What We Learn In The First Year Of Grief
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The first year of grief
I’m on Day 365 of life without my brother Thomas here physically; I’ve completed the first year of grief. Technically it’s just shy of that at 8,758 hours, but who’s counting.
Here’s what I know so far about grief, based on this first year of experience. If you love someone who’s grieving, I hope it helps, because there’s a lot of confusion out there around how to interact with us:
If you don’t know what to say to a grieving person, it’s okay to admit that
If you don’t know what to say, it’s okay to not say anything. Being able to just sit with us and acknowledge our pain is one of the most valuable things you can do. It’ll be uncomfortable for you, but it’s nothing compared to what we’re experiencing. You don’t have to try to fix it or make us feel better, just be with us.
We might need to change or cancel plans abruptly because of grief
Don’t be surprised if we cancel plans abruptly. Forgive us, and love us anyway. Trust me, it’s for your benefit. We might totally seem to have our shit together in the morning, and by lunchtime we’re wiped out from trying to act “normal” and need a time-out. It doesn’t mean we don’t care about and respect others, we’re literally just trying to make it through each hour and it’s messy. Once again, no need to try to fix it or make us feel better. Most of us are ill-equipped to advise others on what would make them feel “better” anyway, and this is especially true with grief.
Grief is not actually a journey or a process
Grief is not a “process” or a “journey” with different levels and a clear end date. It’s our new reality; something we have to suddenly make room for in our lives, and carry every day until we’re reunited with our loved ones. It’s not something we’ll “get through” or graduate from. It’s what we experience every moment even if we’re not openly discussing it, and it has a lot of different ways of manifesting.
Grief is not linear
Even if we seem “normal” when you see us, that doesn’t mean we’ve “recovered” or “gone through the process”. It means that likely with a bit of forced practice, we’re now more skilled at blending in, even when we’re screaming inside (our minds, our homes, our cars, our grocery stores…). As a witness, try to be okay with knowing that grief is never predictable, linear, or finished. Just accept us as we are.
They’re not stages of grief, they’re violent storms
The “stages of grief” – Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance – have been mislabeled. “Stages” implies you go through one, graduate to the next, keep going, and eventually you’re finished (ta da!) and have accepted the loss, having given grief its time. To clarify, all of those things happen, but they occur more like a hurricane than a nicely-labeled pathway. We likely experience all of those things, in no particular order, every single day. Sitting next to my brother’s body in the hospital, I had just finished screaming at a doctor to try to restart his heart again (anger), and was simultaneously whispering “no, no, no” out loud (denial) while negotiating with God in my head all of the pious things I’d dedicate my life to if He brought Thomas back (bargaining). So not only can the “stages” occur out of order, they can occur simultaneously. I get that we all want to understand and categorize experiences so we can correctly interpret and address them, and that’s what the classic grief model attempts to do, but I think we could call it “the 5 hurricanes of grief” instead of the 5 stages.
Saying our loved one’s name is really important to us
Saying our loved ones name doesn’t make us upset. We’re already upset. In fact, knowing that people remember our loved ones is one of the best things you can do for us. So say their name, talk about them, and try not to squirm so much if it makes you uncomfortable. As you can likely imagine, we’re way more uncomfortable when people act like our loved ones never existed. This is important in the first year of grief, of course, but every year after that as well.
We’re know exactly what matters, and have no room for what doesn’t
We usually have trouble empathizing with minor inconveniences. It doesn’t mean we don’t care when you’re suffering, but it’s tough to get worked up about traffic or irritating customer service when your 25-year-old brother died. It’s tough to listen to complaints about your child being a psycho at the grocery store when all you want is for your child to be alive. We love you and we want you to feel happy and peaceful, but our baseline is just way different now, so forgive us if it doesn’t seem like we care about day-to-day drama. We don’t. But we still care about people. The first year of grief can feel like a reckoning of everything that we thought we knew.
