Knowing what to expect when you are grieving can help you know that you’re not alone in your feelings.
The other day I heard a song on the radio If I Die Young by the Band Perry. There is a part of the song that always struck me and rang a cord in my heart:
If I die young, bury me in satin
Lay me down on a bed of roses
Sink me in the river at dawn
Send me away with the words of a love song.
When I heard the song I was brought back almost four years ago, to my early days of grieving right after my wife died suddenly. Back then, when I heard that song, I bought the CD and would listen to the song over and over again when I was driving somewhere. The song’s haunting lyrics and mournful bluegrass music become like the soundtrack for my grief.
It also made me think about some of the reactions I had to my grief back then and I wrote about them in my book The Sun Still Rises.
Here in an excerpt:
Years ago there was very popular book out for pregnant women called What to Expect When You Are Expecting. I thought that it was a brilliant book because it let pregnant women know what they could expect each month of their pregnancy. I also thought it was a good idea, because it helped both the husband and the wife know what to expect during nine months of pregnancy. My hope is in this chapter I can also help you understand what may possibly be your responses to grief. As much as you are grieving, I want you to be aware of the emotions and feelings you’re having, but I also want you to know that you’re not alone. Many of us grieving people have experienced the same things. Awareness and knowledge is half the battle for overcoming anxiety. So I’ve outlined for you several possible reactions to grief you may have and how you can handle each one of them should they happen to be the ones that you’re experiencing.
Being numb: It is quite possible after the experience of losing a loved one you may just feel like you are in shock. Well, you are in shock. You may not have very many emotions—in fact you may feel numb, not feeling too high or too low—just numb. If this is the case with you—don’t worry. Eventually you will stop being numb and you will start to feel. The challenge is when you start to feel you will feel the emotions of sadness, grief, and loss, and also some positive emotions as well. Just know that those are completely normal emotions and it’s OK to allow the process in your grief because you need to get it out of your system so you can start to feel again.
Anger: There’s absolutely no question that anger is a normal human reaction to grief. You may be angry that your loved one died. You may be angry that life was cut short. You may be furious that it happened to you and your family. I mean, after all, why you, why your loved one, why your family? Did you win some sort of strange death lottery? It just seems so very unfair.
I did experience times when I was feeling angry and frustrated, particularly when sorting through paying bills or cleaning up a very messy room. My advice about the anger is that it is OK to vent, and in fact you have to vent in order to dissipate your anger. It is not good for your health to keep it bottled up inside you. So express your anger by yelling, screaming, or crying and after that you will feel better. Punch a pillow. Just make sure when you’re expressing your anger to do it in the right place—privately, so that you will not unduly concern other people.
It is also perfectly acceptable to express your anger if you’re around someone that you love and trust who will not judge you or get upset that you’re angry, someone who understands your pain. I also found that physical activity was a big help in overcoming the frustration of anger. Working out helped to burn off the steam. If you feel like the anger is unmanageable then seek out help from a mental health professional or a counselor. It amazes me in this country that there still is sometimes a stigma about seeking help from a mental health professional. We all go to the doctor for a broken arm, but hesitate to seek out help when we have emotional issues. Don’t hesitate—if you feel like you need the help then go find it.
Distraction: You may find that your grief causes you to be massively distracted both at work and at home. This is very understandable as you’ve been through a devastating experience, and it’s not easy to focus on life when some major event in your life has changed everything and shattered the glass of your former life. I found in the first couple of months it was really hard for me to focus on my work, but I knew that I had to buckle down and concentrate because I did not want to create any issues with my business, which I knew would cause me more stress. One of the ways I found to be helpful in staying focused was to each day get up and make a specific list of things I needed to get done both personally and professionally. I would then refer back to the list several times a day to keep myself on track. I also think it’s not a bad idea to take breaks every few hours so that you don’t have to focus quite as long, and your brain will be more refreshed after you’ve taken a short break.
Being impulsive: When we experience grief, sometimes a solution for getting out of the grief is to do impulsive things to help us feel better. It’s almost like going through a midlife crisis even though you may not be in midlife. I thought about taking a trip to Paris, I thought about buying a new car, I thought about collecting art. I thought about, believe it or not, getting a facelift because I was not happy with my appearance at the time and saw an ad on television for Lifestyle Lift. I went to their offices and met with them and talked to the consultant, and then all the way home said to myself “am I doing this because I need plastic surgery or am I doing this just because I’m trying to feel better?” I decided not to.
