I once met a woman who used the word “civilians” to describe those who had not experienced the significant loss of a loved one. The griever, she said, has been in the trenches, endured the battle up close…has seen and heard things that can’t be unseen or unheard and often suffers from the post trauma stress that can haunt long after a loss. For me the analogy worked, and it’s one I come back to often when explaining to a bereavement group that there’s certain things only a griever understands.
It’s also what I find brings so many people to seek help outside of their circle of family and friends. Perhaps in the past we would turn to the ones who know us best when struggling with the trials and challenges of life. But everything changes after a significant loss, and especially in the early days, there is no change more evident than in the griever themselves.
Maybe this is why the bereaved seek out others who have not only had a loss, but who have experienced a loss similar to their own. At a time when there is so much uncertainty and so few things that make sense, there is an opportunity for support, validation, and camaraderie when grievers make connections and feel understood.
Everything that connected us to our network before – our shared interests, hobbies, beliefs, or even the bonds of time and relationship – will not seem to matter as much in loss. The griever wants to talk with those who get it. Because while so much of this experience is foreign to the griever, it may seem even stranger still to the “civlian”.
With that in mind, here are 10 things only the griever understands:
- How it feels to be exhausted and unable to sleep at the same time: if there’s one thing we could never predict is just how tiring grieving can be. But it consumes and takes over, filling up every space of our thoughts with a constant inner monologue of pain, regret and worry. And while the promise of sleep should bring some solace and retreat from the exhaustion they feel in every part of their brain and bones, sleep simply will not come for most grievers. If it does, it is often short and restless. Meaning the opportunities for the griever to escape their pain, even for a few hours, are almost non-existent.
- Why they may want to be alone, even when feeling lonely: who knew there was more than one way to be lonely? Most would assume that loneliness is simply the state of being alone, or of not having people around. Only the griever understands what it’s like to feel alone in a room full of people. Because it’s not just about putting ourselves in a room with people, it’s about spending time with the “right” people- the people who will support and nourish us as we grieve.
- That they know exactly what they want (or don’t want) to do with their loved one’s stuff: I find most often it’s well-meaning family who misunderstand this. Certainly mom wants to move all of dad’s things out right away, isn’t it sort of depressing or morbid to keep his toothbrush where he left it? Or the whole other side of it…why is mom giving everything away? Isn’t she being too hasty, doesn’t she realize that she may regret cleaning everything out so soon? Bottom line, the griever may not know a lot or be sure of too much but for every single bereaved I have ever worked with this is the one place where they know exactly what feels right. The problem can be getting anyone else in the family to see that.
- How to make their grief more comfortable for those around them: here’s something that often happens at the groups I facilitate – a griever introduces themselves, begins to speak about their loved one and their loss, and often times, they begin to cry. If this happens, it is always, ALWAYS, followed by an apology. “I’m sorry” the griever will say, “I’m fine unless I start talking about it”. Why? Why, in all places, should someone who’s had a loss feel a need to apologize for their tears? Because that’s what they’ve become accustomed to. They spend so much of their time holding it in, not wanting to make a scene, not wanting to embarrass themselves or somebody else with their grief and their emotion, that even within the walls of a bereavement group they feel they should be holding in more or doing better masking what they are really feeling.
- How “small” tasks can suddenly become big obstacles: this happens in a lot of ways. Some of it has to do with the exhaustion mentioned above. And this can be frustrating to loved ones as the griever may be more forgetful and less productive. But it happens in other ways too. Because so much of our day-to-day life was connected to the person who was lost, we may find ourselves avoiding doing things that could be painful or remind us of our loss, when all we want to do is just get through the day. There are reminders of our loved one everywhere – throughout our home and throughout the town we live in. We may find we avoid places we used to go together, or avoid the errands that will remind us most of their loss.
- That so much more than “just” a person they love has been lost: someone you love has died. Everyone can see that. And they feel like they understand what that means, and even how sad that must make you feel. If they are a friend or family, it’s very likely they’re grieving too. But if after some time they’re doing okay, how come you’re not? Bottom line, the same loss can be felt in different ways by different people and in most cases it will be the person who shared a home and routine with the deceased that will feel the effects most acutely.
