If you have experienced tragic loss, you know there are no words to describe the shock and all-consuming anguish that ensues.
One moment leaves you forever changed.
We’ve just passed the sixth-month anniversary of my best friend Kim’s death, and while the initial acute pain has softened, the grief experience has evolved in many ways. Some aspects are worse. Some are better.
May this list offer some comfort and commiseration; there is no right or wrong way to walk such a unique and devastating path.
Here are some of the ways we naturally digest grief in the months and years following deep loss.
1. The tears
Your emotional cup is full of tears and even the smallest things will make it spill over. A spilled coffee, a passive-aggressive text, or the grocery store not restocking your favorite yogurt. Circumstances that were once shrugged off now mean a trip out to the car to allow the dam of tears to break. Daily frustrations become catastrophic.
2. The reminders
I turned on a familiar Netflix series recently and couldn’t understand why I was so uneasy and distraught, until I remembered it was a show Kim and I had binge-watched together many years ago. My conscious brain hadn’t remembered, but my body and subconscious had preserved her as a part of that memory alongside all the characters in the show. We are surrounded by a countless number of those reminders daily. Some explicit and some covert. They create an unexpected and involuntary flood of emotions.
Diet peach Snapple, the UPS store, sunshine on a deck, white sports cars, and just the word “sushi” will never drift by me without pain.
3. The dreams
The dreams are so vivid, and usually involve your loved one being right there next to you. They may be smiling, laughing, as present as they’ve ever been, and you can actually feel their touch. It can be a moment of lightness and bliss, but waking up mimics the pain of day one all over again. What a gift that our subconscious was able to recall them so vividly, but the anguish upon waking rips a fresh wound back open. How do you explain to family and coworkers that your person has left you all over again? And for the second time this month? What is a natural part of the process can feel like a major setback.
4. The short fuse
What presents itself as anger, irritability, frustration, stubbornness, road rage…is actually grief. You don’t recognize yourself or the way you’re speaking to the people around you. You feel out of control and the feelings are real. Let it remain in your periphery that beneath the surface you’re being influenced by an extreme and all-consuming emotion. We can’t be expected to act normal. (And the recipients of these emotions deserve to be reminded of this.)
By remembering the umbrella of grief hovering over you in your heightened emotional moment, your exaggerated response makes a lot of sense, and often leads to the emotional release you need to proceed with more control.
5. The remembering
As I have, you’ve probably made an effort to find some joy day-to-day. A TV series or sport that allows you to be fully present, or a friendship that locks you into wonderful, connected convo. You may experience brief moments of presence and lightness. Then you remember. You always remember. And it always casts a penetrating darkness through any enjoyable activity. As time goes on, the time in between remembering grows, and the dark light becomes less intense, but you always remember.
6. The pictures
It’s the digital age, and there’s no shortage of pictures and footage of our loved ones on every device that surrounds us. We have easily accessible ways to relive memories. We can hear their laughs, watch their mannerisms, and even watch the way we embrace or interact.
While it’s a way to keep their memories close, it also makes escaping them incredibly difficult. And somehow Facebook and Google “memories” always seem to spotlight your loved one lightheartedly, right before your big meeting or your extended family shows up for dinner. Involuntarily, you are staring at your loved one’s smiling face, reminding you of their empty seat at the table. It can be jarring to have a stitch popped on our grief wound so surprisingly and involuntarily.
That said, it can be beautiful. A gift earlier generations didn’t have. I made a whole folder of our memories for when I need to feel it all deeply and flush some backed-up tears.
7. The worry
I developed anxiety in my late 20s and thankfully developed coping strategies before tragedy struck, but no coping strategies can offset the fear that sets in afterward.
If anxiety is often about situations you can’t control, we’ve now experienced an example of one of those situations coming true. The worry was not unfounded. Our logical brains tell us that events will happen whether we worry about them or not, but turning off the fear of losing another close person is almost impossible. One tragedy can shatter the whole idea. Every unknown number, slow response time, sound of a siren…we now have proof it could happen to us.
I wouldn’t have guessed that this circumstance would shake up so much of the progress I had made in my self-work journey, but I trust that time will allow more mental peace to eventually work its way back in.
8. The pleading
You know it’s happened and it’s irreversible, but there’s a primal child in there that can’t withstand the deep urge to beg for it to be reversed. “Please no. Please. Please.” “I’ll do anything. I’ll give anything.” Your logical brain knows better, but your heart and body compulsively plead.
9. The sharing
After mentioning our loss, it’s not uncommon to be quickly met with the stories of others. They are meant to express understanding, and they do, but in the early aftermath no comparison will feel particularly good. Especially if it means receiving a story or anecdote about another’s pain and feeling the need to express your own sympathy. I am both a highly sensitive person (HSP) and an extreme empath—it affects me deeply to hear of others suffering no matter how good the intentions. To the point of casting my own feelings aside.
I couldn’t have predicted how vulnerable my writing about grief would make me to the sharing of others’ suffering, and I drowned a bit at the start. I was unprepared to be cast into a world of specific details of others’ losses. After reading a couple early comments, I made the self-preserving call to refrain from reading any until I felt up to it, and then only one or two a day. I appreciate them all; I just needed to digest them at my pace.
(I also caution everyone about this unsolicited sharing as we go forward. We can be present with others as they grieve, hold them, and tell them we feel deeply with them without offering our own anecdotes.)
10. The world goes on without you
Some days it feels cruel and unfair that everyone else gets to energetically “hit the ground running” on Monday morning. We’ve received their heartfelt condolences, and now they continue their lives, which is expected. Meanwhile, we’re in pieces, and can’t fathom setting foot into the office (or on stage.) As time goes on, for others’ comfort we often become quiet about our feelings. In our minds, our friends and family don’t deserve to be held down alongside us, which can leave us in a lonely place. We must let them carry on and do our best to patiently do the same, on the timeline that feels right to us.
Everyone is different
I’m sure there are many other facets of this experience not listed here that are present for you, so let this article be a “squeeze on the shoulder” that you’re not alone. So many of us live with this pain sitting just below the surface, and we’d all be good to remember that as we make our way through the world, day-to-day.
Let this also be a gentle reminder that there are those who have experienced this process and are available to help. Grief counselors, elders, support groups…there’s no reason to navigate this blindly, or underestimate the power of commiseration and togetherness. It may not be our friends or family that we let into our dark space, but there are others who will mutually benefit from joining you in the depths. If not for you, do it for them.
They say it does get better. The pain never leaves, but I’m told it normalizes and becomes less intense, and I trust those who have traveled this path before me.
We’ll get through it.
So much love to you all, drifters.