Living With Grief
Helping others through shared experiences
Many people can feel alone in their grief, not realizing that others have similar thoughts and experiences. Hear from other people and families about how they are coping and navigating their lives after losing a loved one. We welcome you to share your own stories or articles about living with grief. Submit an article.
I visited my 95-year old grandmother yesterday. She lives over 300 miles from me, so I don’t get to see her as often as I’d like. As we sat catching up, she mentioned that she had been having more and more thoughts about times earlier in life when, in her words, she did things that “were not very nice”. The example she gave me was when, as a frustrated young mother, she spanked my father out of anger during potty training that wasn’t going too smoothly. Recalling the memory brought her to tears.
Knowing my father is coming to stay with her in a few days, I suggested she apologize to him for it so that she can get it off her chest and give him the opportunity to forgive her. Perhaps it will allow her to let the bad memory and associated guilt go. She seemed to like the idea. But the more I think about our conversation, I’m wondering how someone can let go of guilt when the person they feel they’ve hurt is no longer here to apologize to?
The finality of death is a difficult reality to come to terms with, and it often comes suddenly and without warning. Many times there are no opportunities to even say our goodbyes, much less give us the chance to heal all our old wounds with that person.
Sometimes we lose someone we love (or once loved) who we’ve had a difficult relationship with – or are even estranged from – and we are left with the guilt that we didn’t do enough to “fix” the relationship when we had a chance. Guilt may be intermixed with anger, especially if we felt we were the ones who need an apology from them – which we’ll never receive.
Even if we lose someone we had a wonderful relationship with, the pain from losing them is bound to bring up some level of guilt that our relationship was not “perfect” and we didn’t do or say everything we should have. After all, hindsight is 20/20.
In my case, the guilt is that I didn’t do enough to prevent my four-year-old daughter’s drowning death. I have apologized to her more times than I can count. But without her here to say the words, “I forgive you Mama,” the apology never seems to be enough; at least not enough to let go of the lingering guilt and shame.
So what do we do? Do we just live with the guilt for the rest of our lives? Do we just accept it as something we can’t change, much like the pain of grief that never fully goes away? Or do we try to shift our thinking, and change who it is we are apologizing to? Can we instead apologize to someone who is actually here to say, “I forgive you”?
The fact is, even if the person we lost were still here to accept our apology, we still need to forgive ourselves for the feelings of guilt to go away. In the case of my grandmother, even if my father accepts the apology – which, of course, he will – she will still need to forgive herself for a mistake she made almost 70 years ago in order to let the painful feeling go. The hope is that forgiveness from my dad will give her a sense of permission to forgive herself.
So rather than asking for forgiveness from the person we’ve lost – who we’ll never get a response from – perhaps we should be asking ourselves for forgiveness instead.
In my case, I need to come to terms with the fact that I am only human and make mistakes. Whether or not different choices or actions would have somehow kept my daughter alive…I’ll never know. I need to accept that my mistakes do not define me. Instead, I can use them as an opportunity to learn better decision-making skills and responses moving forward.
I am a work-in-progress, and will be for the rest of my life. Rather than asking my daughter for forgiveness, I need to ask it of myself. Will it be easy? No. But it will be the only way I will ever have a chance at letting go of my guilt and the shame associated with it.
Today, when I speak to my grandmother, I will tell her much of the same. My hope for her, myself, and everyone else who suffers the painful burden of guilt is that somehow we will find the strength to forgive our past mistakes and focus instead on how we can use the knowledge we’ve learned the hard way to make the best of the present.
I read about a little three-year-old girl who was killed when a heavy security door fell on her during a crowded fundraiser at an ice cream shop. In what can only be described as a freak, tragic accident, her devastated family is left to wonder “why?” Why her? Why did she have to be in that exact spot in the moment when the door fell? Why did the door fall at all? These questions may torment them for a long time to come. Her death is a palpable reminder that much of the time, death is very unfair.
In many support group meetings that I’ve attended over the years, a common refrain I hear is, “It isn’t fair.” Most often, they are referring to a situation where their loved one died at the hands of someone else. For example, they were hit by a drunk driver, and the person at fault came out of it with barely a scratch. In fact, fairness is in the eye of the beholder, and many bereaved people find themselves angry at the unfairness of the circumstances of their loved one’s death.
