Secondary Losses: Why Grief is So Hard & Lasts So Long

secondary lossesI find that most grievers are surprised by their grief. By the depth of it, the longevity of it, and the inflexibility of it.

On the one hand it seems obvious why we suffer so intensely after someone we love has died. The absence of someone who played such a significant role in our lives is going to leave a void that no one and nothing can fill. As time passes and we expect to be feeling better, we  instead face a daily assault of reminders that can trigger harsh and violent waves of grief that may sometimes be just too much to bear.

But why? Why, when we feel we’re working so hard, and getting the support, and being patient and taking the time to grieve – why do we still face this daily hurt that cuts so deep, and why does it continue to happen even as the months and years pass by?

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Grief & the Holidays: Caring for You

Grief HolidaysI was going to start this article explaining why it was being written. Something like, “For most of us, throughout our lives, we anticipate the arrival of the holidays with joy and excitement. The frenzy of parties and shopping, of baking, decorating and spending time with family- but for the griever, this excitement is replaced with a sense of dread.”

But you know this already.

Most people I speak with say, “I wish we could just fast forward to January 2” and view the holidays as no longer something to look forward to, but a looming date on the calendar that is filled with fear and despair.

Assuming we don’t have a time machine or the ability to hibernate through a tough winter season, how do we get through this very difficult time of year?

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Grief in the Age of Gratitude.

grief gratitude

Gratitude.

Such a simple idea… slowing down, taking stock of our lives, making the choice to focus on the good we have, and spending less time searching and yearning for what we don’t. Pausing in nature, taking more time with our kids, realizing that we ALREADY have everything we need…to me, the idea of finding gratitude in everyday life was such a simple but game changing goal.

And then suddenly, it was everywhere. In hashtags, and mommy blogs, in commercials, in the stores, suddenly everyone was being told: be thankful for what you have (and what they don’t say: be thankful for what you have, no matter what that is).

Still sounds okay, right? What could be wrong with encouraging this shift in so many people’s way of thinking?
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Grief Support: “I Want You to Know…”

shutterstock_138709043One of the best things about participating in a grief support group is the relief that comes at the realization that, finally, “I’m not alone”. There are others who can relate and who understand.

Knowing that you’re not “crazy”, and that other people have shared the same thoughts, and acted in similar ways. This safe haven where everyone else nods in agreement as you tell your story–what’s happened, where you are now, and as you wonder, what comes next?

With the right group and the right facilitator a grief support group can be one of the safest and most comfortable places to be.

And while I spend so much of my time encouraging people to participate in a group for just that reason there’s a second part of this that’s all very important to ask – what happens when we leave the cozy space of the group?

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Disenfranchised Grief: Stop Judging, Start Accepting

Disenfranchised GriefThere is a term called “Disenfranchised Grief” and it can be used to describe any time a person’s loss is not being validated or substantiated by those closest to them.

This creates a real problem for the griever. Not only do they have to struggle with the loss, but if they feel they have to defend the depths and complexities of their sadness to those around them, they may feel even more isolated, confused and alone.

Though largely unspoken, there are rules in grieving, and judgments being made about how sad we should be and for how long based on a number of factors. They can include the relationship we had with the person who died, their age when they passed, and in what way (sudden vs. expected) they died.

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How to Get a Better Night’s Sleep when Grieving

sleepWhile there are many signs and symptoms of grieving (see, “Allowing Grief to Run Its Course”) there is one that seems every griever has in common – difficulty sleeping. This can mean having trouble falling asleep, or being able to fall asleep but then waking up in the middle of the night and being unable to go back to sleep. It’s an especially frustrating symptom as a lack of sleep only serves to contribute to the weariness a griever is already feeling.

Grief is an exhausting process. A person who has lost a loved one will find their every waking moment filled with thoughts about their loss.

It can be in the form of questions….could I have done more? Or tried harder? Or saw a different doctor or sought treatment sooner? Or, what if I never let him leave the house that night? Should I have tried harder to get her to stop smoking? Or take better care of herself? Should I have seen the signs that he was doing so poorly?

