There’s a period of my life that I can only describe as painful and difficult. I’m grateful for the people who endeavored to walk by my side during those years, who tried to buoy my spirits and give me hope and perspective, but at the same time I know it was some of those same people who drove me crazy. They’d say things, thinking they understood what it was like to be a widow and single parent and it was obvious to me that though their intentions were good, they had no idea what I was going through. I have often wondered how best to communicate the experience of grieving and getting over loss. I’m not wondering anymore. My friend, LJ, who is walking the road I once trod, wrote an article that sums it up perfectly. It so hit home that I thought I’d share it. I hope that it will help people who haven’t experienced first-hand a significant loss to comprehend how much of a struggle it is to “get over it” and to know what to say to those who have. Here’s what LJ wrote:
When do you “Get Over It”?
Before Jeff died, on occasion I would ponder about loss and grief. I did not think about death for long but I would wonder when I would experience a significant loss and what that would be like. If you haven’t lost someone you care about, how can you begin to understand grief? As the days turn into weeks and the weeks turn slowly into years I am learning that grief looks very different for each person that experiences it. Your personality, your age and your relationship to the person who died all have an impact on your journey. So how do you relate to someone who just suffered the major blow of a death of a loved one? What is grief like?
If I was to explain my journey to you I would compare my experience to the amputation of your arm. An arm is understandable and is a good starting point to consider if you are aiming to be empathetic. Let’s pretend that one day while driving down the highway you lose control over your car on an icy patch on the road. Your car hits a bridge, trapping you by your arm in your car. In order to save you from bleeding to death the emergency response team is forced to amputate your arm. It was a perfectly normal day and suddenly you find yourself in a hospital covered in bandages. As you recover consciousness you are able to recall your car accident. First you really can’t feel anything in your body. You’re just numb. The world goes on around you, and you find yourself simply watching. Slowly but surely, the feeling returns and eventually you start to feel the pain. You have just lost your arm!
No matter how much you may or may not anticipate a loss you can never really be emotionally prepared for grief. Knowing days or months ahead that someone is going to die does not minimize the pain you experience although it may lessen the shock. After someone dies it is pretty normal to walk around in a daze. It is easy to be strong at the beginning. The full loss of your loved one’s death hasn’t sunken in yet. You talked to them or held them only a few hours earlier or a day or 2 ago. Absorbing the full impact of your loss cannot happen in a day or even in a week.
Losing an arm is painful but eventually with time the pain does decrease. How long does it take for the pain to ease and the raw wound to heal over? It would depend on things like how healthy you are, how many complications occurred, your response to treatment and so forth. But once you are released from the hospital does that mean you have now “gotten over it”? Not at all! Your journey has just begun. Now you need to start to adjust to all the secondary losses. Think about all the adjustments you would need to make if you lost your arm. The list goes on and on. Immediately you think of things like tying your shoes, eating, toileting and driving your car. But as you continue to be pulled forward in life by time, you start to discover that it isn’t easy holding down your old job with one arm. And what about playing baseball in the summer like you always used to do? Your day to day routines, your employment, your friendships, and your recreational pursuits are affected by the loss of your arm. There is not one area of your life that does not go untouched by the loss of your arm. Now you have to start making some very difficult choices. How are you going to react to these challenges? How are you going to “get over it”? Are you going to choose to live in the land of self pity? On some days you will spend time there. Are you going to be able to play baseball like you always did with your old team? Probably not. Are you going to give up baseball all together? Maybe, but hopefully you will find a new team to be part of or possibly a new role on your old team. Will you like these adjustments? Of course not! You’ll have a good cry after every game the first summer. Maybe the 2nd summer too.
Losing someone very close to you is painful and the amount of time it takes to heal over the raw wound of death does vary from person to person. The time you need to heal this wound will be affected by a variety of factors such as what you believe about life & death, the support you get from friends & family, the number of new challenges you must over come and the choices you make about how fast you will face many of the issues that are now a reality of your life. But as you move forward in life in your grief journey, many times you will find that the impact of your loss is overwhelming. It affects every relationship and every aspect of your life. You have to make difficult choices over and over and over. You can’t pretend your life is the same. Well, you can try to pretend but it’s like pretending you still have an arm when you don’t. I think people around you can be tempted to pretend everything is fine too. It’s a comforting pretense because it’s the easiest way. Pretending everything is normal and fine after someone loses a loved one is like pretending to shake someone’s missing hand after their arm is amputated. You are both left feeling very uncomfortable with your interaction and will likely avoid each other in the future. Better to say something like “I feel awkward because I want to shake your hand. It must be hard getting used to life with one hand”. When someone has died saying “I miss seeing Jeff, you must miss him more than I do” is hard to say. But doing this allows you to open the door to the reality of where a grieving person is at and it allows you to be a part of the “new” life a person is adjusting to. Acknowledging loss rather than pretending everything is fine is a difficult first step. It is the first and most difficult hurdle to overcome in rebuilding meaningful relationships after loss.
Will you ever “get over” losing your arm? No, you never will. And you will never “get over” the loss of someone you love. The pain will decrease, you will adjust to someone’s absence and you will live and laugh again, but the scar of loss will always be on your heart. There is some strange comfort in carrying this scar and knowing you will never forget. If you are grieving or want to support someone experiencing loss you both will be challenged to make potentially difficult, painful and uncomfortable choices over and over and over. So step up to the plate and then live, laugh and love again.
That everything is fine
When it isn’t
The water is calm and
The skies are clear
When they aren’t
Does it help
In the end
When the ship is destroyed
And the cargo is lost?