- How much they need to hear their loved one’s name: I had a friend once ask me how to talk to a loved one who was grieving. “I’m just so afraid I’ll make her cry” she told me at the time. What she didn’t understand, and what I tried to explain, is that the griever is always thinking about their loss and rare is the time when someone else is going to “remind” them of it. As stated above, their loss is pretty much all a griever can think about, whether they want to or not. Having someone share a story, or to say the deceased’s name, or just to share that they too are missing that special person can create such a wonderful opportunity of connection for the griever. And if they do cry? That’s okay.
- How long it actually takes to grieve: time heals all wounds, right? Isn’t that what most people think? That the further we get away from something bad in our lives, the easier it becomes to deal with? Friends and family attended the funeral. If we were lucky, they baked and dropped off food, called to check in, even asked how we were doing when we saw them for weeks after the loss. But then they go back to their lives, and without necessarily meaning it, they sort of expected us to return to normal too. So imagine their surprise when the griever is STILL grieving. If someone does ask, and the griever actually gives an honest answer – that 6, 8, 18, 24 months out or more, a friend may find that the griever is STILL not doing that great. And that in some ways, they may be doing even a little worse than they were in the beginning…
- That feeling better and being happy is not always the goal: you can tell I’m an optimist by how often I talk about well-meaning people in our lives. And mostly that’s because I do believe that most people are well-meaning, even if their attempts at comfort are really clumsy or really ugly. But more on that in a minute. A lot of the grievers I work with become frustrated by friends and family who try to keep them busy and distracted. Not knowing what else to do, loved ones can be trying to do everything they can to distract the griever from their grief, to help them get over it more quickly, and quite simply, to make them happy. Only the griever understands the need they have to sit with the grief, and to feel it. Would they choose the happiness they once felt with their loved one here? Of course. But knowing that’s not possible, the griever isn’t always in a rush to get to this new “happiness” that their loved ones want them to feel again. In fact, that first day of happy distraction can cause a griever to feel tremendous guilt. So as hard as it can be to experience, the griever recognizes what an important part of the journey feeling this pain and sadness can be.
- How complex, tangled and confusing real grief is: Glen Lord from “The Grief Toolbox” once said that grief is more than just one emotion. I love this explanation. Because while most people expect grief to “just” be sadness what they don’t always understand is that real grief is also guilt, regret, anger, worry, resentment, devotion, anxiety, despair, love and so much more…
There’s a few things you can do with this information. One, use it to help educate your friends and loved ones. Know that most people do want to provide help, support and understanding. Share this with them if you think it will help. Two, validate your own experience. We’re not very patient with ourselves and often doubt that we’re grieving in the way that we should. When you see everything above, let it remind you that what you’re thinking and feeling and doing is very “normal” and very much an expected part of the grieving process. Finally, forgive those in your life who don’t understand. I always say that we can only know what we know. We are each at the center of our own little universes. We have individually been raised with different beliefs, and have each experienced different things. Our outlook is different, our expectations are different, and our experiences are different. We can’t be blamed for what we don’t know, and we have to forgive the “civilians” for what they can’t understand.
Just know that these experiences and these losses mean that most grievers become a special group of their own – perceptive, and compassionate – a person who has been through a loss and come out the other side can very often become one of the most understanding and sympathetic people you’d ever want to meet. And one day, when they experience a loss of their own, the civilian will be very lucky to have the griever by their side.
Plain and simple, support helps. And support from the “right” people – those who understand, those who have experienced a loss similar to your own, makes all the difference.
Join us today. Visit www.griefincommon.com. Create and search profiles using the criteria that matters most to you. Find connections, find validation. Find those who understand.
17 thoughts on “10 Things Only a Griever Understands”
Very helpfull made me cry but that’s ok
Everything I just read is true . After the loss of my 18 yr old son to suicide, I changed n became a diff person . I was shocked to c that my own family hd no clue in regards to my pain. I found a support group n now my closest frnds r ones who’ve lost a child to suicide. It has made all the difference in r grieving process .