I understand their pain. Why did their mother get cancer at the young age of 45, when she had gone to great lengths to take good care of her health while other seem to indulge in many vices for years on end and live well into their 90s? Why did their brother get thrown out of the car and die when everyone else survived the crash with only cuts or broken bones? Why was their baby stillborn after an otherwise healthy full-term pregnancy, while we hear countless stories of babies born many weeks premature who survive? The fact is we consider death to be unfair whenever someone dies before we think it’s their time.
Try as you might, you cannot explain the unfairness away. No one who is bereaved wants to hear, “It was part of God’s plan; we are not meant to understand.” Well it wasn’t part of our plan, and it hurts like hell. “They were in the wrong place at the wrong time,” is not only unhelpful, but some may argue insensitive. Chances are they were in the place they were supposed to be, going about their day like just like the rest of us. But unlike the rest of us, the unthinkable happened. It is random; it is unpredictable; and it isn’t fair.
Agonizing over why they died can become an insidious trap that many bereaved get stuck in. It keeps us up at night. It can turn us into a shadow of the person we once were. It can freeze us in a state of despair or anger – or both. Unfortunately, to my knowledge there is no secret cure that can be conveyed in words. We are all unique, and so is our grief. We all need to process it at our own pace and in our own way. For some, it may take months; for others, it may take years; and some may never come to stop asking why their loved one died.
For me, it came down to accepting the finality of my daughter’s death. At four-years-old, she had drowned in our pool when no one was looking. While I knew how she died, I grappled with those questions of why. Why did the circumstances of the day unfold as they did? What if any one of those actions or choices were different; would it have changed the outcome? Why did it have to happen to us – a loving, supportive family who took good care of each other? Was there some bigger reason that I wasn’t aware of? The questions haunted me and took up all my energy.
I read many books to try to find the answers. I went to individual therapy and asked them over and over, knowing there was no answer she could give, but at least I said them out loud. I heard my questions echoed by others in the support group meetings I attended; it made me feel understood and not alone in my anguish. Eventually, I came to the understanding that continuing to ask the questions just kept feeding the dark beast that is guilt and despair. I came to realize that even if I had the answers, my daughter would still be dead and the pain would remain. So, I made the choice to stop asking why. I decided to replace it with purpose.
My daughter had died and I couldn’t change it – so what was I going to do to honor her life and memory? I’ve heard of many wonderful ways people channel their pain into ways to honor their loved one’s memory. I’ve heard of others creating large foundations in their name to help others. I’ve heard of others performing small acts of kindness for strangers in honor of their loved one. I’ve heard of everything in between. In my case, I decided to create www.aliveinmemory.org to use my personal talents to try to help others in their grief.
No matter what the act or activity, focusing your efforts on finding a way to honor your loved one can provide meaning for a death that appeared to have none. It can help shift our focus from despair to love; from anger to acceptance. And while it will never change the fact that their death was unfair, it can help us begin to heal.
Now, let me begin by saying I am not – by any means – “healed” in my grief from the death of my four-year-old daughter, Margareta, in 2009. I don’t think I’ll ever be. The day she died, a part of me died too. That loss left a gaping, tormenting hole in my heart and soul that has mostly stopped bleeding and shrunk a bit over the years, but will remain with me until the day I die.
And yet, in the years since her death, I have managed to not only learn how to live in the shadow of grief, but to allow joy and happiness back into my life. In fact, I would argue that I have learned how to harness the pain and devastation into fundamentally improving myself. Over the past few years, I have started the process of transforming from someone who used to just “survive” life without truly enjoying it to someone who is learning to thrive in most aspects of living. I am not referring to thriving in a monetary or materialistic way, but in how I open myself up to, interact with, and relate to the world around me.
So what is the secret to healing from grief? Over the last few years, I have tried to write about it. I have bared my soul and deepest, darkest feelings and fears in order to try and capture “it” so that others may use it in their own journeys of healing. And yet I’ve never been able to capture its essence in one succinct idea.
