Last fall, my beloved little sister died from suicide at the age of 25.
The shock, trauma, and confusion surrounding her death sent her friends and family reeling. It forced me on my own journey of grief, healing, and inevitably, learning. Though the pain is still fresh and new, I want to share what I have learned about grief so far:
1. Grief is physically painful.
Grief actually makes your body ache. I took Advil for days after my sister’s death because my bones hurt so much. You always hear about hearts aching, but it’s your stomach and lungs and fingers, too.
I found exercise to be the best remedy for the physical pain of grief. When my mind is focused on something else—like pulling air into my lungs during a run or getting lost in a sweaty yoga flow—the other pain fades. What’s more, exercise reminds my body that it’s still alive; exertion gets me back to the sheer, amazing mechanics of the physical body.
I exist in a resilient body, and it will carry me forward.
2. Finding someone to talk to helps tremendously.
In the beginning stages of grief, I would vacillate from “this is the worst thing that has ever happened and I don’t know how I’ll move forward” to “there are people being slaughtered in Syria; do I even have a right to be this devastated” to “we’re all going to die someday, why does anything even matter” and back to “the world doesn’t make sense anymore and I’m going to keep sinking into this hole.”
It was confusing and exhausting. I could not get my mind to a centered and peaceful place; I was experiencing panic attacks and deep guilt. I didn’t know how to act around other people, including my closest friends and family. Going to a therapist was critical for sorting out my thoughts and figuring out a way to come to terms with the swirling emotions I was experiencing. Insurance can usually cover the bulk of therapy costs, and there are more affordable online options as well.
3. Learning how to cultivate inner peace is critical.
Talking to someone helps, but it’s just one of several steps for finding peace within ourselves. Inner peace is critical because what’s inside us determines how we interact with the rest of the world. It impacts what we bring about around us, and this world could certainly use more good.
To cultivate peace inside myself, I have a regular meditation practice. It’s usually only 15 minutes a day, but it makes all the difference. During this time, I practice deep breathing exercises and then try to focus my attention on my breath moving up and down my spine. Sometimes I use a mantra, like so hum; other times I listen to soft music. Sometimes I focus on a certain area inside me, like my heart chakra or third eye. My meditation practice varies with the day and my mood.
Another strategy I’ve adopted, at the suggestion of my therapist, is creating a “happy place.” When the panic starts to set in, I close my eyes and go a quiet beach that I’ve created inside myself. I can hear the waves crashing, feel the sand in my toes and the light breeze on my skin, and know that I’m safe.
4. Everyone grieves differently.
There is no one “right way” to grieve. There is also no shame in however you need to grieve.
A few days after my sister died, my friends took me out for dinner and a night on the town, and I ended up dancing on a table at 2 a.m. This did not, in any way, mean I was “okay” or “over it.” It meant friendship, beer, and dancing were what I needed in that moment to be reminded that the world wasn’t a terrible, cruel place. People who saw me out that night saw a smiling, carefree woman. They didn’t see me a few hours later in my room, curled in a ball with sobs tearing through my body.
We should grieve without judgement, both of ourselves and others. We should respect how we need to grieve in each moment, while acknowledging that what we need one moment could be completely different from the next.
5. Time heals.
Multiple times, I Googled “how to heal from a loss,” and while various strategies were listed, they all had one conclusion: time heals. I wanted to scream when I read this—how could I ever feel anything close to normal again? There was so much pain in me and around me; I wanted it fixed now! But while there are things you can do, both healthy and unhealthy, to set the pain aside for a bit—it truly is time that heals.
You will feel normal again. You will feel like yourself again. I promise. It’s one of the most difficult things to do, but you must trust time to take you forward.
6. You will be able to feel fully happy again.
Not only will you feel like yourself again, you will be able to experience pure happiness. Pain does not diminish the happiness inside you—your body incredibly makes space for both. You can carry the grief with you and experience the sadness alongside the joy.
Tara Brach has a beautiful talk about “the dance with pain” that I highly suggest listening to. Once you learn how to dance with your pain, you begin to experience life not only with joy, but also with more vividness and fullness.
7. You’ll become a more authentic version of yourself.
When someone close to you dies, you don’t have space for bullsh*t anymore. You’ve learned what real pain is, and you’ve seen what your body is capable of handling, so you begin to move through life with a warrior mentality. There’s no space for silly dramas or minor fears. You’ve experienced the worst and you’re still here, perhaps a more raw and stripped-down version of yourself—but maybe that’s the best self to put forward.
Grief is perhaps the most difficult and painful emotion we can experience in our lifetimes. But it does not mean the end; it does not mean we have to become shadows of our former selves or carry around the pain like a heavy backpack. We still can—and will—experience pure happiness and lead full lives.
This is our right. Grief is awful, but it’s a part of life, a part of the human experience. We get to decide how to embrace this experience; I suggest doing so with love.
Author: Mary Conroy Almada
Editor: Callie Rushton