People often ask me how to get over grief, but the truth is (despite the title of this piece), we never get over grief for the simple reason that the person being mourned is gone for the rest of our life on Earth. Still, over time, the focus does change from the past and from our lost love to the future and perhaps a new love.
At the beginning, our focus — when it’s not on what we have lost — is about breathing. Taking one breath after another. Generally, breathing is simple. It’s something we do without thinking. But after the death of a person intrinsic to our life, such as a spouse or soul mate, it’s as if they took our breath with them when they left us, and breathing becomes something we need to focus on. A breath in, a breath out. Such a painful thing, those breaths! Adding to the complication is that so often we don’t want to breathe. We’d just as soon it was all over for us, too, and yet, we are compelled to continue taking those breaths.
As the years pass and the pain begins to subside, we hold on even tighter to our pain because grief is all that connects us to our lost love. During all those months and years, grief does its job, changing us into a person who can survive without the person we most loved. And gradually, a new love creeps into our life. Actually, I should say, a new focus comes into our life. Whatever it is that we find to focus on, it’s compelling enough to take our mind off our pain and sorrow and loneliness for a short time. And over the next months and years, all those “short times” add up. New memories are made. The past lessens its demands. The future becomes more compelling. And life goes on.
This new love or focus doesn’t have to be a person. It can be almost anything. Visiting museums. Hiking. Planning epic adventures. Yoga. Dance classes. Traveling. A new home. Gardening. For me, it was all of those things.
I tried so many things at the beginning. I wrote about my grief. I walked for hours. I visited museums. I went on day trips with people from my grief group. I took yoga classes. Sometimes, I could forget myself and my pain for minutes at a time, but nothing held. When the moment passed, I was right back where I started, in full grief mode.
It wasn’t until I started learning to dance that the focus lasted more than the moment. I started thinking about dancing, started practicing at home. Although grief didn’t leave me alone for long, it did start to lose its intense hold on me, and I could finally focus on something other than my loss and my pain.
As grief further eased its grip on me and I could sometimes imagine a future, I dreamed of — and planned — epic adventures. I was going to visit independent bookstores all over the country to see if they would sell my books. I was going to walk up the coast to Seattle. I was going to hike the Pacific Crest Trail. I was going to take a freighter to New Zealand. I was going to go on a year-long camping trip. I was going to drive cross-country in my vintage VW. I still have the research I did for all these adventures, but in the end, the only one I followed through with was my 12,500 cross-country road trip as well as a north/south trip along the western coast and several trips from California to Colorado.
A couple of years ago, I changed my focus yet again when I bought a house and found a place to call home.
And now, what I find compelling enough to propel me into the future is gardening.
I’m far enough away from my focus on grief that I seldom get snapped back to those early months, but for the first seven years, no matter how compelling my current focus was, I often found myself blindsided by grief.
I’m not sure how a person goes about finding a new focus. I tend to think that when a griever is ready, a new focus — a new love — appears, rather than needing to search for it, but however it happens, the readiness and the new focus are part of this process of change we call grief.
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