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The Emotional Pain of the 'Firsts'

While grieving the loss of a loved one, the first significant life events without them are painful. Here are some ways to cope.

By Chris Haws

We barely notice that we're doing it, but it's a fundamental aspect of how we construct our daily lives. We "look forward" to all manner of events and occasions, from holidays and birthdays to an evening at the movies. Anticipation is a characteristic of human existence and can be a readily accessible source of imagined pleasure – the smell of that barbecue, the embracing sound of the theater audience's laughter, the cold thrill of that initial plunge into the sea.

Each experience can be enjoyed ahead of time in our 'mind's eye,' and welcomed with comforting recognition when it finally arrives.

A bereaved man talking to a grief counselor. Next Avenue
One of the most heartbreaking aspects of experiencing the death of a loved one is that after the initial shock and pain of the loss, there will be a succession of reminders of his or her absence. And for a year, the "nexts" become "firsts."   |  Credit: Getty

Because of the way in which we construct time in our minds, combining past, present and future into a rolling kaleidoscope of sensation, perception and memory, each of those pleasures can be savored retrospectively while also being stored for "the next time." We look forward to them, with keen anticipation.

"Next Thanksgiving" becomes "the first Thanksgiving without them." My "next birthday" becomes my "first birthday without them."

But what if there is no "next time"?

One of the most heartbreaking aspects of experiencing the death of a loved one is that after the initial shock and pain of the loss, there will be a succession of reminders of his or her absence. And for a year, the "nexts" become "firsts." 

"Next Thanksgiving" becomes "the first Thanksgiving without them." My "next birthday" becomes my "first birthday without them." And our "next anniversary" becomes ... well, you get the point. 

Grief counselors are very familiar with this phenomenon, and will gently prepare clients to anticipate these triggers and be aware that they can be, temporarily, very painful. And these "firsts" will occur throughout the year after the bereavement.  

A Diary of Reminders

Holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, family traditions – the diary will be full of poignant reminders. So even many months after the loss, when life is just beginning to settle into the new reality without the loved one, a wave of acute grief can be expected to follow on from these unavoidable calendar-driven triggers.

These significant dates will continue to occur, whether we want them to or not. 

Do grief counselors have a remedy for these distressing occasions? The answer is both yes and no.

No, because we can't stop or slow time. These significant dates will continue to occur, whether we want them to or not. And for the first year of bereavement, they will always be the "first without him or her." 

We also need to acknowledge that some of those significant dates, such as the loved one's birthday, or the date of their death, will continue to provoke some renewed sadness and sorrow for the rest of the grieving survivor's life which is understandable and not to be dismissed or denied. 

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As the renowned grief pioneer Dr Elisabeth Kübler-Ross put it, "The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not 'get over' the loss of a loved one; you will learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again, but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same nor would you want to."

Indeed, it leads us directly to the "yes" bit of the answer to the question "Do grief counselors have a remedy for these distressing occasions?"

There's no one "cure" for the sadness that wells up on a "trigger day" other than to recognize it for what it is, to be tolerant of yourself and your feelings, and to know that it will pass. 

Each of these "firsts" is not only a typical trigger for renewed pain that can be anticipated – they can also be seen as an opportunity to review your progress down the rocky path of recent bereavement and grief. 

Moving from Acute to Integrated Grief

One of the core tenets of helping someone to transition from "acute" grief to "integrated" grief is to enable them to develop an awareness of how their emotions and thoughts naturally ebb and flow over time. Some days will be good, others less so, which is to be expected, particularly if one of those days is especially significant, like an anniversary or a birthday. There's no one "cure" for the sadness that wells up on a "trigger day" other than to recognize it for what it is, to be tolerant of yourself and your feelings, and to know that it will pass. 

Self-awareness and mindfulness of our emotions lies at the heart of much of our journey to "integrated grief" and is a habit that grief counselors recommend and encourage. It's a process that can be facilitated and consolidated by consciously retrieving aspects of earlier, happy times with the deceased.

Some people throw memorial parties on these special days, assembling a few friends and relatives to reminisce – and laugh – about times past. Others choose to visit a jointly treasured location, such as the favorite place where the loved one's ashes were scattered, or that beach where the family used to run and jump and tumble all day long. 

Comfortable presence, rather than painful absence, is the principal aim.

Some spend some quiet, reflective time browsing through photo albums or writing in a journal. Experience has shown that journaling on these "trigger days" can not only help to organize your thoughts and emotions as you put pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard), but it also provides you with a record of the milestones you are passing on your road to "integrated grief." Many people look back on those journal entries and say, "look how acute my grief was back then" and "look how far I've come." 

In each of these celebratory activities, consciously undertaken on or around a "calendar first," the grieving survivor is acknowledging the typical and understandable nature of their feelings. And by incorporating their physically absent loved one into their ongoing lives, he or she can still be emotionally present. Comfortable presence, rather than painful absence, is the principal aim.

While there may indeed be "no more next time" out there in the real world, there can always be a shared "here and now" in your heart.

Chris Haws is a British-born psychologist and counselor based in northwest Washington, D.C., who now specializes in bereavement and grief, substance abuse and recovery, and mindfulness and personal empowerment. For more than four decades, his work as a writer, filmmaker and academic has appeared on TV, radio and in print around the world. Read More
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