An Open Letter To Those Who Don’t Understand Grief 1

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 Comment

  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.
    jmt

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How to Cope with the Sudden Death of a Spouse 0

Coping with the sudden and unexpected death of a husband

In our Your Stories series, people who have lost a loved one share their unique perspective through essays, poetry and artwork. This week, Sarah Keast shares her hard-won wisdom on coping after the sudden and unexpected death of a partner.


Sunlight danced through the cottage. Squeals of joy echoed from the lake as my five-year-old swam with my dad. The baby monitor hummed as my two-year-old napped in a pack and play covered in a mosquito net. Hot, sticky sweat rolled down my leg as I watched my mom answer the phone and quietly whisper, “Okay, I’ll tell her.”

The world continued to turn as mine was about to explode. My mom hung up the phone, walked towards me with tears welling in her eyes, and said: “He’s dead.”

The walls caved in, the floor fell away and the room went dark. Distantly, I heard someone screaming in sorrow. As my mom’s arms wrapped around me, I realised that the person screaming was me.

On August 7th 2016, my husband, my best friend and my partner in life died unexpectedly from an accidental heroin overdose. He had struggled with depression, anxiety and substance use disorder for half of our 16 years together. The life and love we had built was gone in an instant. Like a magician’s trick, he left this earth in a puff of smoke. He was here – and just like that, he was gone.

 

My advice for coping with the sudden death of a spouse

How do you go on when you get a phone call like that? My world ended in a split second. Yet somehow, I was supposed to pick myself (and my young kids) up and carry on? I could barely catch a breath, let alone cope with this sudden and devastating loss.

It wasn’t pretty, and I cried a lot. I screamed a lot. I laughed a lot. But somehow, I got through the early days of this unimaginable nightmare. And as I sit here now, 2.5 years later, I can see that there are a few things that I did that helped me cope and made those days a teeny tiny bit more bearable.

 

1) You will feel ALL the feelings

You are now on a roller-coaster ride called grief. You did not sign up for this ride, but you got thrown on it, so hang on tight.

I would find myself completely frozen and numb, and then five minutes later I would be sobbing. Half an hour later, I would be screaming, “Fuck you for dying” at my husband’s pictures. I’d find myself overwhelmed with relief that my nightmarish life living with and loving someone struggling with substance use disorder was over. Then the guilt over feeling relief at his death would crush me, and I would be frozen and numb again.

Whatever feeling(s) you feel are normal. Feeling them all in the space of five minutes is also normal. Be with whatever feeling comes. Lean into each feeling, let it move through you.

Early on, I’d beat myself up over most of these feelings. I thought I was only ‘supposed’ to be sad. I didn’t know that the other feelings were also normal. In fact, whatever feeling(s) you feel are normal. Feeling them all in the space of five minutes is also normal. Be with whatever feeling comes. Lean into each feeling, let it move through you.

The feelings are all there inside of you, and if you push them away or ignore them or stuff them down, they only *temporarily* go away. They need to come out, so give yourself grace and let them.

 

2) Ask for – and accept – help

I could barely think straight, let alone cope with the demands of daily life in the days, weeks and months after my husband died. I quickly realised I couldn’t do this alone. I had to accept help, as humbling as it was to do so. You simply cannot manage grief and daily life on your own.

Coping with the sudden loss of a partner

My friends and neighbours organised a meal train for me where people signed up to bring my family a meal each night. I accepted these meals every night for months with gratitude – and embarrassment, and shame. Why couldn’t I handle everything? I’d yell at myself.

But as the nights of delicious home cooked meals continued, I could feel the difference it was making in my days. I cried tears of relief after the first snowstorm that winter when I was struggling to get my kids out the door for school and I realised my neighbour had shovelled my driveway. I suddenly understood how much people wanted to help me.

Letting go of those useless feelings of embarrassment and weakness was so helpful. I embraced the help that people wanted to give me. Accepting their help meant that while others dealt with the day-to-day stuff of my life, I could focus on the things that mattered: coping with my grief and parenting my kids through this nightmare. So: let people help you. They want to help. You do not have to do this alone.

 

3) You are in charge of your grief journey

The world, and especially the western world, is terrible with how we approach grief. Everywhere you turn, there is pressure to ‘get over it’, ‘move on’, ‘find closure’. Ignore those messages. You are in charge of this journey. You do not have to get over this when someone else tells you to.

You may well grieve your entire life. The way you grieve and what you feel will change, but in some way, shape or form, your grief will always be with you. This is okay. You will find ways to integrate your grief into your life and to move forward in your life, but this takes time.  

It’s okay to cry, yell, laugh or say nothing. You are the only one who knows what is best for you. There is no right time to do any of these things and there is no wrong time. There is only the time that is best for you. Listen to yourself.

In the meantime, keep your house as is and don’t move a single thing of his/hers, if that’s what you want. Or do as I did, and get rid of everything in a grief fuelled rage and re-decorate immediately – if that’s what you want. Date whenever you want. Say no to invitations to family events or holiday celebrations if they seem too hard or too overwhelming. Or say yes to every invitation, if you want the company and distraction. It’s okay to cry, yell, laugh or say nothing. You are the only one who knows what is best for you.

There is no right time to do any of these things and there is no wrong time. There is only the time that is best for you. Listen to yourself.

 

4) Care for your basic needs

Eat. Drink water. Sleep. Move. Shower. Simple things, yet they can do wonders to help you through this nightmare. I couldn’t figure out why I was so thirsty for the first few weeks…and then it dawned on me: oh yeah – I’ve been crying for days, so I must be dehydrated! Upping my water intake helped immensely.

