Whole Again: The Slow Work of Recovering from Loss

The morning after my mother died I walked out to the living room where my Aunt’s husband was reading the paper.  Chuck is a fairly reserved yet warm man and shows his love through selfless acts of service. Every morning during that last week of my Mom’s life, he went out to Starbucks and got each of us our favorite beverage without anyone asking him to.  But this morning was different. He stood up from the couch and hugged me, which I expected. I did not expect him to keep hugging me and keep hugging me for I don’t know how long. While holding me close he spoke encouragements that I do not remember much of.  What did stick with me was when he gently told me, “One day you will feel whole again.”

He understood.

When you are at the beginning of your grief cycle you cannot fathom how you can possibly make it through a year.  It is too overwhelming to think of walking through 365 days with such a heavy load. This is why I borrowed a saying from the 12 step community: “1 day at a time”.  Now it has been 5 and a half years since my Mother’s death and I’m doing alright. I still miss her of course. But that giant sinkhole that was in my chest is much smaller now, my feelings of hopelessness and existential woe are at a minimum, and I have gotten accustomed to my new normal without such a primary figure in my life. The feelings of grief have become normal. I now know when I feel less energy and a weight in my belly that its just my grief saying hello. It’s not something I have to dread or avoid, it’s just there and that’s okay. Its okay because I know it will not stay there constantly. I also know that those feelings are directly connected to how much I loved/love my Mom. It only hurts so much because I loved her so much.

The first year is the hardest because there is no manual of how to grieve, how to do holidays, how to honor the deceased’s wishes.  Now I am approaching my 5th Christmas without my Mother and I am actually looking forward to it. Let me be honest: this first year was excruciating.  I felt like I was going to come undone and be reduced to a puddle on the floor. Though we made some changes, I think we made the mistake of trying to do Christmas the same way we have always done it.  Most people will tell you NOT to do this! It is just really sad and depressing because it is not the same as it was and it just serves as a painful reminder that nothing will ever be the same. This year we made a lot of changes.  But we needed the first year to learn what not to do.

There is a graph I learned in grad school that charts the progression of grief’s intensity.  There is the x-axis representing the time since the loved one has died and then a line representing one’s emotional state.  It starts very low below the x-axis and by 6 months it has reached the axis. From there it continues to go up. Of course there will be a bad day in the middle of a good month and the line realistically fluctuates.  But the main point this graph illustrates is that the first 6 months or so you will have more bad days than good days. The next 6 months or so, you will have more good days than bad days. In short: it gets better. I have certainly experienced this.  It has taken a lot tears, fights, therapy sessions, friends and time but I am doing better. Now most of the time, I feel fine and when I do think about my Mom it is not painful. Every once in a while a big grief wave will come, and I choose to ride it.

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Though the first year is the hardest, grief is not finished after a year.  Everyone’s timeline is different. And it doesn’t matter how long it has been, something can trigger a memory and you may become overwhelmed with grief and missing that person 10 years after their death.  New milestones can also make the grief feel fresh. When I was finishing Grad School, I had several dreams about my Mother. It was the first major life event I went through without her. I felt her absence more when I became a  licensed therapist and at other major life transitions. Even so, the grief and missing her is much more manageable and less debilitating than it was when it was band new.

If you are grieving, give yourself time and do not judge how long it will take you.  If you have a friend or family member who is grieving, do not rush them. Accept them where they are each day and do not judge it.  

I have stability now that I did not have 5 years ago. I have learned what my grief looks and feels like and what to do with it. I have learned who my people are that I can ask to sit with me in it and who will gladly comfort me.  I am not sure if I feel “whole again” like Chuck said I would one day but I feel much more whole than I did then and I believe I’ll continue in that direction, however long it takes.

Categories Grief, Holidays, Loss, relationships, Therapy, Uncategorized

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