The first few months of this year have been filled with significant loss. My Dad died in February after a very rapid decline from Alzheimer’s disease. We knew his condition was terminal but in December when my siblings and I contemplated that this family Christmas gathering might be his last, we didn’t realize his death would come so imminently.
While I have lost all 4 of my grandparents, an uncle, and beloved friends, my Dad’s death hit me in a very different way. The experience taught me important lessons about grief and also how to be more available and empathetic to others who experience loss.
Grief-Adjacent vs. Grief-Stricken
While I loved her message at the time, I had no idea how much more resonant it would be 3 months later when my Dad died. Nora spoke about how the well-meaning words of others helped her reframe her husband’s death.
Perhaps you’ve heard the adage that “In time, you will move on from grief.” I don’t believe there is an expiration date for grieving a loved one and Nora shared her personal insight, which gave me permission to look at grief differently.
“Don’t leave those moments behind…it’s OK to speak about your loved one in the present tense. The people we love are still present for us. Aaron (her first husband) is indelible and present for me. I’ve not moved on – I’ve moved forward with him.”
Nora shared that we get another chapter in which to live our lives. Love and grief are not opposing forces, but strands of the same thread.
What to Say
When my Dad died, we commemorated his life with a traditional Catholic wake, a funeral mass, an internment ceremony at the mausoleum, and a brunch for family and friends. The 2-day marathon that encapsulated these events was a roller coaster of emotions.
My mother, the primary care-giver for my Dad during his debilitating journey with Alzheimer’s was the quintessential host, greeting each person who traveled near and far to honor my Dad with charm and grace. My siblings and I watched in awe as she held it all together, while we succumbed to fits and starts of emotional break-downs. My Mom prefers to cry in private.
After it was all over, my family finally exhaled and debriefed about the experience. My Mom candidly shared how frustrating it was when people asked. “How are you doing?” Her husband just died after a difficult journey with a devastating illness – how do you think she’s doing?
While I know the question was well-meaning, a reframed version can better acknowledge the pain and grief a person is experiencing and offer an empathetic response. Consider:
- “It’s really tough for you right now.”
- “I’m sorry you are suffering.”
- “You must really miss him/her.”
“Acknowledge that what they’re going through right now is very painful,” says Rebecca Soffer, CEO of Modern Loss. Don’t gloss over their feelings—let them have the chance to grieve fully and without judgment.”
Be Pro-active and Do Something
Another teachable moment for me came after so many well-intentioned people asked, “What can I do?” or, “Do you need anything?” My grief stricken brain fog did not give me clarity about what I actually needed.
Instead of asking what you can do – reframe this as an opportunity to be pro-active and do something. Whether you nourish a grieving family with food, cards, flowers or contributions to a meaningful charity – doing something can make a powerful impact. A gift of service can be incredibly helpful like a grocery run, walking a dog, or driving a carpool shift.
The days and weeks after the cards, flowers and hot dishes stop can be very lonely. Consider how you can do something that will bring peace and comfort to those grieving after time has passed.
Crying is Nature’s Catharsis
The epigram from early the American writer, Christian Nevell Bovee is powerful: “Tearless grief bleeds inwardly.”
While I recognize that everyone processes grief in their own way, my experience is that crying is emotionally and physically cathartic. It can help in the healing process, and according to Lauren Bylsma, University of Pittsburgh psychiatry professor,
“When people hold back their tears, it does seem to lead to mental and physical problems,” she says. “It takes a lot of effort to hold back tears.”
While I continue to do my fair share of crying as I grieve my Dad, what surprised me are the triggers that bring on the emotions. Not all of the memory triggers are sad, yet the unexpected emotional sparks can launch me into welled-up eyes, or full out ugly-cry.
The ugly-cry (for me) is deep, red faced, uncontrollable sobbing and while it may freak out those in my radius, it does lead to an emotional calm after the crying storm. Nora McInerny spoke about “not getting your sad on other people” in her TEDTalk and how many people can’t handle being near someone who is sorrowful. I am grateful for those who gave me permission to get my cry on in their presence and I vow to be there for others moving forward. A safe space to cry is vital for our humanity.
Self-Care is Essential
One of the most important gifts my closest friends shared was the gentle reminder about self-care as I grieve. Grief can be exhausting and debilitating emotionally so honoring your mind, body and spirit is essential to your wellbeing. These tips by Heather Strang really help me cope:
- Be Kind to Yourself – grief is painful and self-compassion has tremendous healing power.
- Sleep – grief related insomnia is common so experiment with different ways to get back to a healthy sleep pattern. Try meditation, mild stretching, increasing your exposure to sunlight, or a bed-time ritual to help you regain your restorative sleep.
- Eat Healthy, Drink Water – a dear friend reminded me that crying is dehydrating. Nourishing your body with healthy food and water will help your physical and mental state.
- Connect with Others – spend time with others with whom you can be your authentic self. Connect with people who can be compassionate listeners and lend your support to others in need.
- Move Your Body – through exercise, you build your physical strength, release tension, enliven yourself, and keep yourself well. Exercise releases endorphins that will lift your mood.
- Express and Create – according to Brene Brown. “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.” Keep a journal or tap your creative talents in some way to express yourself on this new journey.
Grief Doesn’t Happen in a Vacuum
I was in the depths of grieving my Dad’s recent death when I learned about the loss of several other people in a short span of time. High school and college friends lost their young adult sons respectively under tragic circumstances. A friend’s husband died of cancer, and the mother of my childhood classmate succumbed to the end of her Alzheimer’s journey, all within weeks.
There are so many different types of loss, from the death of a loved one, to a miscarriage, or the inability to conceive a child. As Nora McInerny said, “…when it’s your front row at the funeral – you get it.” Some things can’t be fixed – not all wounds are meant to heal. Grief is a multi -layered emotion. You are going to move forward but not move on.
I am grateful for the multitude of people who continue to love and support me after the death of my Dad and in his honor, I share these lessons as I move forward.
- Acknowledge the important people in your life and tell them you love them.
- Apologize to those you love if you hurt them.
- Express gratitude and appreciation for the love and care you receive.
- Remember the cherished moments of your life.
My family came together stronger than ever when my Dad died. We celebrated his life and shared wonderful memories that will help us move forward together.