The pain is deep right now. Perhaps, you can’t even imagine moving past this heartache. Definitely can’t imagine living life without them. I have been where you are. Circumstances probably different, but pain and heartache know few forms. There is a path to wellness.
I am not an expert on grief, but I know how deep my heart ached and I know what I did to help it heal. I will share my list with you. Maybe you can use it as a guide for yourself, or alter the list to fit you.
1. Get out of bed or off the couch, take a shower, and get dressed.
It’s hard. It’s very hard. Some days will be easier than others. Do it every day, even on the hard days. There is something about a shower that lifts your spirits and gives you a better outlook on the day.
2. Eat regularly.
Don’t skip a meal (or several). Don’t binge at night when you are alone and in pain. I rarely felt like eating. I simply had so much on my mind and heart that food didn’t cross my mind–at first. And, when I was alone and hurting, I would go to the kitchen and just eat and eat and eat. I gained 40lbs. Not eating at all or eating too much isn’t good for you. It’s bad enough that your heart hurts, don’t allow your body to deteriorate too. Be mindful of meal times and emotional eating. Not every meal has to be an event. Eating at the table painful? Sit on the couch with a sandwich and fruit. I know eating in front of the TV isn’t the best, but that’s an easy enough habit to break later. Replace binge eating with healthy habits (see #3, #4, and #5).
No one has to see it. It doesn’t have to be beautiful. It doesn’t even have to make sense. Just write. Write down the ugly things you are thinking. Write out all the pain. Do not hold back. It helps.
It helps for a couple of reasons. Normally, you have all these jumbled thoughts running through your head. The could have beens, the need tos, and the what ifs. Writing allows you to put all that on paper. It clears your mind for more organized thoughts. It also puts all of that confusion on paper. You can read it and sometimes that helps you see things a little more clearly. You can mark things off the list, expand in another writing, or just spew and forget it. The important part is that it isn’t taking up space in your head.
Writing also leaves a trail of your process. Meaning, you can go back and look and see how far you have come. That is important. It’s important because there will be times when you feel like you will never grow, never heal. Intellectually, you probably know that isn’t true, but it is hard to convince yourself of that in those sad moments. It’s in those moments you can go back, look and see where you started and how far you have come. It will remind you that you are well on the way to healing and might give you some renewed strength to keep moving.
I don’t like to exercise, until I get started. Like I said earlier, I gained nearly 40lbs after Randy died. I knew I couldn’t stay like that. I had to do something.
I hoped I’d lose weight, but it came with other benefits too. When I felt anxious, I would exercise. Even if I couldn’t leave the house, I would stretch or do some simple sit ups. It took the place of the binge eating and gave me something to focus on other than how miserable I felt.
It also wore me out. Sleeping was always a problem for me. I fell asleep to the TV every night because I just couldn’t fall asleep. Between the thoughts and the loneliness, I was a mess. With exercise, I was so tired, when I laid down I fell asleep. No need to fall asleep with sad thoughts or the TV.
I also didn’t realize how angry I was until I started exercising. Exercising allowed me to pour out all of anger and frustration I was feeling. What a relief not to carry that with me anymore!
Volunteering gets you out of the house and giving feels good. I volunteered at a christian pregnancy center. It’s a subject dear to my heart since I was a teen mom, but you can volunteer anywhere you want. It sounds strange, but volunteering reminded me that my life was tough, but in some ways, others had it tougher. It reminded me how many blessings I had and how amazing my support system was.
6. Get help.
There is no shame in admitting you can’t do this alone. It takes a village, my friend, to have an amazing life. We were not made to be alone, especially in times of trouble. You might think that your kids, spouse, or friends are enough. It’s true, you are so fortunate to have them in your life and any one of those people would do anything they could for you. Often, they are hurting too. And, usually, they don’t have a degree. A counselor is an irreplaceable tool for healing.
It feels silly at first, I admit. The rewards are many. Your counselor can help things make sense, answer questions, relieve stress, give you tips and advice to make life easier, and look for more serious signs of real depression. I’ll be honest. I dreaded every single appointment. I would fill with anxiety, and look for a way out of the appointment every week. Some weeks, I succeeded and stayed home. I’ll tell you what I noticed. When I stayed home, my weeks were terrible. I felt burdened and overwhelmed. I rarely did the other things that helped me and I stayed on the couch more often than I would like to admit. When I went to my appointments the opposite was true. I left the fear and anxiety at her office. I found I had more energy through the week to start tasks, and I actually accomplished some of them. I could sleep, eat, and even smile. It was a huge difference in my daily life from one short office visit.
There are many types of counselors to see. I chose a Social Worker. You will probably see the letters ‘MSW’ or ‘LCSW’ behind the counselors name if they are a Social Worker. Social Workers are not trying to find out what is wrong with you. They allow you to talk and they let you know what they hear, and what they have seen in other clients. Their approach is a little more casual. Find someone you like. It’s okay to meet someone and not like the way they talk to you or their approach to healing. For this to work, you need to have someone you can connect with, talk to, and trust. Little by little, month after month, you heal.
7. Do the work.
Healing doesn’t just happen and it isn’t a straight path to the finish line. Healing is hard work. If you slack, you dip backwards. Sometimes, you just go backwards for no reason. If you do the work, you will gradually keep moving forward, and that is what is important.
I’m sure you are wondering what ‘do the work’ actually means. There are 5 stages of grief as established by Elisabeth Kubler Ross. Those stages are denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance (in no specific sequence). Just because you have worked through anger, doesn’t mean it’s gone for good. It could resurface. And just because you think you have finally reached acceptance, doesn’t mean you are done. It is possible, in fact probable, you will re-visit at least one of these other stages off and on for years. That’s okay.