That is, until now.
I cannot take credit for it. I sat on my couch last night for some rare alone time (I am married with four kids). I looked for a show to watch on TV and decided to indulge myself by watching a recent episode of The Long Island Medium. I like watching the show because it usually provides me with an opportunity to cry and release the built-up pressure of sadness over my daughter’s death that I usually hold at bay during everyday activities.
During the episode, Theresa Caputo surprises a woman in New Orleans with a private reading. The woman had lost her 15-year-old only child, Kamen, in a car accident some years before. Her sister described her as a “shell of her former self”.
In the reading, Theresa is communicating what Kamen wants to convey to his mother. He describes her as constantly going back to the day he died, and – in fact – living her life trapped in that horrible moment of time. She appears to be stuck in the worry and guilt that many bereaved parents face: that their child suffered alone, in devastating pain, and scared in their last moments. It torments us.
Then Theresa – using Kamen’s words – offers the secret to healing our grief in a simple, profound way. Theresa says:
He said, “The way you loved me is the way that you can heal.” All the love, encouragement, and everything you gave your son; if you gave that to yourself, you would be healed.
And there it is. It hit me like a ton of bricks. Everything I have tried to convey in the past few years encapsulated in one succinct statement.
I have begun to heal, and even thrive, because for the first time in my life, I am learning to treat myself the way I treat my kids. I am learning how to unconditionally love myself. I am learning how to look inward for support and encouragement during even the most difficult days and moments. I am learning how to transform the darkness of grief into the light of love by looking for the lesson hidden deep within the pain.
I would be lying if I told you that embodying this statement is easy. In my experience it is not. But I am convinced that it is the basic understanding that we need to begin to heal our grief. And with knowledge, comes power – the power to choose whether we are at the mercy of our grief, or whether we teach ourselves to not only live with the pain, but use it to reach a deeper, more fulfilling understanding of life itself.
I wish you peace and comfort on your journey.
Not too long ago, we took a family vacation to the Grand Canyon National Park. It was our first time visiting the park. For our second day there, we planned a relatively easy 1.5-mile hike that we could all do together as a family, including our three-year-old son.
Not too far into the hike, it soon became clear that it would not work with our toddler, so my husband turned around to take him back. But before doing so, he suggested that me and our other kids (ages 15 and 12) hike to the end of the trail – a 12 mile round trip and over 3,700 feet down (and then back up again). Our family has done numerous big hikes in Yosemite, so our kids were excited about the prospect. I, on the other hand, thought only of the strenuous effort required for such a hike, and the certain overwhelming pain that would result.
I immediately brushed off the idea and insisted that I was willing to hike to the 1.5-mile rest stop and then turn around. I had no intentions of being pressured or bullied into a hike I wasn’t mentally prepared for. So I focused my attention and efforts on walking down the dusty switch-backs, while feeling the pain start to creep into my knees and ankles. When we reached the first rest stop, my kids begged me to keep hiking down the canyon to the end of the trail.
Again, I immediately thought of the impending pain of hiking back up the steep trail. But as I looked into the pleading eyes of my kids, I recalled past hikes to tops of majestic waterfalls and the beauty we saw as well as the camaraderie we shared, and decided to go another one and a half miles to the 3-mile rest stop. After all, I thought, it was still early in the day and we’d been on many six and seven mile hikes.
As we started down the steep switch-backs again, my 12-year-old began protesting that we shouldn’t stop at three miles, but go all the way to the end of the trail, which loomed far in the distance. When I rebuffed his efforts to change my mind, he grew sullen and moody. I got so frustrated by his attitude; I snapped at him to cut it out and suggested we turn around right then and there if he didn’t. Having come to an impasse with his disappointment and my irritation, we called an unspoken truce and kept walking.
We continued down the dusty trail, admiring the amazing beauty of the Grand Canyon. I found myself focusing less on the pain, and more on the adventure of it all. It was also a rare opportunity to have intimate conversations with my kids that are usually held at bay by busy schedules and ever intruding technology. Sure, my knees and ankles still hurt, but the enjoyment of the moment was stronger than the pain.
