When my own mother died after a brief but intensely waged battle against cancer, I was completely unprepared for the depth of my grief. As an adult myself with grown children of my own, I thought I knew--and had accepted--that death is a normal part of life, something you can never prepare for, really, but still survive relatively intact. As they say, life is for the living, and we grieve and move on.
But once you lose someone you love, you realize all platitudes go out the window and everything you thought you knew about death and life is completely inadequate to help you make sense of your grief and the path you must walk to get through it.
Coping with the dark days that inevitably come
The hard truth is that you will have days when the simple activities of daily life seem impossible under the heaviness of your grief. It's a normal part of the bereavement process. But you shouldn't try to do it alone.
The National Mental Health Association and the American Psychological Association offer lots of suggestions for coping with your grief--and how to find the support you need along the way.
Let others care for you. Care can take many forms. For some of us, it's just a sympathetic friend to sit and listen when we need to talk and share memories of the person we lost. Sometimes, care means letting someone handle the practicalities for a day, like grocery shopping, preparing a meal, tidying up the house, or raking the lawn.
The point is to accept help when you need it and give yourself the gift of time to feel and process your emotions.
Don't judge your feelings. There's no right or wrong way to grieve. Anger, loneliness, frustration, exhaustion, fear, even relief...all can be a normal part of dealing with loss. Don't give in to guilt over your emotions. For many people, talking them over with someone you trust to listen and not judge is the best way to handle and move past them.
Accept that life goes on. In the early days, I hated hearing those words from friends. But it's true--life is for the living. It takes determination to move on after a loss, but you cannot live in the past.
Death affects us all at a some point...and it affects us all differently.
Start small and do something that gives you pleasure. Perhaps it's a long walk in the park with a friend, perhaps it's an evening at the symphony with your spouse. Find ways to embrace and enjoy your life again--without feeling that you're somehow betraying your loved one's memory by moving on. Because life really does go on.
Celebrate your loved one's life. Look for ways to remember and celebrate the relationship you shared with the person who died. My mother loved to garden--she took great pride in her glossy peppers, plump tomatoes, and the profusion of blooms that colored her back yard. My daughter and I planted a garden together in her honor, choosing the flowers she loved the most. It became a visible reminder of my mother's life that gave us great comfort and even joy as we tended it together.
Recognize when you need more support. It's a good idea to stay in touch with your doctor as you go through the grieving process. It's normal to have trouble sleeping occasionally or feel as though food has lost its appeal. But if you're losing weight or have more than a few sleepless nights, make an appointment right away before things get out of control.
And if your grief seems unbearable even after some time has gone by, don't be afraid to seek help with a counselor or therapist. It's a sign of strength to get the help you need.
One day about a month after my mother died, I found myself curled up on her bed crying over a pile of her dresses I was donating to a local charity. And I realized that I couldn't remember the last time I made it through a day without crying over her loss.
That was my sign it was time to get help--and joining a grief support group with a professional bereavement counselor was the best decision I made during those early weeks and months. Sharing my feelings and learning to understand them in a safe environment with others on a similar path helped me heal in ways my family and friends simply couldn't.