Progressing through grief is a goal in and of itself! Not to suggest one attains that goal as one would a degree. Time passes and energy is expended while functioning in daily routines looking forward to achieving a level above the sheer drudgery of knowing ones coping is so individual one feels compelled to agree with all of the steps outlined above. Acceptance and relief from the trauma are occurring simultaneously and yet are diametrically opposed depending on ones triggers or circumstances. It is very exhausting even when functioning through daily routines yet it changes ones perspective from before and after the loss.Sharing ones Faith is does bridge the distances between family and friends . Faith unites strangers who are in Bereavement groups and also can open a intimate need of connecting outside of family or friends . The grief or tunnel of darkness is lightened by how some days you seem to be nearer to the opening than stuck in the middle. Anyone driving through a long tunnel knows how claustphobic it feels almost holding ones breath until you see the light signifying the release from the tunnel. Ones worst fear is the tunnel collapsing in on you while you are driving routinely through it. The relief lasts until you realize you are entering yet another tunnel! Then you winder how long this tunnel is compared to the last one you just got out of and so on and on these tunnels of grief become symbolic of the grief highway.
My best friends now are women that have also lost thier husbands. We all met in a grief sharing group. It’s so nice to have friends that understand.
Loss from death is final here on earth. It can not be fixed. Things will never be the same, but a new different. Emotions will surprise you with unexpected triggers, a little like PTSD.
I keep getting anxiety and it’s almost 5 years.
It’s 8 months day. Each morning I wake up with the fresh realization, remembering anew that HE is not here. My coping/pretending to be normal skills have improved. But inside, nothing is normal and won’t ever be the same again. My grief is all about morphing into a different person, living in this world; in an existence that has become some alternate reality. When I dream I am withe Bill, it’s the only time I am truly happy, content, satisfied. Then I wake up, realize he is gone, and face another day without his presence in it.
I sometimes have a new day of the week. It’s called Cryday.
At age 13 no person near me taught me how to grieve, they didn’t know either. At 54 a loss so great and similar happened. I’ve learned and am thankful for the things like this web site to help me learn and find comfort.
Peace to you.
I liked reading this it is so true. My husband passed almost 3 years ago on the 24th of this month. My father told me not even a year had passed and said “Get on with your life. He’s gone so stop being so sad and move on. People hate being around you.” With that said he is not part of my life. I was also at the shooting for Rt91 and his text to me was you are lucky to be alive. I’m done with my family I have my daughters and that’s all that matters. So I feel all our pains prayers for all.
This articulates my experience beautifully. Thank you.
It helps to read these words when you feel like you are the only one who feels this way. I would ask myself over and over what was wrong with me? Why am I having these thoughts? I was losing my mind. Talking with other people who have these feelings and have had their “family” and/or “friends” tell them just to “get over it.” Yep, done with them, too.
Who knew it would take a horrific loss to make the true colors of everyone come out, be they good or bad. Who knew? So sad though, the loss is unbearable but to have people you thought cared about you abandon you is beyond comprehension.