I saw an ad for Cenegenics (a company specializing in age management and hormone replacement therapy). They specialize in hormone replacement for men and women over fifty years old. They have an ad where a 60 year old man has a 60 year old face but has a body that looks like he is 35. They use nutrition, diet, and growth hormones to get amazing results. I had a long discussion with one of their associates. When I realized that it was going to cost me $12,000 a year I decided to not pursue that either. At the time all of these things that I was doing seemed to be logical and thoughtful. As I look back on it now I kind of chuckle to myself. I was actually being impulsive and trying to find some way to making myself feel better. In the early days of your grief process just be aware that you may end up being a bit too impulsive. The solution to this is just to make sure to think about and evaluate everything that you’re doing. Do not rush in to doing anything big.
The special day blues: Many people who have had a loss experience what I call the “special day blues”. On any special day (like a holiday) or a wedding anniversary, the birthday of the person who passed away, or the anniversary day of their death, it can be tough to deal with. For example my calendar will always have May 4th circled because that is the day that my wife passed. I will never have a May 4 go by when I will not think of what happened on that very day. I have two pieces of advice.
1) You may decide to commemorate those special days by getting together with friends and family to remember the person who passed away, in either a formal service such as a ceremony or just a get-together.
2) You may also decide that you don’t want to get together with other people and just want to remember the day quietly on your own.
When we approached the one-year anniversary of my wife’s death, I called my daughter and asked her how she wanted to handle that day. She decided rather than getting together, that she would just rather quietly remember her Mom on that day with her and her husband alone at home. I was glad she said that because I felt pretty much the same way. There is no right or a wrong answer in this equation. It is solely up to you to decide what works for you. I think people also struggle with their loved ones not being with them around Christmas and New Year’s and other holidays like Thanksgiving. The first ones are always the toughest but I can only tell you that with each holiday that goes by, it does get easier.
Jealousy: It seems odd to mention jealousy in a book about grief. But I can tell you (I am embarrassed to admit it but I will) I was painfully aware that I was being jealous and was experiencing the strong emotion of jealousy. I travel often as a professional speaker, and often while sitting in airports across America I would see a happy loving couple who were about my age. The couples that I would see were boyfriend and girlfriend or husband and wife. I could see them laughing and flirting and having a good time and I was insanely jealous. Why did this man still have his wife and I did not? Why was I denied? So I would sit watching the happy couple and feeling angry that they had what I no longer had. But I knew that jealousy is a very destructive emotion and only hurts you and those around you. My advice for handling jealousy is to focus on the future. I would say to myself, “yes you do not have a loved one now to share your life with but you will in the future.” I would also say to myself that I was happy that they had someone to share their life with, and to focus on being happy for them.
Trouble at work: I know after you have had a devastating loss it is really tough to go back to work. They gave you some time off to recover from your grief, but it was not nearly long enough. So now you go back to the workplace with people who have normal lives and have not had the loss that you have had. This can be very difficult and awkward. The other difficulty at work is it is often very hard to concentrate when you are grieving and to get your work done and perform at close to the level you performed at before you had your loss. But I will tell you this, and I am going to be blunt: you have to perform at work because if you don’t, they will let you go.
If you get fired—then your problems will be multiplied, because you will be grieving and unemployed. You do not need the additional stress and anxiety of being unemployed while you are grieving. So my advice is to put on your suit of armor, and to go into work with the determination to stay focused for those eight hours. When you go home, you can fall apart and grieve and cry—but nope—not at work. The only way I know how to describe it is that you have to learn how to fake it (that you are calm cool and collected) even when you’re not, because the workplace will not give you enough time to grieve. So you have to give the illusion that you have recovered and you can handle it. Suck it up and learn how to be focused while you are at work.
Awkwardness: I found that losing my wife and going from being married to single was a very awkward feeling. I even commented to friends and family during the first week that I could not believe that I was single. I also found that meeting people out in public often became a very awkward conversation, because they would ask about my wife and I would then have to explain that I was a widower. This conversation then became a burden for me and for the person I was speaking with. How do you deal with awkwardness? The answer is you really just have to push through it, and eventually you will feel more comfortable with telling people that you are a widower, or you lost a child or you lost a parent or friend. The awkwardness over time just goes away.
I hope my words help you know what to expect- and if you have already had them, I hope it provides validation that you are well, a human being, and just trying to get through your grief journey the best way you know how.
Photo: Getty Images