We finally made it to the 3-mile rest stop. We used the restroom and sat to rest. The end of the trail lingered in the distance, but didn’t seem so far now. The ending point was another three miles away, but half of the trail appeared flat. A big, bright sign warned hikers to carefully consider whether they should continue down the trail. “Going down is optional. Coming back up is MANDATORY!” it read.
My kids didn’t say a word, but they looked into my eyes with hopeful anticipation. At that moment, I let my defenses down. I knew the trip up was going to be very hard and painful. I knew I would be sore for days. But was I really ready to let this once in a lifetime opportunity pass me by because I was afraid of temporary pain and hard work? Despite all my earlier protests, I decided to go, and my kids were thrilled. Their excitement was contagious, and I happily started down the last three miles.
We finally reached the end of the trail around noon, and peered down at the powerful Colorado River cutting through the steep walls of rock. We posed for pictures and soaked in the majesty of the Grand Canyon from deep within. It didn’t matter that we had a six-mile hike up over 3,700 feet back up to the rim – which looked impossibly far away. We were busy enjoying the moment.
The trip back up was very hard. I focused on taking one step at a time rather than continuing to look at how far we still had to go. When the pain and tiredness felt overpowering, I repeated a silent mantra to myself: “Slow and steady; slow and steady.” I took rests when I needed to. I continued to hydrate myself. My boys lovingly offered me encouragement and support when they saw the obvious pain on my face.
Eventually, we made it to the top, and the sense of accomplishment and gratitude was as palpable as the incredible pain and fatigue I felt. Even better were the smiles and deep appreciation on the faces of my boys.
Thinking back on this experience, it reminds me of my journey of grief over the past four and a half years.
When my daughter died suddenly in 2009, it felt as though I was thrown into a deep dark crevasse of devastating pain and disorientation. The only way out appeared to be like an impossible, excruciating, never-ending climb up and out. Never having experienced anything even remotely similar, I saw only two options.
The first option was to stay in the shadow of fear and despair, and try to escape the unbearable pain by avoiding any sort of meaningful interaction with life by numbing myself to everything around me. I could have done this with drugs and alcohol, or I could have withdrawn from all relationships and become a shell of my former self. Much like my anticipation of a 12-mile hike being too painful to even attempt, the fear of living a happy life without my daughter seemed an impossible feat. Early on in my grief, it seemed so out of reach that I didn’t even want to try to feel happy again.
During this time, it seemed to me the only way to end the overwhelming pain was to end my own life, which I was unwilling to do, if only for the sake of my other children. So, I was left with the only other option I could see: walk toward the pain and learn how to live with it.
When I resigned myself to the second option, an unexpected thing happened. Much like when I resigned myself to the idea of going on a 12-mile hike – knowing how painful it would be – a weight was lifted off my shoulders, and my perspective began to change. The dread was replaced by resolve. I would do what it took to re-learn how to live my life in a new way that honored my daughter.
I decided to aspire to the qualities of my daughter that I admired most, and embraced them to begin to rebuild stronger, more emotionally intimate and honest relationships with family and friends. With an open mind and a willing heart, I began to tackle not just the pain of my daughter’s death, but all of the pain and regret over the years that I had long avoided. It was a new beginning, and shafts of light began to break through the dark clouds and their shadows.
Just like the six miles up 3,700 feet, it wasn’t an easy path. It was tiring and painful, and at times I couldn’t imagine how I was ever going to make it through. But slow and steady, I kept moving forward and up. I embraced the support of family and friends, and became my own biggest cheerleader and champion. For the first time in my life, I truly believed in myself and my strength.
My hike of grief is not anywhere near over. The climb will last the rest of my life. The pain will always be there. But like my hike with my children in the Grand Canyon, I am continually learning to balance the pain with the rewards. I have new-found gratitude for my loving relationships. I have a new sense of awe for the beauty that surrounds me. I know that no matter how hard or impossible my path may seem at times, I have the strength to persevere.
I now have the perspective to focus on the journey at hand, instead of an elusive pain-free end point or the regrettable missteps of the past. I can also feel that my daughter is with me every step of the way, whispering love and encouragement into my heart and soul. And for that, I am truly grateful.
