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What A Griever Wants You To Know

Updated: Apr 13, 2022

Published April 25 2020

I am putting a lot of energy into piecing my broken heart back together, it is hard work, and with that, time has become a vortex

Photo By Annie Spratt

“You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly — that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”

― Anne Lamott

Want a grieving person to shut down completely?

Project how you think they should be acting and progressing in their grief. Invalidate and minimize their feelings, urge them to do grief your way, avoid them, ghost them, and with words or body language tell them their grieving time is up. That’s a good start, and sadly this happens too often.

I never imagined how exhausted and hypersensitive I would become or what a lack of resilience would do to my life, relationships, and health after losing both my dad and a friend in the same year.

As a society we commend people for getting things done in a timely manner — grief completely changes that notion. People want us to be “ok”, but what we don’t hold enough room for is that the process of becoming “ok” again, depending on the loss, takes more time than one might think.

I am speaking about grief and loss from my own perspective, which may resonate deeply or not at all. We all grieve, heal, and process differently. As I sift through the rubble of my former life, here are some reflections one year in.

I am exhausted, even after one year

Out of all the hardship that comes with grief, there is one aspect that we don’t talk enough about; grief on a physical level. I am still dealing with fatigue, migraines, headaches, chronic pain, and disrupted sleep. At one point I thought I may be having a heart attack, but it turned out that it was anxiety from burnout. My sleep has gotten better, but the headaches and pain still linger.

In initial grief, and leading up to meaningful dates, minor inconveniences had the power to land me in bed for the day, and seemingly harmless situations such as going for ice cream with my partner would result in crying in public, thinking back to my dad in his hospital bed in our dining room, having ice cream for dinner because he couldn’t stomach anything else. I was astounded that a friend’s lack of understanding of grief could send me into meltdown mode, at times reverting to coping skills I thought were behind me, for example, putting energy towards feeling disappointed that the people I thought would be there for me, weren’t, or that people from my past who knew my family would offer condolences, and then felt crushed when they didn’t seem to bother to connect. I realize that people will never fully understand how lost you feel in the first year of dealing with a significant loss. Although I know better, I am still disappointed that it is commonplace for grieving people to feel alone in their pain; this dispiritedness has lessened over time, and I am sure it will continue to dissolve as time goes on.

Since I hit the one year mark I am feeling somewhat grounded (at times), slowly shifting out of survival mode, trying to remind myself to have patience and that it’s okay to be where I am at, even if it is hard to explain to others. What a grieving person longs for is to be understood in their grief, and if not understood, then at least not made to feel worse by the people around them. Last year, grief restructured my life and my address book, which is disorienting, even for some of the most grounded people (I am not one of those people to begin with). When people in our lives have not experienced this kind of pain, or deal with it differently, it can make for complex dynamics, conflict, and communication breakdowns. It is a lonely and isolating experience at times; you are the one who needs to figure out how to continue on, while trying to maintain relationships, a job, etc. It all tends to come with a massive upheaval of our former lives and depending on who has died, some experience a break down with their spouse. I find respite talking to other grievers, the ones that understand this kind of brokenness. The ones that know that all of life’s rules are now arranged differently, and talking to fellow grievers who also have lost loved ones, or reconnecting with friends, acquaintances, for me, has been a significant source of comfort.

I am not proud of my reactionary behaviour that grief has awoken, especially experiencing cumulative grief

I am not proud of who I become in moments of disappointment or reaction due to emotional exhaustion and grief. To say that I have been overly emotional would be an understatement; think of the most patient person you know; I have been the opposite of that person, particularly in initial grief. If strangers, friends and family lacked sensitivity to my family’s circumstances, or acted in defence when I questioned where they had been, or if they were thoughtless in their timing of an issue they were trying to address, I would bluntly tell them how I felt. The ability to filter my thoughts was not available to me. Grief exhaustion is real.

