An Open Letter To Those Who Don’t Understand Grief 10

understand grief

We welcome back Kiri Nowak once again for another of her uniquely touching guest blogs around the topics of grief and remembrance. First she shared with us a few personal insights about what it’s like to lose a parent at a young age, then she told us how she plans to commemorate her deceased father at her upcoming wedding day, and today she’s shared with us her thoughts on grief. This is a truly valuable insight, one which has been informed by her own experience. Kiri has addressed this to ‘those who don’t understand grief’ which is in fact anyone who has never experienced the loss of a loved one.

understand grief

The experience of grief is like going into space. Yes really, just hear me out. My point is, only those who have been out in space really know what it’s like. How the G-force feels, the eeriness of going beyond earth and venturing into a starry black world.

Grief is similar in that if you’ve not been in that situation yourself, it’s difficult to even imagine what it would be like. And even when you do try and picture it, the reality is way beyond what you pictured.

I think one of the most frustrating things about dealing with grief is the reactions you get from those around you, at least that’s what I’ve found anyway. You see, grief should be spoken about, explored and supported, but this doesn’t always happen. Grief makes people act strange. Have you noticed that some people would rather avoid you than talk with you about your grief?

I know it’s very annoying, and it makes you feel like these people don’t care. They probably do care, they just don’t know how to show it. And because they can’t possibly contemplate what your grief feels like, they panic.

If you find some people drift away, give them time, and a few years down the line they may reappear in your life. There’s no need to hold a grudge because they weren’t there for you. At least hear them out and see how things were from their perspective.

I thought it might be useful to write down how it feels from a grieving person when those around you distance themselves, and what we’d really like people to do.

If I was to write an open letter to those who don’t understand grief, this is what I would say.

To whom it may concern…

I’ve lost someone who was dear to me, and now it feels like I can’t live without them, and I’ve fallen apart. I don’t quite know how I’m going to put myself back together. I know you can’t understand what grief feels like, but if I were to try and describe it, it feels as though someone is reaching inside your heart and squeezing it tight.

Except the squeezing never stops. Every time that person pops into my head, or I am reminded of what I’ve lost, the squeezing starts again, and if it gets too tight, my heart is going to disappear altogether. There are times when I’m getting on with my day like everybody else, and then out of nowhere my grief attacks me, and I’m paralysed.

When I voice my grief some people find it awkward. They don’t know what to say and are afraid of saying the wrong thing. Well, the truth is, sometimes I just want someone there as a sounding board, someone who can listen. And there’s really nothing you can say that’s wrong.

OK maybe there’s one thing, ‘it will get easier’. Please don’t say this. At the moment it feels like it will never get easier, and saying that it will suggests there will be a time when the person I’ve lost will become less important, and that thought terrifies me.

I know you might want to go and hide under a rock when I get upset or start talking about my loss, but I’d really love it if you try and be around some of the time. I don’t need you to show me endless sympathy or be there every single day, I’d just really like to just go for coffee or do things together that might help distract me.

I get that this is hard for you too, and that death and loss is a tough topic for anyone. It probably scares the crap out of you because you are terrified in case you lose someone. You might be drawing a blank when it comes to thinking of something to say to me, but I can help you out. I can steer the conversation and help you to avoid those quiet silences.

One important thing you need to know is that I’m not just going to snap out of it in a year or so. People with grief don’t just ‘move on’ when a certain amount of time passes. Instead of ceasing to exist, grief tends to evolve and change, and adapt to each person as their grief takes on new forms. A bit like a shape shifter that can morph into new animals.

Today my grief might feel like a tiger clawing at my skin, and next month it could feel like a dolphin diving through the waves, it just depends. I’d really like you to come on this journey with me. I can teach you a lot about grief and overcoming life’s challenges and our relationship will grow in new and beautiful ways. There really is nothing to be afraid of, I still very much want you in my life.

Your sincerely, Kiri.

If you’re experiencing grief, you might find our selection of articles on the topic to be helpful.

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  1. So true. Thank you for sharing. I wrote a Haiku poem about grief in 1996. It goes like this:

    Like storm approaching,
    Grief assails me, raging deep within!
    Subsides, to strike again.

