Apart from the sheer and utter pain of grief, I believe the rest of it is not what we expect. To be completely honest, until grief came crashing down on me, I’m not sure I had ever even given a thought to it – certainly not a serious thought. And I imagine most people fall into the same category as me. That was nearly seventeen years ago. Looking back, there were so many things I wish I’d known about grief. Here are a few for you to consider …
If you’ve been through grief, what were you most surprised to discover, and what was the most difficult for you to handle? Aside from the pain, for me, loneliness was the hardest – and closely related to loneliness was isolation. Grief has a way of separating and encircling us with walls and barriers. I’ve never felt as alone or desperately lonely as I did then. What surprised me was the intensity of the pain. I didn’t know it was even possible to hurt so much.
Since grief’s reality is nothing we can imagine, I think it’s very important to know at least something about what to expect when it arrives.
Things I Wish I’d Known about Grief
- Grief is not a sprint; it’s more like a cross-country or marathon
If you know up-front that grief takes time – more time than you imagined – then maybe you can settle down to the process and allow yourself to feel your emotions, whatever they are; understand what is happening to you; realize that adjustments take place over time; and allow yourself the time grief needs for you and your particular situation. I think if I had realized how long it might take, I wouldn’t have been so hard on myself. Maybe then, I would have recognized how important it is to do the necessary things to work through the grief.
- You’re not going crazy—it’s grief!
Nine times out of ten, at some point in the grieving process, people wonder if they’re going crazy. I certainly did! Believe it or not, that’s a normal question to ask. And there are many reasons why you would raise that question. Grief turns you and your world inside out and upside down. Of course, unless you know to expect craziness, you’ll recognize that everything is out of whack and naturally question many things, including your own sanity.
Grief will take you forward and backward, up and down. Grief is messy, and you’ll feel as though you’re on a roller coaster. You’ll get turned and tossed. You’ll be confused. You’ll be forgetful and have trouble focusing. Your emotions will be just barely below the surface. You’ll be impatient, particularly with inconsequential complaints from other people. At times, grief will make you angry. Expect the unexpected.
- Time by itself does not heal all wounds
Passively ‘holding on’ to wait out the clock until grief goes away is not a strategy that works. Facing grief head-on is a choice. Working through it is a choice. Healing is a process of pain, discovery, change, and adjustments. The old saying is simply not true – time does not heal all wounds.
- You can’t keep everything bottled up inside and expect to heal
Talk it out, cry it out, write it out, and get it out. Release is part of healing. Bringing everything up to the surface and getting it out of you is how it works. You can’t always control your emotions, and you have to get used to the fact and learn to accept it. Grief shows up unexpectedly, and it’s often at untimely moments. At first, I was embarrassed when my emotions slipped out and the time or place was not where I wanted to express those emotions. I later accepted the fact that grief is not always completely controllable. I didn’t just let go whenever or wherever I wanted! However, if a few tears slipped down my face unexpectedly, and I was in a public place, it was okay. When I was alone, I could vent those emotions however I wanted.
- Friends (or family members) may become strangers and strangers may become friends
Everyone handles grief differently, and some have a great deal of trouble dealing with grief or grievers. Only someone who has faced grief firsthand really understands. It’s not because folks don’t want to understand – it’s because they’re incapable of understanding unless they’ve been there, too. One reason support groups are so beneficial is that no one understands as does someone else who is going through it. This commonality sometimes binds strangers together in a meaningful way.
- Grief changes some of your relationships
Grief and loss create changes in your life that make it difficult or impossible for some of your relationships to remain the same. For example, a widow will at first still be welcomed in the social circle of her married friends; however, a single person does not usually fit into a married couple’s social world. I had always heard about this, but I didn’t think it would be true for me and the friends I had had for so long. These people remained my friends, but I had to develop a new social life outside of these couples.
Sometimes well-meaning friends will try to control your grieving by advising, critiquing, or rushing your process. Relationships can suffer when this happens. Also, some people simply do not feel comfortable around someone who is grieving, and they may try to distance themselves from you. When this happens with a family member, it’s especially hurtful and surprising.
- People may be uncomfortable around you because they don’t know how to respond to grief
I’m sure we’ve all been in this position – where we don’t know how to respond or what to say when someone has experienced a devastating loss. We’re afraid to say anything for fear of upsetting them. However, what we probably don’t realize is that they’re upset already, and saying something simply lets them know that we care. Avoiding the subject is often more hurtful to the griever. A griever can help to relieve the other person’s discomfort by bringing up the subject that is ‘the elephant in the room.’ By opening the door to dialogue, you can put the other person at ease and let them know it’s okay to discuss what has happened.
- Grief’s pain is stunning, but its intensity won’t last forever
I was shocked by the sheer force of the pain I felt. Actually, I had no idea what to expect. It was comforting to learn that the intensity of the pain would decrease over time, and I found that to be true in my life. Reminders still crop up when something stirs up memories – and there may be tears – but now I’m grateful for the love behind the memories and tears. These tears are no longer painful ones, but thankful ones.
