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September 20, 2022

Deep Grief: 6 Rules for those who are Going Through “It.”


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Grieving absolutely sucks!

Deep grief is the worst experience one can ever have—and the worst of it is we are rarely prepared for it. I wasn’t.

Five months ago, my wife of 44+ years died. In six weeks, she went from being strong, vibrant, and happy to being gone forever. Three progressively more devastating strokes took her from me when we were only a year into our dream retirement on the Fiji Islands. She had been my best friend, partner, lover, teacher, and virtually constant companion.

I was lost.

The pain of those first weeks was almost unbearable. People would try to comfort me, some well and others poorly. Too many just said bullsh*t things like, “we all die,” “she’s in a better place,” “god wanted her,” and “it’ll pass.” Don’t believe them.

Rule #1. If they haven’t been through “it” themselves, then they have no idea what they are talking about.

When I say through “it,” I mean losing someone who is part of your soul, whose loss rips you apart and leaves you a broken human. If they haven’t been through that, then ignore whatever they say or whatever advice they give. Good intentions are no substitute for understanding.

Grief is really uncomfortable for others to see, so they want you to stop, get over it, and move on. Seeing a grown person uncontrollably cry their eyes and hearts out is very unsettling for almost everyone. They have no idea what they should do—ignore it and pretend it’s not happening, walk away to give you privacy, or come up and hold you. (The last one is the best answer, but most people just can’t do that, so treasure those who can.)

Rule #2. Cry all you want.

Little sobs or great wracking messy wails—just let yourself cry. It doesn’t really make you feel much better, but it doesn’t make you feel worse. I do prefer to go cry in private because then I don’t have to think about what others are feeling and I can really let the pain come out. I cry less now, but still most days, a patch of pain will roll over me and the tears will fall once again.

When you are in that deep, inescapable, heart-crushing pain, nothing looks or sounds good. You’ll probably have no interest in food, and maybe too much interest in alcohol or drugs. TV is just noise and light that’s probably annoying, and the energy to “workout” just isn’t there. This is when you have to grab yourself and get up. People will tell you to take care of yourself and this is one thing you should listen to.

Rule #3. Take care of yourself.

Eat enough calories to keep your body going. I say it that way because the food may not taste like anything, but your body needs the calories. Drink lots of water—have a glass of water every time you go into the kitchen. Take a walk every day, by yourself or with someone. Even if it’s only a quarter mile, you will feel a little better afterward.

Of course, sleep is a critical part of taking care of yourself, but sleep is a tough one in grief. We either get too much or not enough, it seems. We’re either sleepy all day or awake all night as we feel the emptiness beside us. I suggest just letting yourself sleep whenever you can or want. Ten minutes or ten hours, just try not to worry about it. Particularly in the first days and weeks, just sleep whenever you feel like it.

Rule #4. Don’t slide down that slippery slope. 

It’s really tempting to try to take the pain away and get numb with alcohol or marijuana or prescription medication—and then it’s really easy to slip into “too much” and that’s a hole that is really hard to get out of. I do allow myself a stiff drink before bed and have taken half a Xanax in the daytime to quiet the panic attacks when they happen. I’m not ashamed of doing that because I’m mindful of what I’m doing.

If you are reading this, then you are probably like me and the grieving sh*t is a totally new and terrible experience. You wonder what the hell is going on inside you and how long will it last. How long will I be in agony? What can I do to “fix this?”

Unfortunately, I think the only way to try to fix it is to look even closer at the grief. Rather than turning away from it, turn toward it and look closely; only then will you be able to begin to make sense of what’s happening to you.

Rule #5. Study.

Study grief, in general, and your grief, in particular. We are not the first to go through this and we can learn from them. The books below have helped me a great deal in these last three months to begin to get a grip on what’s happening and how to live with it.

The Grieving Brain by Mary-Frances O’Connor, Ph.D

This book looks inside your brain and begins to actually explain that enormous hole you feel inside yourself and the pain that goes with it. And, somewhat reassuringly, it turns out that hole is a real physical thing. She explains what our brains are doing and, to an extent, why. It helped me to know I was not actually going crazy.

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande, MD

The first 50 pages of this book were totally depressing, but then it got better. One thing that I started thinking about almost immediately was how the hell am I going to live. All my plans were trashed by my wife’s death and I was looking at a dark and lonely future. This book showed ways that the rest of my life can be lived with meaning.

The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom by Don Miguel Ruiz

This is not about grief directly, but about how to live more honestly and more healthily. Grief lies to us and tends to take us away from reality. This book helped me stop lying to myself and really confront my new reality.

The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

Again, not really about grieving specifically, but full of beautiful, simple wisdom and love. It is a book full of hope and dreams that can teach us to be a little gentler and more forgiving of ourselves.

When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chödrön

This book by the world-renowned Buddhist nun and philosopher has helped countless people find their way through life’s most difficult times. This is not the book to start with, but it is the book to help when you think you are ready to get on with life again. Her words and her counsel are not easy and often completely counter our natural instincts and desires (give up hoping to be better). But as you work your way through her guidance, you may begin to see grief, and life, differently.

The only way to find your way through “this” is to really look at yourself and be honest about what you are thinking and feeling. Striving with your eyes open works so much better than blindly flailing around in the dark.

I began by saying to ignore the advice and counsel of anyone who hasn’t walked this desolate road themselves. But you will likely need someone to talk to, someone who can help and guide you through the nightmare that life has become. We can’t do it alone, we all need help even if we’ve never asked for it before.

Rule #6. Get help.

I had never seen a therapist or counselor before in my life. I had always been able to “figure it out” and work through whatever life threw at me. This time, I couldn’t. I knew that I badly needed someone to talk to that wasn’t my family, despite all their love and best intentions.

I have a limited budget and was worried about how to pay for that as counseling can be pretty expensive. I initially found a group here in Fiji that offered free phone counseling and spoke five times with a wonderful woman who had lost her husband four years ago. She supported and validated what I was feeling and encouraged me each time, telling me I could do this.

Then, I found a site called BetterHelp.com that has inexpensive counseling services plus even offers some financial assistance. The first two counselors I spoke with didn’t work out, but the third one I found was wonderful and we speak weekly. She has been through “it” and is a real help to me. Don’t stay with a counselor who you don’t connect with and don’t give up—keep looking.

There are resources out there to support you, but you have to look. Help can come from your insurance, your community, houses of worship, and volunteer agencies both local and online. The very act of looking for help is doing the right thing for yourself to take care of yourself. You will find what you need if you keep looking, just don’t give up.

As I said at the beginning, my grief journey began five months ago (a lifetime ago) and it is far from over. I’ve at least realized that it won’t kill me and I know I am now building the tools and strength to deal with it.

I can perhaps even begin to see glimmers of a new life. But it still hurts like hell every single day.

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