Telling New Grievers the Truth About Grief

When new widows or widowers ask me about grief, such as how long it took me or when I stopped crying, I never know how much of the truth to tell them. For some people, the idea that grief will be the primary factor in their lives for three to five years before they find some sort of renewal, is a comfort because they know they won’t feel bad forever. For other people, three to five years is an astonishingly long time (which it is, when it comes to grief) and the thought adds to their despair. After the first year, it’s not such a dilemma for me — people have settled into their grief and knowing it will last years more, isn’t such a torment.

Because of my hesitation to tell the whole truth, I’ve gotten into the habit of telling new widows that grief “lasts a long time.” Oddly, when one is on the grief side of those years, it is an immensely long and dreary road, but on this side, the years of grief seem to have been over in an instant, probably because when things don’t seem to change much, when every day seems like every other day, all the emotional memories pile one on top the other like a deck of cards, rather than being laid out on the table so all of it can be seen at once. That sameness is also what gives grief, when one is going through it, a feeling of timelessness, as if we were always grieving and forever after, always would.

But no matter what things feel like, internal changes are being made, and those changes are generally manifested sometime in the fourth year when suddenly, it seems, life seems lighter, more hopeful. (Or it could be we are simply more used to their being gone, because the truth is, one can get used to almost anything, even death and loss and grief.)

Another example of not knowing what to tell is when a friend recently asked me if her going to visit a relative would help. I told her yes, because that is the truth. It’s good to get a respite from the emptiness, even if the effects of that respite don’t linger beyond the visit. What I didn’t tell her, because I didn’t want to ruin her vacation from herself, is the horror of walking into one’s home afterward to find the emptiness waiting to grab hold once more. But she learned the truth when she got home, and oh, my heart goes out to her. It really is a hard thing to deal with — that emptiness, that void, the knowing that for the rest of our lives, we have to live without that one person who gave us a deeper meaning, emotional support, love and companionship.

This same friend asked if the urge to flee would dissipate after she got back from her visit. I said, no. And when she asked how long it would take before that urge disappeared, I told her that everything takes years. It just won’t always be bad. That urge to flee turns into some sort of craving for adventure. And then, even that urge fades away with time.

I never thought “time” was an antidote for grief, since it’s what we do with that time that affects us more than time itself, but time does pass. The void shrinks but never goes away, so that even when we start to lose the memories of living a shared life because of the passing years, we always feel the absence. Do people need to know they will always feel the absence? At the beginning, it’s a burden, but as the years pass, that same void becomes a comfort, a way of keeping the memory even when the memory is gone.

Another lesser reason I hesitate is that the pattern of grief that so many of us deal with isn’t universal. In rare instances widows don’t fall into the black hole of grief but are able to go on, after a few months, as if nothing had happened.

But most of us have to wait until grief is finished with us.

And that takes longer than anyone wants to contemplate. Even ten, fifteen, twenty years later, something will happen (a daughter’s wedding, a grandchild’s birth, a debilitating illness) and grief, as fresh and as agonizing as the day our loved one died, will return.

What I try to emphasize more than anything is that no matter what people feel, no matter how long it takes, it’s normal. In the end, that’s more important that the specifics, because one thing that most new widows and widowers have in common is the feeling they are crazy when their bodies and minds go into overdrive as they try to process the death of the loved one and loss from their life. Death is the great unknowable, and having to confront that unknown as well as dealing with grief puts an unbelievable stress on the body.

People do need to know about that stress so they can do whatever is necessary to combat the stress. In my case, it was long rambling walks. In other cases, it’s sleeping for long hours or reading or keeping a grief journal or even talking to the deceased. It’s all about getting through the days, the weeks, the months, the years until a renewed interest in life asserts itself.

And it will. That I can tell you for sure.

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Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator

What a Person Can Get Used To

It’s amazing what a person can get used to. Four months ago, after I broke my arm and elbow and wrist in more than a dozen places, I had surgery to have an external fixator screwed into my arm to keep the hand bones from migrating down to where my wrist was supposed to be. When I woke from the anesthetic with the hardware attached to my arm, I have no idea why I didn’t freak out. I don’t know if they told me what they were going to do; if I was so drugged, what they did to me just didn’t register; or if the whole thing was so preposterous that I just accepted the device for what it was.

At first, it was hard having something that looks like a small sewing machine attached my arm, a  sewing machine that weighed a couple of pounds, but at the beginning I had a bit of help — an occupational therapist that miraculously showed up at my door one day. I think one of the hospital doctors have prescribed a nursing service, which I did not need, and along with the service came this wonderful woman. For a couple hours a week, she helped me open bottles, cut up apples, wash my hair, help with whatever finger exercises I could do, massage scars and aching muscles. During most of that time, I was on heavy duty opioids that did little more than fog my brain, make me sleep, and slightly reduce the acuity of the pain. The loss of this therapist, who I had come to depend on, happened to coincide with my grief anniversary date (exactly one month before the seventh anniversary of his death, which for some reason is more painful than the anniversary itself).

I survived that unexpected and quite profound bout of grief, of course, because, odd though it might seem, I have gotten used to grief popping up whenever it feels like it.. After the grief episode, I entered a period of equanimity that hasn’t been especially good, but it certainly hasn’t been bad. I think it’s more that I’ve gotten used to the fixator, to not being able to drive, to spending most of my time a loan in a single room. The last week or so, I have done away with all pain medications, and surprisingly — or I suppose not surprisingly — I’ve begun to feel like writing again. Having forgotten most of the book I was writing, I had to reread the entire thing — twice — to get it back into my head. I also gave the rough draft to a couple of friends to read, and took their suggestions into consideration along with some of my own suggestions, such as moving a crucial scene closer towards the end.

Now that I have gotten used to this life, I have been given a surgery date to get the fixator removed. (First week in April.) People keep telling me, “I bet you’re going to be glad to have that thing off your arm,” and though I agree to keep from seeming contrary, the truth is, I’m not particularly glad. To be honest, I feel a bit of trepidation. As long as the fixator is on my arm, I am more or less forced into a life of idleness. Reading, writing, walking, painting, doing puzzles. When the fixator comes off, there will be a period of recuperation, drugs, and I’m sure quite a bit of backtracking in the use of fingers, elbow, etc. After that comes a year maybe two of relearning how to use the wrist and hand, and learning how to accommodate whatever deformity and disability I end up with. All necessary steps, but not necessarily pleasant ones.

So for now, these last couple of weeks before the fixator comes off, I intend to enjoy this idleness I have gotten used to.

I hope you are finding periods of creative idleness, too!

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(Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.”) Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.