      1. Thank you so much for sharing. People who never gone through losing a very close loved one, will never understand. They think they will be able to handle but really don’t have the slightest clue. Your open letter put my feelings and emotions I couldn’t describe myself. Thank you

  2. Honestly, I don’t totally understand. There’s never been a person I feel I couldn’t live without them. People die, life goes on. I love my wife and daughter, but even without them I would be able to continue. Losing a child would be the hardest, but other than that, I just don’t get it.

    1. Are you that ignorant? The whole point of this article was to suggest that you won’t know what it feels like until it happens to you. It’s so easy for you to say that you can live without them but considering your assurance on claiming that “you’ll be fine” says a lot about you. Next time don’t be so insensitive because losing a loved one is the hardest thing a person will ever encounter in their entire life. Dealing with a tragedy is unfair and beyond heartbreaking. Don’t assume it’s an easy thing to go through.

    2. “I just don’t get it” is completely spot on. It is truly insulting and laughable when people who have absolutely no clue as to how devastating grief is, share clueless opinions. It’s best to not say anything when you really don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ve dealt with enough idiotic comments from people who place unrealistic expectations on grief. Imagine the worst possible pain, and then dealing with insanely stupid comments telling you it’s not that bad from people who haven’t experienced that pain.

  3. “I just don’t get it” is completely spot on. It is truly insulting and laughable when people who have absolutely no clue as to how devastating grief is, share clueless opinions. It’s best to not say anything when you really don’t know what you’re talking about. I’ve dealt with enough idiotic comments from people who place unrealistic expectations on grief. Imagine the worst possible pain, and then dealing with insanely stupid comments telling you it’s not that bad from people who haven’t experienced that pain.

  4. Deep inhalation followed by a deeper sounding sigh!
    Those are just the differences between people. Sure it maybe ignorance and sometimes ignorance is bliss. I too lost someone very near and dear to me who is irreplaceable in my life. Since then, I have felt alone and with the help of COVID very isolated. It’s difficult to open up to anyone, not anyone wants to hear about loss or your memories with someone else, they can’t relate to your story but sometimes they can relate it to theirs. The reason I chime in, is even though I have this grief…my own husband has never lost someone as an adult, he doesn’t know what it’s like to lose a sibling or someone as close. The idea of turning to him changed the night he held me while I wept and said to me “you need to get over it”. I knew then that my sorrow would be kept to myself. Even the days that I express that I’m feeling blue, he doesn’t do much to comfort me. And it’s likely because he doesn’t know how. So you can’t blame those who don’t know but at least they should know enough to keep comments like that, to themselves. Keep in mind, my husband too, has expressed that he doesn’t fear losing me. I think it’s just something, he’s never been exposed to. Not excusing him as he should be more compassionate but that’s learned behavior, it’s not built in.

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5 Things No One Tells You About the Loss of a Spouse 0

In our Your Stories series, people who have lost a loved one share their unique perspective through essays, poetry and artwork.


My husband Brad and I used to joke about who would die first. It was a strange thing to joke about when we were in our 20s and had our entire lives ahead of us, but that’s how far from reality death was. It was laughable. Something that happened to other people. Something that, when it did inevitably happen, would happen much later in life. 

We finally compromised and decided that if we couldn’t simultaneously die in our sleep when we were in our 90s as planned, then I could go first. We both knew Brad was much better equipped to handle the aftermath of losing me.

But I didn’t die first. Brad beat me to it. After an unexpected and grueling 100-day battle with kidney cancer, I became a 33-year-old widow.

No one can prepare you for becoming a widow or widower. It is one of the most difficult losses you can endure. However, here are five things I wish I had been better prepared for:

1. The paperwork

 I never realized that with death came a mountain of paperwork. Paperwork that in some cases would linger for years. Medical bills, creditor notices, estate documentation – I was completely naive to the logistics of death that go beyond the memorial service.

At a time when all I wanted to do was grieve my loss, I had to go to court to validate Brad’s will. I had to cancel credit cards and bank accounts. I had to transfer real estate and phone bills and Netflix accounts into my name. I had to argue with the IRS over student loan bills. The contents of my mailbox shifted from travel magazines to daily reminders of my loss. It’s been over two years and I am still dealing with the paperwork and logistics surrounding Brad’s death.