I lost my four-year-old daughter in 2009. Until that point, my experience with death was limited. It wasn’t that I hadn’t experienced deaths of people I knew throughout my life – quite the contrary – it was that I hadn’t lost someone so significant in my life that I couldn’t imagine living without them.
Before my daughter’s death, I had been to more funerals and wakes than I cared to remember. I had felt incredibly sad and not known what to say to the immediate family members of the deceased. I had looked in uncomfortable silence upon the impossibly still faces of the people who died and tried to distract myself from the sickening sensation of being exceedingly aware of my own mortality.
Like many people, my support of anyone grieving was limited to telling them, “I’m so sorry,” and then trying to put the whole experience out of my mind as soon as the funeral was over. That way, I could more easily avoid those pesky uncomfortable and painful feelings associated with the harsh reality of death and loss.
Now that I’ve been on the receiving end of those condolences and uncomfortable silences, I can offer my perspective of some of the best ways to support someone who has experienced the loss a loved one.
Don’t try to lessen the pain of loss
With best intentions, people may try to justify the loss in order to soften the pain. How many times have you heard, “It’s part of God’s plan”? Even if you believe it to be true, it doesn’t make the pain of loss any easier. Neither does, “They’re at peace now,” or “They’re in a better place.” In fact, trying to justify the loss usually just makes bereaved people feel worse.
What’s a helpful alternative? Be honest, and let them know how you feel. I would have rather people admit that they didn’t know what to say, or that they felt horrible about what happened. I would have liked to hear how much they loved my daughter and that they would miss her terribly. It would have made me feel less alone in my devastation.
Don’t try to compare losses
Every loss is unique because every relationship is unique and every person has a different set of life experiences. Even if you are tempted to say, “I know how you feel,” resist the urge. Maybe you think you do, but chances are you don’t. Instead, if you don’t know what else to say, sometimes the best thing to offer is a silent hug and shared tears.
Offer practical assistance
Depending on the person and the loss, some people may appreciate assistance with basic needs. If a loss is especially devastating, you can offer to bring a prepared meal or help with chores like laundry or shopping. While some people may feel embarrassed by the offers, others will find them invaluable. I welcomed donated meals from caring friends and coworkers, and it was immensely helpful during a time when cooking and cleaning seemed impossibly hard.
Be understanding and supportive long after the funeral is over
One of the hardest things about losing someone so close to you is that they may remain prominently in your thoughts long after the rest of the world appears to have forgotten about them. The pain of loss does not have a set timetable. For some, it will last the rest of their lives. One of the best acts of support you can offer someone is to let them know you still care about their loss months and even years later. Just mentioning their loved one’s name can mean the world to them – and so will you.
While these are a few things based on my personal experience, there are many more things you can do to support someone who is bereaved. There are wonderful resources in books and on the Internet, and I encourage you to seek them out.
While I will never know the unique pain of losing an only child, I know that raising my sons after the death of my daughter, Margareta, has been full of challenges.
At the time of her death, our family consisted of my husband and me, our three boys from our previous marriages (ages 10, 9, and 7), and our daughter together, Margareta (age 4). On that fateful day, two of her older brothers were home with us. They watched in helpless fear as the chaos of her drowning unfolded. I remember the police trying to distract me as I continued to scream in horror at the sight of paramedics desperately working on her. They kept telling me to comfort my boys instead. How could I? While we had moments of hugging and sobbing together, I would be compelled to go back and watch the resuscitation efforts to see if there was any sign of hope. I completely abandoned them in their greatest time of need.
We all went to the hospital where my stepson and his mom joined us while they continued to work on her in the ER. Their sister was later pronounced dead, and our boys went to stay with their other parents that night. My husband and I were simply unable to function. They boys did not return for several days. When they did, we were not the parents they needed. We were captives of our devastation. We did the best we could, but in hindsight, they had not only lost their sister…they had lost their parents too.
