What “everyone” tells you about surviving the grief of losing a loved one may not be true for you. And that’s OK.
I don’t know where our society came up with so many myths and misinformation around the idea of death and dying, but it seems to me that many people have accepted myths and misinformation as the truth and they’re not. They are myths, misinformation, fairy tales, propaganda, urban legend, and campfire tales. Guys sometime seem to buy into these myths because they seem like they could be true. This is something to really be aware of—don’t just take it at face value—what is the truth, and most importantly, what is the truth for you?
I am very fortunate because I have been a professional speaker and trainer for the past 26 years. When I suddenly became a widower, I was able to apply everything that I learned and taught for 26 years to my own life. I, in essence, became my own student. This gave me the confidence during a very difficult time in my life to be able to sort through what I felt was truth and what was not for me.
Myth number one: “I know how you feel.”
People will say to you that they “know how you feel” either because they think they do, or because they have experienced loss sometime in their life as well. Let me clear that one up right away—no one knows how you feel because no one has lived your life. No one has experienced what you are experiencing right at this moment. Even though I am a widower and lost my wife I can’t honestly say that I know how you feel, and you can’t honestly say you know how I feel.
Everyone experiences grief differently. I have always tried to keep in mind that people who say things like that are people who have good intentions and are not trying to be mean or insensitive. My first reaction when someone says “I know how you feel” is that the person is arrogant in thinking they could possibly know how I feel. The reality is they are trying to make us feel better, they’re trying to comfort us, and they’re trying to take away our pain so they just say whatever comes to their mind or repeat platitudes that they heard from others in the past.
So the best approach when someone says “I know how you feel” is to ignore the words and pay attention to the intent—they’re just trying to be helpful. Really. No one on earth knows how you feel. Once you admit that to yourself, it is a little bit liberating because you don’t expect anyone to know how you feel because well, they just can’t.
Myth number two: There is a certain way that someone should act when grieving.
This is the one that gets on my nerves the most. As a society we should define what grieving people should be doing and/or not doing. Really?
Please don’t miss this point—it is not up to other people to define how you act when you’re grieving. It’s up to you. Grieving is a very personal process, and because it’s a very personal process, it’s going to change depending on each person’s personality, attitude, and experiences. So there is no one way to grieve at all, no right way or wrong way, no normal or abnormal way.
Two weeks after my wife passed away I got a call from a business colleague who had heard about Cindy’s death. When I answered my cell phone we chatted for a while and she asked me where I was. I told her that I was at the mall shopping and she immediately responded with “you are at the mall shopping?” I guess grieving people are not supposed to shop! After thinking about it for a few moments she then said “Well, Shawn, I guess it kind of sounds like you, I mean you always had a great attitude.” It’s almost as if there is a list—the list of things that grieving people are not supposed to do; anything outside of that list makes people a bit uncomfortable. Oh well. This is one time you don’t need to worry about others—just yourself. Just be you.
Myth number three: Companies that you deal with will have empathy for your situation and will have systems set up to help you as you are grieving.
This could not be further from the truth, and unfortunately, I discovered the opposite.
Dealing with my bank to change over my accounts was very painful, laborious, and infuriating. A few days after my wife passed away I went to the bank and had her name removed from both the checking and savings account. I then went home and logged on to my bill pay account for my bank. My wife had been in charge of paying the bills and I wanted to see all of the accounts that were set up so that I could begin taking over that responsibility. Unfortunately, she did not leave me the password for the online checking so I called my bank. I patiently explained to them that my wife had passed away, and I would now be taking care of paying the bills so I needed to get a password reset.
After talking to five different people I finally spoke to a supervisor, who told me they could not reset the password, and I would have to set up the bill pay all over again. I was stunned and angry. “I have been banking with you folks forever—I don’t understand what the problem is.”
She explained in a very condescending tone that the bill pay account was not our account, but was Cindy’s account and Cindy’s alone. They would be happy to reset the account, but when it was reset, the bill pay would be wiped out and I would have to re-set up every account in the system. Resetting up all of the accounts in the system for bill pay took me over five hours. What a headache.
Throughout my experience as a widower I have had many unpleasant dealings with banks, phone companies, credit card companies, clothing companies, retail stores, and catalogs. All of them made it difficult and very laborious to change an account to my name only even though I have great credit.
As I said to someone at my giant phone company, they have forgotten about the customer and the customer’s experience, and are caught up solely in their processes. The only problem is the processes are not set up to handle someone dying. It has been almost two years, and yes, in today’s mail I received from my big phone company yet another bill with my late wife’s name on it. I have had at least nine discussions with them about the name change on the account, but that just doesn’t seem to matter. If I were King of the world, I would make every customer service representative of every company take empathy training, and force companies to develop a process to more empathetically handle the death of someone’s loved one.
Myth number four: You stop grieving.
I am really not sure that anyone ever stops grieving. The way I look at it is the grief will always be with you, it just lessens over time. Grief to me is like a blue balloon. At first I was holding the balloon and had the string wrapped around my wrist, and it went with me wherever I went. Eventually, with time, the string got longer and longer and longer.
One day I went out into the yard of my life and released the balloon into the sky. The balloon, however, did not fly away immediately; it hung around a while, kind of hovering near my head. The balloon gradually started to gain altitude, and each day the balloon was little higher in the sky. Until one day it was just a tiny azure speck in the sky. Some days I see it, and it floats down lower. Some days I don’t see it at all. Some days I open a drawer and it is in there. It will never completely disappear, for I carry it with me always.
I think grief is like that; it doesn’t go away, you just learn to live with it and move on with your life. I promise that is true.
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Photo: Flickr/Giuseppe Milo