2. The shift in your relationships

This will happen both immediately and slowly, over time. In my experience, people are uncomfortable with grief. They don’t know what to say or how to handle it. Most are unable to sit with you in the pain. It brings up their own grief and they are unable to handle both their grief and yours. So, they avoid the pain and discomfort, and ultimately, you.

You are living most people’s nightmare. You are a reminder that this could happen to them too. That reminder is difficult to handle. Usually, it’s not intentional – often people aren’t even aware they are feeling this way. But it’s real. Especially if you are the first in their life to go through such a loss. Oftentimes, friends and family you expected to show up end up avoiding you in order to continue living in the comfort of blissful ignorance.

But it’s not always the fault of others. When Brad died, I couldn’t handle living in the same home, in the same city, with the same friends, without him. It felt like my world had stopped and everything around me continued as usual. Every person and social situation was another reminder that Brad was dead. So, I ran away. I spent months driving around the country, avoiding the life left behind. And when I came back, people understandably had moved on.

Losing your partner will test not just you, but all the relationships in your life. Your social circle will shrink. And the ones who stick around – who continue to support well after the memorial service – will be share a bond with you for life.

3. The secondary losses

Losing your partner doesn’t mean just losing your spouse. With it comes the loss of the future you planned together. The loss of intimacy. The loss of income. The loss of security. The loss of health. The loss of your social circle. The loss of your breakfast companion. The loss of the recipient of your jokes. The loss of your jar opener. The loss of your dance partner. The loss of your road trip companion. The loss of your best friend.

There isn’t a single part of your life that is untouched by the loss of your spouse.

4. The grief ambush 

Grief is not linear. It doesn’t happen in a neat forward motion. It’s messy and unexpected. You will be triggered without notice, at the most inconvenient times. When you look in your fridge and realize the A1 sauce – and all the other condiments that only he used – will sit there, untouched forever. When a certain song comes on in the grocery store and you break down in the middle of the cereal aisle. When the dentist asks how your husband is doing and tears start streaming down your face with his hands still inside your mouth.

You will think you are doing better, and you will be ambushed again. Eventually the triggers become less frequent and less hysterical. Eventually you will learn to manage them better. But there is no timeline or finish line to cross where the ambushes stop.

5. You will learn to balance joy and grief

It’s hard to see that in the beginning, when the loss feels so dark and heavy. And the initial joy will probably be accompanied by guilt – guilt for laughing or being happy when your person is no longer able to laugh or be happy.

But the joy will come. And that doesn’t mean the grief has disappeared: it just means you’ve learned to balance both. You’ve learned to expand and feel more than you thought possible before. You’ve learned how fragile life is and that creates a sense of urgency to live.

Carrying grief gives you a perspective on life that others who have yet to experience such a loss won’t fully understand. Grief is hard and it constantly tests you, but you will find your strength – and joy –  again.

Dana Frost is a writer and the founder of the Forced Joy Project ( She is a big believer in sharing our stories of both grief and joy and an even bigger believer of kitchen dance parties. You can find her on Instagram @ForcedJoyProject.


Rachel’s Story: “Your Heart Doesn’t Close Up When Your Person Dies” 3

Rachel Brougham with her husband Colin and son Thom

In our Your Stories series, people who have lost a loved one share their unique perspective through essays, poetry and artwork. One year ago, Rachel Brougham’s husband Colin died in a cycling accident at just 39. Here, she talks about life, love — and dating  — as a young widow.

As I walk down the sidewalk, the sound repeats itself behind me. There’s a stomp, a crunch and then laughter. Sometimes I hear, “Ooh, that was a good one,” or “That’s a big one right there!” Then it starts all over again.

It’s March in Minneapolis, Minnesota — the time of year when all that snow melts during the day then refreezes at night, creating chunks of ice and giant puddles on city sidewalks and streets.

The stomp is my 10-year-old son Thom, and my boyfriend Matt, slamming their feet on chunks of ice. When it crunches and breaks apart, they laugh. I’m walking ahead of them and smiling — not just because the two of them sound like a couple little kids having fun — but because it’s the same thing Thom and my husband Colin would be doing if Colin were still alive. I’m smiling because despite what has happened to Thom and I over the last year, we can still feel happiness. I’m smiling because I know everything is going to be OK, even though there are moments it feels like the grief is overwhelming.

I’m the luckiest unlucky person.

