By Virginia Palmer

Grief is powerful. It can reduce a person to tears over something that would usually go unnoticed. Grief can overwhelm a person with such anger that it is hard to go on with life. When this happens, “life as you know it” ends. As a person moves through grief, the whole world looks different. The response to the world changes too. You may have heard the advice, don’t sell your home or change too many things for at least a year after a death. That is good advice because when you are grieving your mind may not be seeing things clearly. By delaying important decisions if you can you may be more able to deal with responsibilities and make better choices.

In her book On Death and Dying, Swiss-born psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler-Ross described what she called the stages of grief. She listed these stages as denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. The British psychiatrist John Bowlby, another expert in this field, described the steps differently. He talked about the stages as shock and numbness, yearning and searching, disorganization and despair, and reorganization. There are many different ways to describe grief. Whatever you wish to call the different stages of grief, all of us experience something like this at times of profound loss. In working your way through grief, only a few of us start in denial and end up with acceptance. These descriptions of emotions by Kubler-Ross and Bowlby are just two ways to describe this journey. There is no right or wrong way to grieve and no set timetable.

When a loss occurs, it is normal to withdraw from life. The house becomes terribly quiet. You can find yourself listening for a noise that will let you know someone is there. It feels unreal to just continue on with life. Things such as cooking and eating, or shopping, or filling the car with gas just don’t matter. How can the world continue? It seems wrong that the grass continues to grow and stills needs mowing, and the school bus still stops at the corner for the children.

If the loss was unexpected, you may feel angry at the unfairness of life. You may feel helpless and hurt. You may experience resentment. If the death was expected due to a prolonged illness, you may feel relief only to become depressed later. You may find that during the last few months of the patient’s life, you were fighting to just keep yourself going. You may have directed your anger at the person who was sick without recognizing that this is all part of grief. You may experience guilt after the death occurs. All of these emotions are normal at this time and not something you can completely control.

Disorganization and despair permeate a person’s life almost immediately after loss. Bills arrive and go unpaid. Books are unread. Nights in bed are spent sleepless, as the mind works its way though grief and loneliness. You may think, “I should have tried harder, and listened more, and loved more…” “Why didn’t I take the time to go fishing with him?” “Why didn’t I go to the concert with her?” “Why did I fight with our son just before the accident?” “Why did I…?” Grief is full of these questions. Disorganization and guilt walk hand and hand with grief.

As a person heals, books become enjoyable again and the bills get paid on time. Confusion begins to evolve into an understanding that there is nothing from the past that can be changed. This understanding includes awareness that you can still make a difference in the present and in the future. If you open your heart and mind to grief, you can learn from it. Gradually your life will move on. Your loneliness will be transformed into solitude. Then solitude can offer peace and living well with the loss.

Bob died a year ago. I feel so honored to have been his wife and friend. This year has been a lonely year for me but one of looking at my life. It has been a time to sit quietly and discover who I am and where I have been. I am beginning to discover how un-lonely being alone can be. I can talk to Bob in my heart and he is always near. I can go out and make a solitary path of footprints in the wet grass, knowing that I am holding joy, peace, and love in my mind. I am discovering me.

As you are working your way through grief, here are some suggestions from people who have been there.

  • Don’t let yourself become isolated. If a friend invites you to dinner or a movie, go, even if you think you will cry or be uncomfortable. It is important to continue living. Your friends love you and want your company whether you are single or are part of a couple.
  • When someone asks you how you are, learn to share your feelings. You will not only be helping yourself, but you will be helping others to understand.
  • Couples may develop over time a division of labor, such as one pays the bills and the other mows the grass. When you lose a spouse or partner and need help with different projects, ask for it and learn to accept it when it is offered. Most people would like to help but don’t know what to do or how to get the chance to help. Even strangers will be glad to help. For example, if you weren’t previously responsible for car maintenance, ask the gas station attendant what oil to use in the car or how to fill the tires. Each challenge you meet will make you feel better about yourself and will give you confidence that you can solve whatever problem arises.
  • Staying healthy will pay off. Eat nourishing meals, even if you don’t feel like it. If you feel like you physically need some help, talk to your doctor.
  • Exercise daily if you can, even if it is only a walk around the block. Getting outside and moving will give you peace. Walking at least 30 minutes a day will have a big effect on your health. Ask a friend to walk with you. Or, walk and have a heart-to-heart talk with the person who has just died.
  • Try to maintain a regular sleep pattern. Go to bed at your usual time and get up when you normally would, even if you have not slept well. Then, if you need to take a short nap after lunch, do it.
  • You may want to join a grief support group or seek individual counseling.
  • Talk with others about the person who has died. Let your friends know that you want to talk and share past experiences. Give others a chance to talk about their feelings.
  • Help children to talk about what they remember. Children have special needs when grieving. They may need to be encouraged to talk about loss by attending a special children’s support group. Cry with them. Don’t hide your tears.
  • Now is a wonderful time to try something different. Sign up for golf or tennis lessons. Try an art class. Volunteer at your local library or museum. Buy tickets to a play. Invite a friend to lunch.

These are just a few suggestions and ideas to help you during this time. You can find many more ideas through hospice organizations, churches, counselors, and social service agencies. The Internet is a great way to learn about new things, including grief.

When Sam died, I felt like part of me left too. I was just treading water, not knowing where to swim. I became determined to just “take care of things.” This postponed my grieving, but did not take it away. Eleven months later, feeling confused and without direction, I attended a bereavement support group. The group consisted of people who experienced all sorts of loss—spouses, parents, siblings, children—due to illness, accident, suicide, or aging. We were all grieving in one way or another. These people knew how I felt, and we talked about it. I finally embraced my feelings and let the process begin to heal me. What a difference in my life that has made.

Please see additional grief resources, programs, and suggested readings on our website.