Mixed in with the questions from the past, are the future worries. What comes next? Where will I go from here? How am I supposed to go on? How can I go to work and take care of the rest of my family now? Who is going to take care of me?

And finally, sleep can elude the griever as they find themselves consumed with the sights and sounds encountered leading up to their loved one’s death. Reliving what their loved one looked like in their final days, the sounds of their breathing or of their suffering. If the loss wasn’t following a long illness, the trauma can come from remembering the phone call that came, or the atmosphere of the hospital when they were told the news.

While these thoughts and worries exhaust the griever all day long, the night brings no respite. In fact, the quiet and lack of other distractions can mean that many people find themselves staring at a dark ceiling each night, as their body begs for sleep but their thoughts won’t allow it.

Problem is, a good night’s sleep is a crucial part of our well being, and as the mind and body try to heal from grief it is even more important. And yet, it is often overlooked as an important part of what it takes to help a griever begin to feel themselves again and move forward.

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Grieving in the Second Year After a Loss

 

GrievingThere is a pretty well-accepted theory on grieving that the first year is the hardest. The loss is so new, the first months can be spent in a blur of shock and disbelief.

This can be especially true for a sudden loss, but can surprise people when they are in “shock” even after a loved one has died following a long and drawn out illness.

I’ve said it many times: nothing, and I mean NOTHING, can prepare us for the finality of death.

Navigating that first year, through anniversaries, birthdays and holidays can feel endless. But the assumption for most is that as long as they can get through that, it should be smoother sailing in the days ahead.

And then year 2 happens.

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Your Grief is Terrifying to Those Around You

 

HereGrief’s what you don’t expect when suffering with the grief of losing someone you love; that suddenly the majority of the people you spend time with (family, friends, coworkers) are afraid of you.

“Afraid of me?”, you wonder, because really, what is more frail or feeble, than a person in the throes of grief?

It may not appear that they are afraid of you. In fact, it’s likely they don’t realize it themselves.

But consider this: prior to the loss of your loved one you may have felt that you had a mostly supportive group of friends and family. And I think for most, our hope is that when bad things happen in life, it’s going to be those closest friends and family who will be there to support us.

And then…surprise! We lose a loved one, and suddenly the network of people we can turn to shrinks.

How could that be? Don’t they know that their support is needed now more than ever? What could possibly make it so that the people we care about retreat at the time when we need them most?

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Grieving the Relationship That Never Was

Grieving

Most of the grief articles and forums I see are dedicated to the loss of a beloved family member. Stories, poems and tributes to the loss of a loved one that are filled with declarations and promises of a love that will never be forgotten.

It’s easy from this to assume that every person lost is being mourned by a person they had a long, loving and meaningful relationship with. Even within bereavement groups it can be assumed that people will only take the time to attend and to grieve for someone they loved and will miss.

But grief, like life and our relationships themselves, can be much more complicated than that.

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If You Can’t Stand To Look At The Empty Chair – Sit In It

loss of a loved oneWhen you gather a group of people who have lost a loved one, one topic that inevitably comes up is what to do with their “stuff”: clothes, medicine, eyeglasses…

You can split a room on this topic. One half who are holding on tight to their loved one’s belongings, keeping the toothbrush where it was left, shoes where they were taken off, and medications on the counter top.

The other half says they have a hard time looking at these belongings, as they feel they are a constant and sad reminder of the person who is no longer here. I remember a man telling me that he re-painted the entire inside of his house, simply to cover over and remove the pain he felt in looking at the colors and decorations his wife had chosen.

There’s no right or wrong answer in this debate (See our previous article on “Shoulds” if you need a reminder of that).

But what happens when it’s not so simple, and you’re finding it difficult to move forward. Let’s say you have cleaned out a bit by donating eyeglasses, throwing out those things that held little sentimental value, and giving away old clothes to family who wanted them.

If you shared a home with the person who has died- slept in the same bed, sat at a kitchen table with them each day, had “your” seats in the living room when you watched TV together- how do you handle being in those places without them?

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