992, 2nd son age 38 in 2012 and 3rd husband of 20 years in 2013. I know everything about loss and ran a support group after my son died. However, taking one step at a time has become much harder now when you really need that special person to give you a hug! Time is not working well for me this time…..but I push through hoping to have good days and some laughs. There is no other choice. I do have one son left and 2 grandsons who have NOW become my world!
I sent this to a good friend that recently lost her husband.
She is in her late seventies but I think will be comforted by your thoughts and
impressed with the wisdom of a woman your age.