There are many people in my life who have either recently experienced the loss of someone close to them or who are expecting a loss soon. When I hear this news, regardless of how close we are, I pause and feel their grief wash over me. One day someone is here and the next day they are not. How do we process that? How do we move through the days leading up to the moment when our loved one passes and how do we wake up the next morning without them and continue through the days beyond that?
I am not a trained grief therapist nor have I done hours of research into the best way to wade through the thick, muddy waters of grief. But I have experienced it, very intimately throughout my life, and have come out the other side, changed. My Dad passed away when I was twenty after a short six month period post a cancer diagnosis. My sister and I were very close to him and it was a devastating and a shocking loss. We felt that our dad was invincible and couldn’t imagine that it was even possible that we could lose him. From what I’ve experienced, this is the way most of us feel after experiencing loss early for the first time. We know that illness and death exists but until it happens to us we feel almost immune to it.
After my dad passed away I told myself that I’d had enough early tragedy and it would be smooth sailing from here on out. Ha! I learned the hard way that loss and other challenging life situations will occur regardless of your plans and the only thing we can control is our response to them. Ten years after my dad passed away, my husband became suddenly very ill which led to an almost decades long complicated illness before he passed away at the age of thirty-eight. So maybe you could say I am an expert on grief - as I have intimately navigated my way through the heavy, sometimes drowning feelings it brings on. The kind of feeling that makes you cry at a moment's notice, feel alone in a room full of people, and makes you feel at times completely disconnected from yourself. Yet I’ve emerged through all of that to feel stronger, more hopeful, more expansive and freer than I ever did before.
It feels strange to be writing about grief now for the first time, as it has been five years since my late husband passed away. In many ways, I am living a completely different life now. As I tell people often, I call this part of my life Volume 2 rather than labeling it just as a “new chapter” as I have moved on from much of that painful time. But every time I meet someone or even hear of someone who is grieving, I feel a knowing for what they are going through. Losing someone close to us shakes us up like nothing else ever could. And I’m here to say that while I would never wish for someone to experience loss as a means of being shaken up, losing someone can be the most profound life-affirming experiences you will ever have. Losing someone can remind you of how fleeting life is and how lucky we are to be here. Losing someone can remind you to worry less about what others think of you, to take risks, and not to wait for others to give you permission to live your life the way that you want to.
How did I guide my way through loss? Here are a few ways...
Take damn good care of yourself.
Give yourself the space to listen to what you need. If you feel like being alone, be alone. If you want people around you, accept their help and company. If you want to get back to work quickly, do that. If you want to hide out in bed for two weeks and that’s a possibility, do that too. For me, taking care of myself meant going for long walks alone, seeing a therapist, exercising regularly, writing in a journal, reading inspiring books about people who have thrived in spite of tragedy and spending time with people I love. Sometimes it also meant sitting in front of a good movie with bourbon and chocolate.
Never, ever close your heart.
I read this phrase in The Untethered Soul, one my favourite spiritual books, and it changed my life. Make the decision that absolutely nothing in this world that happens will cause you to close your heart. That decision alone will help you when you feel yourself slipping too low. This is a beautiful commitment to your own sacred life.
Don’t try to control the process of your grief.
It might take you less time or more time. You might think you’re ok and suddenly it hits you hard again. Know that as bad as you feel it will pass one day. Tell yourself that there are lessons for you in this pain. Remind yourself that what you are feeling is very normal and something that we all must go through at some point. In fact, know that right now millions of people around the world are feeling exactly what you are feeling. You are not alone.
There is power in acceptance.
When we are ready, there is immense power in accepting things as they are. The person we love is gone. We can’t change that. But what can we do? We can honour them by remembering everything they’ve taught us just by the way they lived their life. We can hold all the best memories close to our heart forever. We can look out for signs from them. We can celebrate their lives by committing to living fully and wholeheartedly ourselves.
It’s ok to feel good.
This is something I’ve written about before because it is something that I have struggled with and come to learn over the years. Even in your darkest times, when you have full permission to feel sad, act sad, be sad, it is ok at times to feel good. It is ok to laugh when something is funny. It is ok to get caught up in a conversation and “forget” your grief for a moment. It is ok to smile back at the coffee shop barista’s genuine smile.
We are forever changed by the loss of someone we love. It is one of the few experiences in life that we can’t think or decide our way through. We have to feel our way through. But there are ways to guide ourselves, to steer our ship through the muddy waters towards those that are clearer than we’ve ever experienced before. We can emerge stronger, more grounded, more sure of ourselves.
And how do we honour the person we lost, the hole they left behind and our pain? By choosing, with full hearts to live as well as we possibly can while we are still here. As my dear friend Angela, who has experienced a lot of loss lately says, “Live well to end well.”
“Only people who are capable of loving strongly can also suffer great sorrow, but this same necessity of loving serves to counteract their grief and heals them.”
― Leo Tolstoy