- What you do about grief makes a difference. You must choose to get well—it’s not automatic
I was surprised to learn that grief is not a passive process. I held the misconception that grief is something that happens to you, and after a while, it just goes away. I didn’t know I had to do anything.
Thankfully, I learned that grief healing comes from facing the grief head-on and working through it. We can’t avoid the pain and try to escape from our loss and expect to heal. Grief is a process, and adjustments are necessary. Grief and loss always bring change, and change requires movement of some kind. Things are not the way they were. We can’t go back there, and the only way through is to go forward, adapting and adjusting to meet the new circumstances.
- Grief is work, and it’s harder than you expect
I read somewhere that grief is not for sissies – and boy, did I find that to be true! Facing grief requires a strong effort. Sometimes we get tired, impatient, lonely, and just want to give up. When that happens, rest assured that anyone who has faced grief has been there, too. Stick with it, one step at a time. I learned not to look too far into the future, and not to try and figure out everything at once. There’s plenty of time for that later. When I tried to take on too much, or look too far ahead, I was overwhelmed. Take a step back and regroup. Know that when you just keep putting one foot in front of the other, and keep moving (regardless of how slowly), you are on the right track.
- You will make it through
I really wondered at first if I would make it through. My husband died without any warning, and grief was both sudden and fierce. At times, I felt helpless and lacked the will to keep fighting. However, I read everything I could get my hands on to learn about grief and understand what was happening to me. I realized lots of people had made it through grief, and I thought if they could do it, I could, too. Before I really believed the truth for myself, I held on to their truth. Knowing others had successfully navigated the grief waters brought me a great deal of hope and assurance.
- Grief is emotionally and physically exhausting, so be gentle with yourself
Grief is draining in so many ways, and most of us are our own harshest critics. We compare our journey with others and wonder why we’re not farther along or why we’re not doing as well. We criticize ourselves for not feeling up to doing everything we used to do; for being sad and depressed; for not wanting to be social at times; for eating or sleeping too much or too little; for being unsure about stepping out and doing something new; and on and on.
Stop it! If ever there’s a time to be gentle with yourself, it’s when you’re grieving. I learned how important it is to take care of yourself physically, mentally, spiritually, and relationally during grief. These aren’t just words – it’s really important! Make it a point to take some nurturing steps for yourself. You can’t grieve 24/7, and it’s important to take breaks and focus on things that bring you joy and peace, things that relieve your stress. You’ll be better equipped to keep hope alive and replenish your strength when you take care of yourself.
- You have to push beyond your comfort zone
Certain adjustments require you to get outside of your comfort zone to move forward. After a loss, you may need to take on responsibilities you’ve never had before or think you’re not qualified to handle. If you’re a new widow or widower, at first it can be hard to go places by yourself that you’re accustomed to going to with a companion. Maybe you didn’t work full time before, and now you must find a job. Maybe at your age the opportunities to meet new people are somewhat limited, yet you have to rebuild a social life on your own. You’re going to have to do some things that feel uncomfortable to extend yourself to people and in places that are unfamiliar.
The discomfort lessens as you keep on trying to move beyond your comfort zone. Work on changing your mindset from one of fear and resistance to one of adventure. Sounds silly, but it makes a difference. Try new things. You may find something you really love!! At the very least, you will have stretched yourself and grown by doing something new. And next time, it shouldn’t be as hard.
- Grief will change your life—but good things can come out of it
Seventeen years ago, if someone had told me that anything good could come out of grief, I would probably have laughed. I thought grief was something you had to endure, certainly not anything that could lead to a shred of goodness. I think it’s important to know upfront that good things can come out of grief – because when you know and expect that, your whole mindset changes.
Knowing that grief will change your life – and that good can come from it – helps you to look for those positive things. Setting your mind on anything positive will help you to hang on to hope, and keeping hope alive is crucial. Focus on the fact that you have a future beyond grief, and that future can be happy and satisfying. Life is worth the fight!
You’re empowered when you realize you can do something you thought you couldn’t do. When you become more sensitive to people around you, you’re in a stronger position to be a friend or to assist them. When you realize how precious time is, you’re more careful about how you spend yours. When you know you may not have another opportunity, you’re more apt to say or do things you may have let slide before. When you needed God most and He was there for you, your faith grew stronger.
Being more conscious enriches your life and relationships in a myriad of ways. Hope is always there; we just have to take hold.
Grief surprised me in far more ways than I’ve shared here. For your own well-being, find out about grief before you need to know. Prepare yourself so you won’t have to struggle to find out when the time comes that you need to know. Grief escapes no one forever – so all of us need to know about it. Even with grief, light is at the end of the tunnel.
What surprised you the most, and what did you find the most difficult to handle with grief? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
© 2015 Judy Brizendine
Photo by Judy Brizendine
Fifteen Things I Wish I’d Known About Grief – Teryn O’Brien
64 Things I Wish Someone Had Told Me About Grief – from What’s Your Grief blog
Find Meaning in Your Loss – Marty Tousley, Grief Healing blog
Voices of Experience: What I’ve Learned from Grief – Marty Tousley, Grief Healing blog