When You’re First Grieving

by James E. Miller

     Something has left your life and changed it. However much you may wish otherwise, you will never be the same.
     What has happened to you may be the most heart-wrenching experience you have ever known. Perhaps you have lost what you thought you could not possibly live without. Perhaps something has been taken from you that has given your life deep meaning and great joy. Perhaps you have been given news that threatens to be your undoing.
     You may find that each day has become an agony for you, that you cannot escape your anguish. You may know what it's like to finally fall asleep, only to discover that your torture does not leave you; it follows you in your dreams. When you awaken, it stabs at you once more. You may wonder how long you'll be able to go on living like this. You may wonder if it will ever get better, or if there will be anything to hope for or live for again.
     It's possible that what has happened to you may not be the worst thing you've ever known. You may be able to recall times in your life when your situation seemed more trying than it does now. And yet, you may still find that the experience with which you're now confronted leaves you shaken and unnerved. Your feelings may rush over you unpredictably, beyond your control. You may hurt deep inside. You may wonder how long your life will go on this way.
     However long this troubling time lasts, chances are it will seem too long.
     Almost always it goes on too long for people around you, especially those who do not understand how much your life has been affected. They may want you to return to normal more quickly than you're able. They may not realize that your “old normal” may not be your “new normal.” They may act concerned if your sadness persists. They may resist your needing to talk about what has happened to you, and what is happening within you.
     Your grieving may go on longer than you want it to. You may tire of feeling always tired. You may grow weary of your weariness. You may feel weakened by the continuing pain.
     Your task, however, is to remain in your pain long enough—not a day longer than you need to, but not a day less than your loss demands. For however uncomfortable this time is for you, it is serving a purpose. It is helping you heal. And all wounds heal the same way—from the inside out.

The best way to handle your feelings
is not to “handle” them but to feel them.

     You may receive unhelpful messages from others about how to deal with your feelings as you go through this chaotic time of your life. You may receive such messages even from yourself. Here are three examples:
     • “You must be strong now.” Sometimes you're expected to be strong for your own sake, and sometimes it's for other people, usually those in your own family. “Be strong,” of course, has another translation: “Don't show that you're weak by putting your emotions on open display.”
     • “You're handling this very well.” The translation here is, “You're not crying and acting upset in front of others.” It's reported that an entire generation took important cues about handling their loss from Jackie Kennedy on national TV in the days following JFK's murder. Her private, reserved way need not be yours.
     • “Cheer up. You'll be over this soon.” Many people know how to respond better to happy faces than sad ones. They have special difficulty when those faces stay sad for a long time. In a subtle way they're saying to people like you, “Hurry up now. Let's get this part over with.” They're saying this more for their own comfort than for yours.
     If you hear these or similar messages, you will do yourself a favor to ignore them. The best way to go through this process of dealing with loss is by following your own timetable and with your feelings firmly in place. The healthiest way to deal with your emotions is to feel them as they happen, whenever that is, wherever that occurs.
     You may experience feelings you'd expect. You may be sad about what has happened and what it means for your life. You may feel depressed, even despairing. You may find that you're more afraid than normal. You may feel lonely. You may be even more lonely when you're with other people, including people you love. You may feel tired all the time. You may be easily distracted.
     There are other feelings you may not expect to have. You may be angry, if not enraged. You may be unusually anxious and not understand why. You may feel a real sense of relief, as if a burden has been lifted from you. Afterward you may feel embarrassed that you felt so relieved. You may feel guilty, unexpectedly so.
     Another sensation you may experience is this: almost no feeling at all. You may feel empty and numb. That's a common reaction at first. It's a sign that your body may be protecting you for awhile, until you are more ready to process all that has occurred.
     What you are going through is an ordeal. It takes courage to face all you must face. It takes a huge amount of energy, and at a time when your energy reserves are in short supply. It takes dogged determination to keep doing day after day what is yours to do these days: to feel all that you feel.
     You cannot escape your emotions. Your choice is simply this: you can experience your feelings and move through them as they surface, or you can put them off until another time. But you do not have the choice of putting them off forever. Somehow, sometime, your feelings will demand your attention. By then they may be even stronger and deeper than now.
     Remember: the best way out is always through. The best way to get beyond your feelings is to experience them as fully as you can and as often as you need to.

     Jim Miller has many more suggestions about going through a time of grief in his innovative double book What Will Help Me: 12 Things to Remember When You Have Suffered a Loss. The other half of the book is entitled How Can I Help? and it’s designed for those who want to help someone like you. More information about this Willowgreen resource is available here.