My friends tell me how “strong” I am. Today is the 1 year anniversary of losing my soulmate, my best friend, my husband of nearly 30 years. I move through each day doing what I need to do, but the loss never leaves me. I’ve become automated in response to “how are you” with the “I’m ok” response. No one truly wants to know. No one knows how to handle the intense pain of loss. No one knows how to respond to the depth of my despair, so I keep it inside until I am alone. He is still the first person I want to tell things to, to ask opinions on, to vent to, to cling to…it doesn’t get any easier. I cry at mention of his name. I have little patience with trivial complaints. I can’t listen to complaints about spouses minor offenses when I’d give anything to have mine here to annoy me. I do have more patience with the suffering of others and can’t abide unkindness shown to anyone for anything. Perhaps this is my “new normal”. I don’t want to be alone, but have no desire to expect to love anyone like I love him. Grief is a solo path. No one feels what I feel and I am unable to express just what it is because I don’t understand myself. I find myself trying to protect friend’s from the guilt and inability to say or do the right things for me. I have lost contact with so many because they simply don’t know how to handle my grief. One true friend told me, “I won’t call or text because I don’t know if it will help or hurt”. Her honesty is refreshing and so true. I told her she was right and depending on the moment it could be either. Fortunately for me she is willing to let me guide her. She is there to laugh with me or cry with me whenever I need it. I am blessed to have her, but I don’t want to burden her with all of it, so I grieve alone most of the time. I know this might not make sense, but it helps to put it “out there”. My love was only 59. I still want to grow old with him. I still want only him. The pain of loss is just as great 1 year later, but I function. I know that my goal is to learn how to live with it; to learn how to live again. I want to live, to enjoy life, but I know that having had a love so strong taken away will be hard to overcome to find a way to what my life will become on my own. Thank you letting me vent, to grieve with you all. I wish God’s love and healing in your lives.
Made me cry
I live in a very small community I have attended five grief groups with in 70 miles each one seemed to me they were a social meeting , I wanted to run out after fifteen minutes. They chatted and laughed about every day things no one but I wanted to speak about the passing of they soulmate
This article has been a blessing to me once again makes me wish I could find a good grieving group 😪 my husband passed away sixteen months ago I feel like I am getting worse instead of better , no one ask me how I am or if I need help for they all believe I should be fine now
I am exhausted from pretending that I am okay I have never felt so alone ever
I was so desperate that I made an appointment with a therapist after me crying for an hour an half she told me I was normal grieving is a process that I had to go through alone I didn’t need her 😪 I will never ask for help again
Every minute of every day I keep trying to move forward an find my new normal alone
Please if anyone knows of a good book let me know
Mourning and dancing,Sally Downham Miller PHD.I FOUND this book very cathartic also,your sorrow is my sorrow, Joyce Rupp, Hope and strength in times of suffers of suffering.my heart truly is with hou, I am so lost,it’s been two years since I lost my best friend MOM and my dog and my last sibling of six, I am in actual physical pain now and it is my friend,it allows me to be alone and just be sad, I think everyday it is a bad dream and I call mom’s number and hang up, I go thru pictures and boxes , I cry , I go to bed at five hoping for a dream with her,who they happen all of my siblings and dad are there,when I wake sometimes I feel so happy to have seen her, I have to get therapy,say all my desk
I am so trying to find me again,may you find some peace thru these books, Joyce Rupp has at least five or more excellent books on the process we are trying to get through,peace to you.
It will be 3 years in March since I lost my husband. Although it was expected as he had Stage 4 cancer, our already strong marriage became even stronger as I nursed him at home.
We played chess that evening but he couldn’t concentrate. I had a nurse at night because I hadn’t been able to sleep for two weeks. He got up to go to the bathroom and he settled in bed with the cat snuggled upl. He died a few minutes later.
I thought I had accepted his death as I was mentally prepared. I was not prepared. It felt like a blow to the head which I have never completely recovered from.
I do not know myself. People say because we worked and played together I was too depended on him. I had been a career woman till 42 so I didn’t depend on him in that way
But now I feel afraid, useless and like a ship without crew drifting.
I feel sympathy for anyone bereaved in this way and wish I could give some words of help. Just stick with it. Don’t worry about dreaming of your love one and if you talk to them, so what? Do what makes you feel hopeful and motivates you for however short a time.
I have read many books and articles but I feel this hit me as the most true. I have shared it many times to my family members who just see me as angry all the time and don’t feel comfortable being around me. They want me to seek help because they don’t know what to do for me. I see here that they are right. They can’t understand. I am resistant to get help because I feel no one can help me and I do really want to feel the pain. I don’t want to get over it. I just want everyone to cut me some slack and let me do it my way. I think that is where the anger comes from. Trying to get them to not expect as much from me. I thought it was a cop out. I was feeling so guilty and lazy. Thank you for this article and all the comments. Most helpful.