In the days and months that followed, we tried to make sure they received the external support they needed. We took them to a grief counselor. We worked with their teachers and principal to make sure they had regular check-ins with the school counselor. We tried to keep the knowledge of their sister’s death limited to close friends and sports teammates so they wouldn’t be inundated with uncomfortable questions and unwanted attention from classmates. We signed them up for grief support activities and groups at a local hospice. We encouraged them to talk to us about their feelings. We bought them journals to write or draw in.
Despite all of this, they never wanted to talk to us about her death or their feelings. They didn’t want to return to the grief support groups after those first sessions. They turned down offers to go to a grief support camp for kids. They eventually stopped wanting to talk to the school counselor. It was frustrating to say the least. I was horribly concerned for their wellbeing. I hated the idea of them holding in all the painful feelings I was sure they had. I already felt that I had failed my daughter in the worst way possible. Now I felt like I was failing them too.
My various grief support counselors reassured me that their behavior was normal. They explained that younger children are not equipped to deal with such intense feelings, and need to return to a sense of normalcy to feel safe. They explained that it will likely be many years before they begin to fully process their sister’s death. I was advised to just keep an eye on them for signs of major depression or sudden changes in behavior. So I did.
Despite their need to return to “normal”, I was unable to shield them from my overwhelming grief. Even if I had tried, I wouldn’t have been able to suppress my tears and obvious sadness. Since I couldn’t, I decided I needed to be honest with them. I needed them to know it was normal to feel sad. I wanted them to know that the painful feelings after the death of a loved one isn’t something you sweep under the rug and never talk of again.
With the birth of their baby brother the year after Margareta’s death, I was faced with a new challenge: learning how to raise a child in the shadow of the death of a sister he never knew. We knew he was not a “replacement” of his sister, but how would we make sure he knows that? I wondered if my grief would allow me to be the mother he needed. Thankfully, I was.
I think for all of us, he was the catalyst for reintroducing joy into our lives. That is not to say our painful feelings of grief magically disappeared on his arrival – quite the opposite. But he taught us that intense pain and joy can coexist together. Feelings of pain can be softened by joy, and grief has the effect of making our appreciation of the sweetness and joys of life become that much more meaningful.
Now that he is a toddler, new challenges arise. He can recognize Margareta in pictures, but he does not understand why he cannot play with her. He thinks trips to the cemetery are normal, although he doesn’t really know why we’re there. I have not yet figured out how to explain the concept of death to him in a way that he truly understands. That will have to wait for another day.
Almost five years after her death, I recently asked my older children what was the hardest part of losing their sister. Their answer was unanimous: they didn’t like thinking about it because it was so painful. They didn’t want to talk to me about it because it would just make me sadder. They hated reminders of it…like walking by her empty room. They aren’t as uncomfortable thinking about it as much these days, but they don’t go out of their way to do so. Thankfully, they feel more comfortable expressing their feelings.
I know the challenges of raising my children in the wake of their sister’s death are probably far from over and will change over time. We don’t know what lies ahead, but we know that we will love and support each other along the way.
I’ve never been a big fan of Mother’s Day.
I grew up in a household where my own mother thought Mother’s Day was a racket created by Hallmark and the retail industry to sell more products. She taught me from an early age that you should show love and appreciation every day – not just reserve it for one day out of the year. She preferred hand-made cards over store-bought, and she preferred hand-made presents and quality time with us over bouquets of flowers, jewelry, or store-bought gifts.
When I became a mother myself, I was often embarrassed at the fuss others would make over me. While I appreciated the presents and acknowledgement of my success as a mother, I too believed that you should strive to show love and appreciation every day rather than one day out of the year.
But in 2010, my view of Mother’s Day completely changed. Instead of seeing it as an unnecessary excuse to sell products, it became a day I downright detested the thought of. It was the first Mother’s Day after the drowning death of my four year old daughter the previous fall. It was a horrible, impossibly painful reminder that one of my children – one of my reasons for being – was no longer with me.
I remember telling my husband that year that I wanted no celebration. No presents. No acknowledgement of what day it was. The mere thought of it brought tears to my eyes and a sick feeling in my stomach. There was nothing to celebrate. How could there be? Mother’s Day was now like a big scarlet letter on my chest showing what a horrible mother I was. I felt as if I had failed as a mother. I had failed to keep my child safe. I had lied to her all the times I had told her, “Mommy will never let anything happen to you.”