I call it work because it is. It isn’t easy. There is no way to go around it. You just have to trudge through and work at healing every single day. It might even be work from now until forever. There is no right way, wrong way, or timeline. We are all different and move through it differently. No matter who you are, or what your personality is, your healing is solely dependent on how willing you are to work and your drive to live a full life again. You can do it. I know you can do it because I did it. Just don’t be afraid of the work, my friend.
8. Resolve issues.
Life is messy. There are no clear paths. We are all human with faults and insecurities. Often there is unfinished business to contend with. If you lost a spouse or child, there might be bills that need to be paid, accounts to change, or personal possessions to get from law enforcement, work, or school.
If your loved one died as part of a criminal act, try to resolve the legal aspect and your emotional response to the act. Randy’s death involved a drunk driver. I had to think about what punishment I could live with in order to be able to forgive him and be okay with my decision. I also had several types of court cases to contend with. Every time I had to do something in the court system, it brought up all the pain from the day he died. So, if you can, try to resolve these issues as quickly, honestly, and completely as possible. Remember, forgiveness does not equal forgetting. If you choose not to forgive the person responsible, you give that person the power to control your life. I think he/she has had enough power. It’s time to take it back. Find a way to forgive the act so you can keep the focus of your life on you and your family.
Because we are not perfect, often we have a sense of missing out. We carry an internal dialogue of what we could have done, should have done, or would have done if given more time. We wish we would have said goodbye before they left or made sure we got up that morning to make their lunch. Perhaps you were in a hurry and skipped the scheduled goodbye kiss or maybe you had been fighting. It could even be that they did something so hurtful that you didn’t know how to forgive them and now wish you would have done it. Whatever ‘it’ is, resolve it.
Please understand, they knew you and loved you. They know as well, as you do, that you felt the same way. It’s never too late to say it, though. It’s never too late to apologize or say what needs to be said. Find the place that you feel most connected to your loved one and say it. Do what needs to be done. You will never be able to move forward completely if you don’t do it. There will always be that wall that stops you. Your sister, child, spouse, friend, mother, uncle, or grandfather would never want that for you.
9. Forgive yourself.
There is never a way to change history. This wouldn’t be a problem, except, we are human. We make mistakes and we can be mean. We forget things, we over-react to others. We have good days and bad days. Heck, sometimes we have bad weeks or months.
Randy and I started young. We didn’t know who we were as people, how could we possibly know how to love each other? We didn’t. We made so many mistakes. I tried fixing us, but I couldn’t do it alone and he didn’t seem interested. I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t have answers and couldn’t do it by myself, so I made a choice and was willing to accept the consequences. What I wanted was to wake him up. I knew that instead, we might lose it all. I told him I wanted to separate. He wasn’t happy. I got a job, put kids in day care, and told him to move out. He refused. He tried so hard to fix things, but nothing was changing. I demanded he leave. That was his breaking point.
He came to me, we talked and talked and talked. We cried for hours. We did this for days. We came to realize that we needed to find ourselves, redefine love as adults, fix the misconceptions we had, and learn to be the people we needed to be. Above all, we realized we really did love each other and we could make it work. We really put in the work. We ended up with an amazing marriage. One that most wish they had. We were both so ecstatically, down to the depth of our souls, happy. And then, a year and a half later, he was killed.
All I could think about was how much time we wasted. How many years we spent fighting and hurting each other. I felt so much guilt that I wasted what few years he had on this earth. Terrible guilt for him, terrible guilt for messing up what little time the kids had with their dad. That guilt turned to anger, anger to sadness, the sadness to depression…you get the point. I had to work hard to move past that. I forgave myself.
After many hours of thinking, beating myself up, and talking to friends and my counselor, I came to some realizations. I couldn’t change history. There was a variety of events that brought us together as a married couple so young. That was a tough spot and we did the best we knew how. All of that fighting and the ‘separation’ was learning. It was part of growing up. There were definitely growing pains, but wow, what a reward. I finally saw that had we not been through the turmoil, we never would have had the marriage we did in the end. Had we not been through the storm, we never would have re-built such an amazing, strong marriage and family.
The real tragedy would have been letting us continue to live like that. That year and a half of complete happiness was worth the pain that led to it and I don’t think that either one of us would have changed that course of action. We were who we were supposed to be. I finally was able to forgive myself. Forgive yourself.
You deserve it. Your loved ones deserve it.
Moving forward doesn’t mean moving away from the life you once knew. Randy is not a closed subject here. Stories are shared often. I never want the kids to forget (two of the three have little or no memories). Moving forward allowed me to share in a healthy way. I remember his likes and dislikes and guide my children in some of those. He lives on through them, even if it’s on a very small scale. I know they appreciate it, his parents appreciate it, and I feel good about it. He rarely is out of our minds. The difference is now, we don’t think about the day he died or his funeral every day. We remember the man, the spirit, the life we shared. That is a big difference. One you may not be able to imagine right now, but I assure you, life can be happy and complete without forgetting the person you lost.
I hope this all helps you as you travel down your own path. I’ll leave you with one parting note. It might seem a little hokey to you, but I’ll share nonetheless. I often create my own mottos to get me through whatever I am going through. It’s just a simple phrase that I can say quietly to myself, or just think, and it reminds me of my task at hand. On my own journey of healing my motto was ‘strength, compassion, and faith’. That simple. It reminded me to stay strong on my weakest days, have compassion for others, even the man who killed my husband, and remain solid in my faith in God. After all, it was God who carried me when I couldn’t even stand. More than anything, those three words are what I wanted my kids to remember. Not hate, victimization, and pain. It’s amazing what three small words can change.
May you always keep your strength, compassion, and faith.
“The power to change your life lies in the simplest of steps.”
― Steve Maraboli