Getting Through Grief By Hanging On to Yourself
We cannot let a painful loss define us, this writer says
My friend’s relationship with the man in her life was in trouble, and with each tearful phone call she sounded more distressed. Given the emotional pyrotechnics, it was impossible to tell if her relationship was in its death throes or just weathering a bad patch.
One thing, however, was clear.
As she dwelled on the relationship 24/7, my friend was losing her sense of her values, her priorities and, most disturbingly, herself.
A New Approach
One night, sensing that my words of commiseration were providing no solace, I tried a different tack. “How’s it going at work?”
“Fine,” she answered, her tone clipped. “Why would you even ask that? I’m not the least bit interested in work.”
“I know,” I said. “But at a time like this, it’s important that you keep the other parts of yourself alive, the parts that aren’t only about your relationship.”
“I can’t believe you asked me that,” she said, her voice rising. “Do you really think I care about work right now?”
I hesitated. Should I say it?
“Do you think I cared about work after Joe died?” I asked, referring to my late husband. “No. I didn’t. But I went in each day because I knew that if my life shrank to thinking only about how unhappy I was, I would go under.”
I don’t know if my friend’s silence reflected a flash of perspective, the quashing of an angry retort stifled out of respect for my loss or a stunned muteness that I’d spoken of Joe’s death at age 66.
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I don’t drop my grief into conversations very often. After Joe died of leukemia-related complications in 2009, I learned quickly that talk of death tends to be a conversation-stopper. It not only makes people uneasy, but it risks diminishing another person’s pain.
With my friend, I took that risk because I felt that I had something useful to share. Through the protracted illnesses of my husband, sister, mother and mother-in-law, then their deaths in rapid succession, I’d learned that when dealing with the threat of loss or loss itself, the one place you don’t want to be is inside your pain all the time.
It requires effort to keep the windows open on the other parts of your life. But if you don’t make that effort, you risk boxing yourself into your anxiety and agony round the clock. As your days shrivel to the trauma at hand, your sense of self shrinks, too. And that puts you at risk of losing your most powerful ally: You.
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After Joe’s death, people said to me, “I can’t imagine what you’re going through.” Probably true. They said, “I wouldn’t be able to bear it if my husband died.” Probably false. They said, “I can’t imagine how you keep going.” I’m convinced that actually they could.
Why? At every age, each of us struggles with losses that upend our world.
Yesterday, it was the pig-tailed friend who abandoned us on the playground to hang in the sandbox with the cool girls. Today, it’s the high school boy who asks us out, then doesn’t show up. Tomorrow, it’s the boss who writes us a rave evaluation one week, only to hand us a pink slip the next … The daughter who, having clung to our neck, whispering, “I’m going to miss you so much, Mom,” returns from college calling us by our first name … The man who, having promised forever at the altar, abruptly decides that forever doesn’t include the last several decades of our lives.
No matter how many years tick by, the list never stops growing. But as we gain experience and perspective, we come to recognize that now is not forever. We learn how to absorb the pain, work with it, bounce back and keep going. Along the way, we also discover the strategies that best help us to navigate and cope with life’s upheavals and sorrows.
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For me, the strategy that has proven most effective is to hold tight to the parts of myself that are unconnected to whatever situation is rocking my life.
Not Just a Widow
After Joe was diagnosed with leukemia, I learned how difficult, but necessary, it was to direct conversation in different directions and steer wide of the limiting role of Wife-of-a-Sick-Man.
After he died, I learned, anew, the importance of not allowing myself to be defined solely by my new label: Widow. It was bad enough being one; worse still if others saw me only that way; worst of all if that was the sole way I regarded myself.
It required an enormous effort to remind myself (and others) that I was more than a widow. Each day, I had to work hard to connect with the me who enjoyed discussing books and politics. The journalist whom colleagues counted on to deliver stories on deadline. The mother who cheered from the sidelines at my daughter’s crew regattas. The friend who expressed interest in what was happening in my friends’ lives.
None of it felt good. But every so often, the effort made for a brief break in the clouds that reminded me, “You are more than your pain.”
That was the message I was trying to convey to my friend. With her view of herself narrowed to Woman-on-the-Brink-of-a-Break-Up, she was allowing no space for the sorts of restorative moments that, however fleeting, would remind her of her strengths. Her hopes. Her productivity. Her humor. Her self-worth.
Yes, it will be terribly sad if she loses the love relationship that's of such importance to her. But if she loses touch with her multifaceted self, she will lose a relationship of far greater importance.