For any mother who has lost a child – and for that matter, anyone who has lost their mom – Mother’s Day is not a day of celebration, but of sadness. The reminder of what you have lost overshadows the memories of what you once had. It doesn’t help that in the U.S., Mother’s Day is one of the most heavily advertised “holidays” behind Christmas. You can’t escape it. Reminders are EVERYWHERE.
Time has softened my feelings of failure as a mother. I look at my four boys; I see that they are healthy and relatively happy, and I’m proud to know that I played a large part in that. I have accepted that what happened to my daughter was a tragic accident. I know that most of the time, the actions and activities that happened that fateful day do not end in death. I understand that it is unreasonable to think I can be with my children 24 hours a day protecting them from every threat. I know that certain things are simply not in my control.
Still, if I had my way, I’d prefer to avoid Mother’s Day altogether. It has become a day for my children, not for me. It is a day for them to follow the societal norm and show that they appreciate and love me. I will appreciate whatever they choose to do or give to me, but it will never again be a happy day for me. It will forever be a reminder that one of my children is missing from the celebration. The only thing that could ever change my mind about Mother’s Day is to have all five of my children with me on that day.
But, of course, that will never happen.
When we think of grief, we usually focus on our emotions. As anyone who has suffered a great loss can tell you, the emotional pain and suffering it produces can defy words to describe it. But grief also has a physical side, which isn’t talked about as much.
Over the past four and a half years since my daughter’s death, my grief has had manifested itself in in a variety of physical ways. From debilitating exhaustion to body aches and pains to feelings of nausea – my emotional pain is often accompanied by physical symptoms.
While I have always held tension in my shoulders, resulting in neck and shoulder aches most of my life, in the first few weeks and months after my daughter’s death, my entire body was painfully tight and sore. It felt as if I had just done the hardest full body workout of my life with weights that were too heavy. It was even painful to walk. I got a professional massage to try and alleviate the pain. It helped relax my muscles a little, but by the next day, the pain was just as bad as before. It took months before the pain dissipated.
Exhaustion was also a major problem. The overwhelming emotional pain completely sapped me of all my energy, and I felt like a zombie walking around going through the motions of daily life. I was so tired all the time that it felt like I had lead shoes on. Every step was heavy. Little things like showering became almost impossible because I didn’t have the energy for it. I can only imagine that level of exhaustion is what it would feel like if I didn’t sleep for days on end. And yet all I did in my down time was just that – sleep. Sleep was the only escape from everything going on around me.
Nausea was another symptom that showed up often. I literally felt sick to my stomach when faced with various emotions. Most often, that sensation was associated with remembering and reliving the trauma of the day she died – but it is also associated with feelings of guilt or regret. And it was often accompanied by a pain in my chest and feeling short of breath. Not quite a full-blown panic attack…but close. Almost five years later, I still feel those symptoms every time my memory of the day she died is triggered. Usually it is triggered by the sight and sounds of fire truck and ambulance sirens. But sometimes the triggers are not so obvious. I’ve learned to just let the physical sensations take over, knowing they are only momentary.
Another physical symptom that accompanies grief can include weight loss or gain – depending on whether you lose your appetite completely or mindlessly eat to try to distract yourself from the pain. I experienced both. In the first few weeks, it was almost impossible to eat anything. Between not being hungry and feeling nauseous the rest of the time – I had to force myself to eat. It helped that friends graciously donated meals for our family to eat. After that initial phase, I gained weight by eating unhealthy food and eating when I wasn’t hungry to try and gain even a little ounce of comfort. Food brought no comfort, but I just ate anyway. Today, I’m still trying to lose that extra weight brought on by mindless eating.
Grief can also produce insomnia, a lowered immunity, and some people believe that it can even manifest itself in diseases or serious conditions. Whatever your physical symptoms are, it is your body’s way of reacting to the unbearable emotional pain you’re experiencing. It can also serve as a reminder that it is important to take care of ourselves during this difficult time. My grief was a wake-up call that I had to put my needs first – something I was not in the habit of doing. I have since learned to take better care of myself – both physically and emotionally – and I am grateful for that.