I also went to a lot of hot yoga classes early on. I felt like I was literally wringing the grief out of my body with every posture. I was sweating so much that no one could see all the crying I was doing! It was so cathartic.

Grief saps all of your energy, and I felt like I was moving through cement most days. Anything you can do to replenish your energy is so helpful. Treat your body and mind with loving kindness as you journey through this nightmare. And yes, that may include cookies and ice cream as needed.

 

5) Find your tribe

Coping with sudden death of spouseLosing your spouse suddenly is a completely life altering and isolating experience. My long-time girlfriends have shown up for me in spades since my husband died, but all of their partners are still alive. They want to understand what I’m going through, but they can’t. The truth is, you can’t truly understand unless you are going through it too.

Find your tribe, so you don’t have to navigate this nightmare alone. There are online groups for widows and widowers on Facebook. You can follow other widows and widowers on Instagram. Find a support group in your area. Use your networks to find others like you.

Once you do, it’s a beautiful thing. I would never wish for my husband to die, but because he did, I’ve met some amazing women who have been instrumental in my grief journey. I am so thankful that I found my tribe. I’m not sure I would still be standing today if I had not.

Losing your spouse suddenly is earth shattering, life altering and indescribably painful. But you will survive this. You will thrive again. I cannot tell you when, as it’s different for everyone. But you will. Until then, just breathe. It’s the only thing you have to do in this moment. Breathe. You can do this.

 


Sarah Keast is a writer and activist, raising awareness around addiction and mental health. You can hear more from Sarah on her TEDx talk here, and on her blog, Adventures in Widowed Parenting.

Laura’s Story: Meditation & Healing from Grief 1

In our Your Stories series, people who have lost a loved one share their unique perspective through essays, poetry and artwork. In this thoughtful piece, Laura Siegel describes how meditation helped her heal after the loss of her husband.

My husband died three years ago, shortly after his 74th birthday. We were together for 57 years. About a year before he died, a social worker recommended a meditation app called Insight Timer and the guided meditations seemed to help him immensely. So, the day he died, I began practicing them too.

The biggest challenge I faced was the ability to focus. My mind was in a constant state of fear and anxiety and thoughts wandered every which way. My heart hurt all the time.

My rabbi recommended that I try grief meditations. These were easier for me to follow. The one that helped the most was Guided Meditation for Grief, Anxiety, and Stress by Heather Stang. Her gentle voice is so soothing, and there’s lots of space in the meditation for silence. Other meditation teachers I’ve enjoyed on Insight Timer are Meg James, Tara Brach, Kristin Neff, and Lisa Machac. Pretty soon, I was meditating five times a day and getting much-needed relief.

After my husband died, the silence of his absence was devastating.

 

After my husband died, the silence of his absence was devastating. Sure, there were friends, movies, and TV, but for the most part there was this great void of human sound and closeness. Listening to guided meditations has helped to fill this void.

Along the same lines, listening to audiobooks also helped. I was no longer able to focus on reading: my grieving brain could not process the words. But I have always loved audiobooks, and I soon realized that they were becoming my companions as well. Simply listening to a vital living voice helped me through my grief and I did not feel as isolated and alone.

I found audiobooks by other widows and widowers to be extremely helpful. We all share the same struggle. Here are a few that have particularly moved me:

  • A Widow’s Story by Joyce Carol Oates
  • Unremarried Widow by Artis Henderson
  • The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
  • A Widows Walk: A Memoir of 9/11 by Marian Fontana
  • The Widower’s Notebook: A Memoir by Jonathan Santlofer
  • A Grief Observed by C.S. Lewis

I also joined several online widow and widower groups via Facebook, Hope for Widows and Hot Young Widow’s Club (you don’t have to be young or hot). Speaking to the other widows was like having a circle of nurturing support surrounding me. We are even able to laugh with each other – another important component of healing from grief.

Meditation is giving me a foundation for living a calmer, more peaceful life.

I begin each day with a 30-45-minute guided meditation (three years ago I started with shorter ones). I don’t even get out of bed. This is the easiest time for me to follow my breath and nurture myself. I do the same in the late afternoon. Right before bed, I listen to a five-minute guided meditation and then fall asleep to soothing music. My favourites are Gentle Morning by Weston Brown and Devotion by Mary Maddux.

There are other ways that I meditate, like taking walks in nature and swimming. When I am swimming it’s impossible to feel anxious or worried. I am simply moving with my breath.

I am beginning to feel the same way when I do guided meditations. My breath is guiding me. It’s as if there is nothing to fear, nothing to worry about. This is carrying over into my daily life. Things that have caused me stress before no longer have the same power. A sense of calm and contentment that I have never known before sweeps through me. I can also rest more easily. I can more easily accept my difficult feelings. I am less angry. I appreciate silence more. I can be happy with what I have.

Meditation has changed me very gradually. In the beginning I could not follow my breath without a million thoughts encroaching. And yet I’ve learned that it is the nature of the mind to think. Meditation does not mean that you stop thinking. It means that you notice thinking and return to your breath. Meditation is about learning to stay with what is.

Meditation is giving me a foundation for living a calmer, more peaceful life. Meditation gives me a way to take care of myself in every moment.


 

Laura Siegel is a writer supporting other bereaved partners through her blog, Breathing Into Healing.  She is also the co-editor of the anthology Out of the Closet, Into Our Hearts: Celebrating Our Gay Family Members.

If you liked this piece, we’d like to invite you to donate to the Leukaemia and Lymphoma Society in memory of Laura’s husband Howard. You can pledge a donation here.

And for more information about meditating for grief, you can check out our beginner’s guide to bereavement meditation with Heather Stang here.