Grief comes boxed in many different packages.
The death of a loved one, a routine visit to the doctor that reveals a fatal disease, the end of a marriage, a heart broken by betrayal, a young person caught up in drugs and sentenced to prison, the untimely death of a pet, bankruptcy, a job lost through no fault of one’s own: the list goes on and on, and the consequent anguish comes in all shapes and sizes.
And how we grieve is unique to every human being as well. Some of us share our pain with friends and family members while others stoically hide their agony. One woman abandoned by her spouse cries for days; another masks her suffering and carries on with her duties as a banker and a mother.
Meanwhile, people attempting to console the afflicted are often at a loss as to what to say or do. Some offer awkward or inappropriate consolation because they feel the need to say something. Conversely, some may say nothing, prevented from reaching out after a funeral or some other catastrophe because of feelings of inadequacy and fear.
My public library includes a number of “how-to” books on grieving, including such titles as “Healing a Child’s Pet Loss Grief: A Guide for Parents,” “A Woman’s Book of Grieving,” and “You Can Help Someone Who’s Grieving: A How-To Healing Handbook.”
These guides are doubtless helpful, but here I offer only my own observations on grief and healing, and how to help the grief-stricken. Like all people my age—I’m 70—I’ve witnessed and experienced my share of sorrow and heartache.
Take the Time to Feel the Pain
Six weeks after my wife’s death, our children and their maternal grandmother were sitting around the kitchen table when she said, “We all need to get over this and move on now.”
My oldest son, not yet 20, said, “Grandma, we will move on. But right now I’m going to go on missing Mom.”
Those were wise words. My son allowed himself the time to grieve and worked his way through it. On her trips to our home, Grandma would ask to visit her daughter’s grave, which was nearby, but usually stayed there less than a minute or two before breaking down into tears and asking to go back home. She had missed embracing grief.
None of us enjoys suffering, but such a loss demands we feel the pain and allow that great healer, time, to do its work. A therapist once told me that grief over the loss of a loved one can take up to three years before healing finally comes.
So be patient with yourself and with those around you. Grief doesn’t come with a timetable.
Presence Is All
By presence I mean both the presence of those who are directly afflicted and the presence of those who care for them.
Some of us who are hurting from a loss or a betrayal are tempted to remove ourselves from our suffering. I’ve known men and women who went on shopping binges, frivolously spending money in an attempt to keep the pain at bay. Others may turn to drugs or alcohol, throw themselves into work, look for another spouse or lover, or seek diversion in games like golf or tennis.
To run away from grief or to try and hide from it often lengthens the healing process and can bring on more troubles. We all have different ways of grieving, but one key element in this journey is presence, our willingness to confront our loss and sorrow.
And those who want to help grieving friends and family members should know this: your presence means more than meals, money, or words. Being there with the person, preferably physically, is the best gift you can give. A hug at a time like that means more than you may imagine.
Exercise, Diet, Routine
If life has dealt you a terrible blow, you’ll often feel physically sick from the shock, sometimes to the point of nausea. You may find yourself sleeping poorly, refusing to eat, and wanting to do nothing more than to sit on the sofa and stare into space.
This is the time when, despite every impulse to the contrary, you must become proactive and take care of yourself. Eat healthy food. Try your best to get enough sleep. Take some exercise. Even a walk around the block can help better your mood.
Maintaining your routine as much as possible can also act as a grief-reliever. I was in the habit of walking with my youngest son to the library once or twice a week, and a couple of weeks after his mother died, we resumed this routine. Those visits gave both of us a sense of continuity and a link to a happier past.
If you’re trying to comfort a friend or family member who has experienced a tragedy, you can help by bringing them healthy, home-cooked meals or giving them a gift certificate to a local grocery. If you live nearby, you might offer to take walks with them two or three evenings a week, an exercise conducive both to good health and to good conversation.
Some people find themselves unable to cope with a loss even with the support of others in their lives. Some also either have no loved ones living close by or lack a network of friends who might boost their spirits and accompany them through the storm.
In these cases, turning to a therapist or a support group can be enormously beneficial. Support groups give us the chance to meet with people who have endured trauma similar to ours, and this shared pain can often lighten our burden, making us realize we are not as alone as we might think.
A therapist, too, can assist us in working through our sorrow, guiding us to try different healing techniques and if nothing else, allowing us to say things and shed the tears we might otherwise conceal from even those close to us.
Google “grief support groups near me,” and you can see what help is available.
We’re Never the Same
Grief changes us.
Here is one example. It may seem trivial to some readers, but it looms large in my gallery of failures in my life.
On Wednesday, May 12, 2004, I called my wife before 9 a.m. from the building where I taught seminars to homeschoolers and asked her to look up some essay questions I’d forgotten to bring from home. She wasn’t feeling well, but she found my notes and read me off the information I needed. As we ended our conversation, her last words to me were “I love you.”
My last words to her: “Gotta go. The students are waiting. See you at 4.”
When I arrived home, she was lying on our bedroom floor in a coma. The following Monday, she died of a brain aneurysm in an Asheville, North Carolina, hospital.
What was wrong with me? Why hadn’t I simply said, “I love you too?” Why? Why? Why?
That question haunted me. It haunts me today. But from that day forward, with one exception—a relative who seems uncomfortable with the words “I love you”—I now say “I love you” every time I end a conversation with my children, my grandchildren, and many of my friends.
Loss and grief leave some people bitter or cynical, unable to see the good in their lives and in the world. If we pay close attention, however, grief is a great teacher. It can deepen our empathy and love for others, it eventually gives us the power to cherish those we have lost, and it even allows us to learn from those who wronged us—the spouse who abandoned the marriage, the dead mother who wounded us, the business partner who brought us to financial ruin.
As Kate McGahan, author and long-time hospice counselor, once wrote, “Grief will not let you go until you satisfy what it came to teach you.”
Jeff Minick has four children and a growing platoon of grandchildren. For 20 years, he taught history, literature, and Latin to seminars of homeschooling students in Asheville, N.C. He is the author of two novels, “Amanda Bell” and “Dust On Their Wings,” and two works of non-fiction, “Learning As I Go” and “Movies Make The Man.” Today, he lives and writes in Front Royal, Va. See JeffMinick.com to follow his blog.