Have you ever thought to yourself that a loved one who died will come walking through the door at any moment? Even though you know they are dead, the anticipation of seeing and hearing them again feels so real, it can’t possibly be wrong? It’s more than just wishful thinking. It is a common example of when intense grief can make the irrational seem rational.
While I never experienced the thought that my daughter would come walking around the corner after her death, I vividly remember one moment from a day about a month after her sudden death at four years old from a drowning accident. It was the first rainfall of the fall season, and it was cold and windy and pouring rain. I remember tears running down my face with knots in my stomach because I was overwhelmed with the feeling of helplessness that my daughter was alone, cold, shivering, and incredibly afraid out there under the soaking wet ground at the cemetery. And there was nothing I could do about it. Looking back, it was a completely irrational thought, but at that moment it was as real to me as the hot tears running down my face.
Though some irrational thoughts have no basis in reality, many others start from a justified idea or thought, but become twisted with convoluted reasoning. For me, examples of these types of thoughts included my daily compulsion – multiple times a day – to look for dead bodies in our pool where my daughter drowned even though no one had been anywhere near it most days. Or the idea that I couldn’t get rid of anything that she wore or touched because it would mean losing her all over again. Or waking up many times during the night fully convinced that my youngest son (born after his sister’s death) had died of SIDS because I couldn’t hear him on the baby monitor. This went on for years. I’m sure anyone reading this who has experienced significant grief can come up with multiple examples of their own irrational thoughts.
Why does grief cause us to have them?
While there may be some actual scientific or psychiatric rationale, in my opinion, irrational thoughts might just come from the act of our minds trying to make sense of something that inherently doesn’t make sense to us. Death came when it wasn’t supposed to. Our loved one died – possibly tragically, or suddenly, or unfairly, or all of the above – and we can’t imagine how we are going to survive the rest of our life without them.
Whatever the case, irrational thoughts during grief is actually quite normal. Most people seem to have them in varying degrees, and I’ve spoken to many people in grief support groups who said they felt like they were going crazy because of them at one point or another. In my experience, they seem to subside over time as you more fully accept the reality of their death.
In fact, they are really just a part of life in general; not just associated with grief.
Before my daughter died, I was fully aware of all the accidents that can befall us and all the things that can go wrong with raising a child. As any parent would, I took precautions and steps to protect my children and taught them how to be safe. The nightly news constantly shows stories about death and tragedy…but I was fully convinced in the notion that as horrible and heart-wrenching as those events were, none of them would ever actually happen to me or my family. Why? I’m not entirely sure. Perhaps it was because we mostly played by the rules and didn’t take huge risks. Looking back, the idea that we were somehow immune to significant tragedy was an irrational thought in itself. But it didn’t feel that way at the time.
Ironically, I personally think one of the most pervasive and harmful irrational thoughts related to grief is the one shared by various cultures around the world – that once the funeral is over, mourners should quickly move on and get over it. And if that’s not possible, then the pain should be suppressed and hidden because it makes others uncomfortable. This unreasonable idea denies a basic, universal truth. Grief is hard. Grief is painful. While no one wants to experience it, at some point in your life, grief is unavoidable. And no, as much as you want it to, it will not go away after a week, or a month, or in some cases, for the rest of our lives.
But another universal truth about grief is that it is the result of a profound, unending love for someone. That love, combined with the willingness to deal with your grief rather than suppress it, as well as getting support for it, will allow you to work through it. Though it will be unbearably painful at times, you will survive it. And whether you believe it or not, you can grow and even thrive in the shadow of it – and I promise you that is not an irrational thought.
I lost my ex-husband, Bill, (father to my 3 children) last July 2013. The grief struck me hard. He fought the disease of addiction. The addiction won the battle. He was just so tired and took his life. I too have seen signs via several ladybugs and one dragon fly. I believe wholeheartedly it was him trying to comfort me and let me know he was ok. I found aliveinmemory.org via a search on ladybugs and afterlife. I believe more than ever in life after death now.