A year in, I feel my inner dialogue attempting to “should” all over my life; “I should not be reacting anymore,” “I should be adjusting better than this,” “my body should be getting healthier.” I am trying not to “should” myself, but I can’t help it. I know I am still recovering, I know I am grieving two important people in my life dying. My heart is still broken, still processing, and the “shoulds” that are showing up remind me how hard this integration is. People who have yet to navigate losing a loved one, or have handled their loss differently than I am (or you are), do not have permission to project their way as “the way.” This is paramount to keeping trust intact in order to continue with relationships. If you haven’t lost a loved one, try not to judge. If you are close with someone who has lost a loved one, cut them some slack. If you have experienced loss yourself, remember everyone grieves differently.

I am putting a lot of energy into piecing my broken heart back together, it is hard work, and with that, time has become a vortex.

I have been all over the place, trying to find my footing again. I feel terrible about it. I haven’t been at my best, although that is understandable; it is hard to accept that about yourself, especially when you are letting people down. What has been one of the most disorienting things for me is time. What has felt like four months has been a year and the only benchmark of that reality is that my hair has grown significantly enough for me and others to notice. I chopped my mid-back hair close to chin length the day before my dad’s funeral. Upon reflection of that time, I think back to my breakup tattoos, changing my hair colour, and moving cities; any attempt to feel less broken-hearted. Chopping my hair off was my way of tending less to trivial things, which for me was the upkeep of combing and washing long hair.

Time has taken on new meaning. It is now being measured by death dates and countdowns to dates like Christmas, a time when missing our loved ones is felt, and you feel split in two. The one half is enjoying who is still here with us and the other is missing who we have lost. It is hard work, especially getting through all of the firsts. I got through them, but it wasn’t easy.

In initial grief, I was trying to survive what felt impossible to survive

In initial grief, there was so much energy put into simple tasks like brushing my teeth, not having a breakdown in public (I failed numerous times at this), getting out of bed and facing a world that didn’t seem right anymore. For some of us, we become hyper-aware; grief triggers are everywhere, especially for those who are already sensitive; tone, body language, a song, scent, a cancer commercial, who sent us a text, who has bothered to call, a health form at the doctor’s office asking for your parents medical history. Especially noticed are those who are avoidant, dismissive or insensitive to our loss. I am learning how to continue to move forward, but there are setbacks and all the “extras” that come with grief take its toll.

I have to live with grief every day until it loosens its grip on my chest

People don’t see the tears cried in the shower, the lack of eating or overeating, the copious amount of Netflix watched, or whatever coping skills are in the toolbox at the time grief arrives in your life, some more destructive than others. We have to learn to live with the vividness of grief and memories while feeling pressured to make it palatable for others, and that can feel too big to hold at times, so we put on our armour to face the world and even our closest friends, so we don’t scare them away. I am getting better at this, but that hasn’t been without collateral damage. I think back to my dad slipping away, witnessing him coming to terms with his death and having to watch him go through the stages of grief. I feel that. I still ache from it and it is hard for people to understand it. Our society is death-phobic, and so people dismiss, grow tired, and braise over pain or try to fix it — quickly, until they experience it for themselves. Grief can’t be fixed, it can only be tended to and held, then eventually it becomes easier to breathe.

I am grateful to know this kind of grief so that I can be understanding of others. I get why people come undone, feel alone, and break down, tirelessly navigating complex emotions, family dynamics or challenging relationships and ourselves. I have faith that the pain will lessen with time, it has already, but I know it will come and go. We are all on different timelines, and some remain stuck. I believe why so many people stay in the dark is because they were told their grief is “too much”, that they are “too much”, and to “move on” or that they are “doing it wrong” by someone significant in their lives, so they hold on even tighter to their pain. That kind of motivation never works, invalidating their grief makes people hide their pain.

As I come out of my grief fog, I have glimpses of my old self, torn and tattered, but she’s in there, slowly mending, trying to figure out a new normal without my dad calling, or receiving his funny text message; living without him has been incredibly challenging.

From loss, we have the opportunity to reflect on what is important to us, and to allow ourselves to feel broken and still loved for it, our grief acting as love. We don’t get to skip the hard parts, although some try their hardest to. We never stop loving those we have lost. We move forward when we are ready, bringing our love for the person with us, not leaving it behind.

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