In April 2018, just hours after Colin was killed in a cycling accident on his way home from work, Thom asked me if I was going to get married again. Colin had been dead less than two hours, and out of all the things Thom could ask, he wanted to know when I was going to shack up with some other dude.

I mean, what the heck?

In retrospect, Thom was just grasping for something to make life seem a bit normal in what was now uncertain. Of course any new guy wasn’t going to be a replacement for Colin, but it would offer some sense of normalcy. So, Thom and I started talking about me dating again very early on after our loss. I made it clear to him that I wasn’t going to bring any guy into our lives that didn’t deserve to be there. I knew I was going to be very protective and nobody was going to meet my son unless I knew it was super-duper serious.

A month after Colin died, I felt restless. I wasn’t ready to be in a relationship, but I did want to go out and have a meal and conversation with a male who wasn’t my son or one of our friends. So I did what every other normal widowed person would do — I consulted Google. When is it too early to date after losing a partner, I typed in the search bar.

“Widowland and dating is great because if you start dating too soon, people will certainly tell you about it.”

Widowland and dating is great because if you start dating too soon, people will certainly tell you about it. It’s also great because if you don’t start dating within a certain timeframe, people will certainly tell you about it. There’s no winning when it comes to dating in Widowland, because people who have no clue what they are talking about like to put you on this magical timeline for grief.

There is no magical timeline.

I went out on a date a month after Colin died. I was still dead inside, but I enjoyed the conversation. He walked me to my car and tried to kiss me and I turned my face and his wet mouth ended up on my cheek.

I had been out of the dating scene for nearly 17 years and this is what dating is like these days? Gross!

Over the next couple months, I went on a handful of dates with other guys I met through mutual friends or found on a dating app. Dating as a widowed, 40-year-old mom felt like too much work. It was hard to coordinate schedules, find a babysitter, pay for a babysitter. It didn’t help that my responses to these guys were basically, Nope, No way, Next, and Nice, but no thank you.

I did go out a couple of times with a father of three who was going through a nasty divorce. We bonded over music, have the same sense of dark, sarcastic humor and enjoyed telling each other stories about our kids. While I knew he wasn’t the one for me in the long term, the month we were together was exactly what I needed to show me things were going to be OK and that I could feel happiness with someone else.

And that’s when something clicked — I stopped comparing everyone to Colin.

Matt and I began dating four months after Colin died, but the truth is that we’ve known each other for years. We worked together, ate lunches together, traded text messages late at night when we just needed to talk to someone. I got him and he got me. It feels like we’ve been together for years.

One night, several years ago, Colin and I were talking about who we would date if one of us died. Colin would date 90s rocker Liz Phair. I said I’d date John Cusack or Paul Rudd (line Colin, Matt, John and Paul up and you’ll see I clearly have a type). Colin looked at me, and without hesitation said, “What about Matt?”

I’m not saying Matt and I were supposed to end up together, but I’m not not saying that. Life is just really weird sometimes. Nobody knows how the universe works.

“Your heart doesn’t close up when your person dies, it just makes room for someone else. Your love for your dead person isn’t diminished by loving someone else.”

Matt knows he’s not a replacement. Matt knows it’s not a competition. Matt knows he isn’t a consolation prize and he isn’t jealous of the love I still feel for Colin. After all, Colin is dead and Matt is living. I could choose to be with anyone, or no one, and I choose to spend this second chapter with Matt.

A couple months into us dating, Matt said one night, “You know, I love you. I love Thom. And I love Colin.” That’s when I knew Matt was the one — the one I told Thom I would make sure deserved to be in our lives.

Your heart doesn’t close up when your person dies, it just makes room for someone else. Your love for your dead person isn’t diminished by loving someone else. There is no limit on how much love we can have. You can love two people at once. Heck, I have a button on my jacket that says, “I love Colin” and I don’t give a frick if it makes people uncomfortable.

Loving someone else should be a testament to your dead person. It should say that you loved your dead person so much, you want to experience that again. Whether that’s one month out or 10 years out.

Love is not a finite resource. And while I’m extremely unlucky, I’m lucky to get another chance.

Rachel Brougham is a writer and editor who lives in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She enjoys awkward conversations, crying during long walks and tacos. You can find her on Instagram @rachbrougham and Twitter @RachelBrougham.