We can be happy and sad at the same time when grieving
Sometimes we’ll seem like we’re truly happy, and sometimes we’re not even faking it. We experience happiness just like all of us experience multiple emotions every day. So if we’re happy and that surprises you, let it be okay. If we’re not happy when you think we “should” be, let that be okay, too. Being happy one moment doesn’t mean we’ll never be sad again. It goes back to that myth about stages, a graduation from grief, and so on. It just doesn’t work like that. I’m happy and sad most days. I’m happy when I see a cool bird on my morning walk. I’m sad when I’m at Starbucks and realize Thomas will never ask me to buy him a cookie again. I’m happy that I got married three years ago today. I’m so happy my whole family was there. I’m shattered knowing that my brother is gone, and that the anniversary of his passing is the same day as my wedding anniversary. I’m beyond devastated that when my brother John gets married, he won’t have Thomas standing next to him physically. But I’ll be happy for him when he gets married. There is room to feel more than one emotion at a time, so just let it be okay.
The first year of grief is different for each of us
We all experience the first year of grief differently, and every year after that, in fact. Reading one article (like this one) doesn’t mean you’re perfectly prepared to love someone who’s lost someone. But it means you’re trying, and I’d say the most important thing is to pay attention, accept us and love us without expectations or criticism. By paying attention, it’ll likely be pretty clear what we need. If you’re not sure, ask. If we’re not sure what to tell you, be patient. But trying to make an approximation of what you’d do in our shoes, and then pushing us to do what you think you’d do, will only frustrate us and push us away. We’re all doing the best we can every day. That said, if your loved one is totally isolating themselves for long periods of time and refusing to connect with anyone that was in their lives before the loss, or seems to be heading down a destructive path, they likely need professional support. Many think that the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is only if you’re contemplating suicide, but they are also able to help during crisis situations. They can be reached at 1-800-273-8255 or you can chat with them online if you hate talking on the phone (like me).
Nothing is set in stone in grief
We have the right to change our mind about how we feel, what we think and what we believe: I’m 365 days in. I have many, many more days ahead. I’ll probably update my grief observations in time, as I experience more. Nothing is permanent. It’s okay for us to have one thing be true today, and another thing to be true tomorrow. Some days I think I’m going to write in my journal all day, go for a long run and meditate. And I end up feverishly making macarons and binge watching Netflix instead, because that’s what feels better in that moment. Predicting how I’m going to handle each day is difficult even for me, so for someone else to try to predict it is definitely not going to work.
Grieving is not a contest
Grief isn’t a race or a contest. My brother’s death doesn’t need to be compared to when someone’s hamster died. It doesn’t need to be compared to other traumatic deaths of young adults in their prime. It doesn’t need to be compared to adults who suffered a long time while my brother died peacefully. It doesn’t need to be compared to the death of an extremely young child. It is its own standalone tragedy, as is each individual loss, and it’s okay to treat it as such. It’s not selfish to acknowledge that your own loss is unique in the entire world. It’s actually necessary, both for the person who experienced the loss and for the people that love them. Know that their loss is unique in the entire world, even if you both lost the same person. Your experience is as unique as your bond.
Living beyond the first year of grief
If you’ve lost someone, I am here to acknowledge your pain and be with you as you grieve. I’m fully immersed in this space and will continue to share what has allowed for healthy expression of grief in my own life, and what I see working for others. But just know that what works for me might not work for you, and if it doesn’t, that does not mean you’re broken. Within your own family, what might work for your sibling, your parent, your child, might not work for you. Again, you are not broken. You are on a brutal path of self-discovery as you’ve been told to teach yourself rock-climbing after being thrown off a cliff. Only you can determine what will help you get through each day, the first year of grief, the rest of your life carrying your grief. Not “overcome” it – grief will be with all of us for the rest of our lives. It’s more about making room for it instead of trying to crowd it out. Learning not to fight it, but to let it move through you and be released. There’s an endless supply that will keep coming, just as there is an endless supply of love you have for the person you lost.
If you love someone who’s lost someone, I also want to acknowledge that it’s difficult for you, too. The person you love is not the same anymore, and they never will be. They won’t get over it, or get better, or move on. With the right kind of support from a coach, a therapist and a network of people who accept them exactly as they are, they can learn to live. You can be a part of helping them live again. It will take a lot of patience, probably some quiet confusion on your part if you’ve not experienced traumatic loss yourself, and something most of us aren’t very good at naturally – acceptance. Accepting a grieving person exactly as they are, without trying to fix them or the situation, will create the space they urgently need to reemerge as the person they’ve been forced to become. Let them be, and love them.
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