Grief is unbearably heavy. It consumes us. It decimates our lives and it can bring us to our knees. And sadly, when faced with such intolerable pain, there is no ‘one size fits all’ guide map, no magic wand that grants us instant relief and no sure-fire way to feel better.
But, during my own journey through widowhood, I have learnt that there are three factors that can help you to grieve more positively and more constructively and will ultimately determine how well you do in life after loss.
In the following blog I will identify these factors and explore how they can help you to steer your grief, influence your ability to find peace, love and happiness and support your search to create something truly meaningful after loss.
One of the biggest determinants of how well people fare during their grief is how fully and openly they embrace their support systems. Yes, the responsibility for healing after loss, ultimately rests on the shoulders of those that grieve. Sadly, nobody else can take that on and do it for them. However, grief needn’t be a solo journey. People can choose not to travel it alone. Reaching out and connecting with those around them and accepting help and support when it is offered can prove an invaluable lifeline.
Support systems can take many forms: family, friends, work colleagues, neighbours and even parents on the school playground. They become an invisible community, bolstering those struggling with loss and helping to carry them through their grief.
In the early days, grief is so raw. People can feel numb, exhausted, broken and confused. Whether its staying the night and offering comfort, helping with childcare or cooking and delivering meals, having others by their side can make the days fractionally more bearable.
During the grieving process, when exhaustion and despondency set in, it can be tempting to shut down communication with others and push them away. However, by accepting support and allowing people in, those struggling with loss can learn to rebuild that sense of connection with the world around them. It can help them to get through each day and navigate each bump in the road, slightly more easily. By learning to draw on the strength and advice of others, they can better shape and guide their decision-making, which during grief can become cloudy and muddled.
In addition to shutting down communication, those grieving may also reject help that is offered to them because they don’t want to be perceived as incapable of coping or as a burden to others. However, donning a superhero cape whilst battling grief is not to be encouraged. Yes, at some point people will have to find their feet after loss and grow comfortable with their daunting, new ‘normal’, but this will take time. Healing does not happen overnight. Recovery is a long and arduous process and as people go through it they will need to be nurtured and nourished by their support systems, to be reminded that life can be good again, that things will be improve and reassured that they will get back on their feet.
It’s true some people are more fortunate than others. Their tribe, their community might be bigger. Their family and closest friends may live in the same town, making it easier for them to show up and offer their support. But what cannot be forgotten is that humans are by nature social animals. Compassion and empathy are deeply rooted in human nature. Centuries ago we lived in communities; indeed in certain communities today, entire families pitch in to raise the children. We are stronger together. History tells us so. As such, even if someone grieving doesn’t have friends or family close by, they can still rely on the compassion and support of those around them including neighbours, colleagues and their children’s school community - to avoid healing in isolation.
So, how do bereaved people learn to let others in? It starts with self-awareness. Recognising that they are struggling and that they need someone to help scoop them up and shoulder some of their pain, is the first step towards accepting help. However, whilst being aware of their need for help is one thing, seeking and accepting it when it’s offered is entirely another, for the latter requires self-compassion. Until people believe that they are worthy of other people’s kindness, accepting any form of support can be difficult for them. By being brave and honest about how they’re feeling and what they need and by accepting that they are deserving of the love that others show them, they can start to lean on their support networks. There are some wonderfully good and kind people in this world. Letting them in could transform their grieving journey.
Following the loss of a loved one, often the most powerful and influential voice that a person hears, the one that speaks louder than anyone else’s is their own. The nature of this internal dialogue can not only shape their grieving journey but also impact how successfully they build a meaningful life after loss.
Everyone reacts differently to loss. For some, the passing of a loved one as painful and shattering as it is, gives rise to a fierce determination not to let the death define them and a desire to fight the ‘victim’ label. Whilst they may not have a road-map to recovery, they nurture an innate belief, deep down, that they can and must rebuild their life in a way which honours their loved one. Such a mindset enables them to make choices that accelerate their healing.
However for others, grief can leave them feeling broken, abandoned and stuck with the thought that they will never be happy and that their life, as they know it, is over. Although fully understandable during the early days of grief, should such internal dialogue continue over time, it can become very damaging, for the more it is repeated, the more self-fulfilling it becomes and sadly, this can end up becoming the truth they live by.
So, how do they change this narrative? How can they shift this mindset?
Gaining clarity on the type of life they envisage for themselves, can be a useful starting point:
Reflecting on these questions and achieving some consensus around them, can encourage those struggling with loss to adopt a more positive outlook and actively desire a better life for themselves.
Drawing on inspiration from others who have endured similar loss and transformed their lives, can also become a catalyst for change. Reaching out to others and listening to their stories of change can sometimes spark the realisation that the ability to determine their own future lies within them and that by taking purposeful action and harnessing their potential they can shape their destiny.
The death of a loved one can take away so much from a person. It can strip away their sense of security, stability and purpose. But… their life needn’t be defined by it. Believing that they deserve more, desiring a good and meaningful life for themselves is a hugely important part of their healing. They may not know how they’re going to build this life, how it’s all mapped out and what decisions to take, but that’s okay. Just believing that an exciting new life awaits them and that it can be whatever they want it to be, simply having the desire to figure it out somehow and in some way, will guide them well through their grief.
Following the death of a loved one, fear can immobilise those grieving and close their hearts and minds to the amazing possibilities that exist. It can sometimes feel easier to root themselves to what they already know, what they have grown comfortable with – even if it is not what they truly desire, because contemplating change in the midst of grief is scary. It’s unplanned, the outcomes remain unknown and it involves having to push themselves to a level of discomfort they often do not feel prepared for. To shut themselves off from this and to want to cling on to their old life is perfectly natural, indeed instinctive.
But not all change is bad. The death of a loved one as painful and heartbreaking as it is, can usher in so many wonderful, positive changes and present new and exciting opportunities for growth: meeting someone new, moving house or starting a new career. Whilst all of these opportunities may feel overwhelming, even impossible during the early days of their grieving journey, none of them need to be explored immediately.
Just making a conscious choice to look forward, even if they’re not ready for things to change at that moment, to simply be open to the fact that at some point these opportunities may be something they choose to explore, will enrich their healing journey and encourage them to pursue a brighter future. It may even reveal parts of themselves they didn’t know existed – an inner strength and a quiet resolve to achieve things they never thought possible.
Consider this analogy. A person is in a park, swinging gently and cautiously on a swing. The park is both familiar and safe, if not a little soulless and a little empty. They start to hear the hustle and bustle of life beyond the park walls – of unfamiliar but exciting sounds and slowly begin to wonder whether life could look any different, or feel any better. However, their fear of heights prevents them from swinging any higher to take a look.
As the sounds beyond the wall entice them further, their fear starts to subside and their legs swing out harder. They go higher and faster and it’s scary and uncomfortable. But suddenly as they crane their necks, they get a glimpse of what’s over the wall. And it’s beautiful. The view goes on for miles, as far as their eyes can see and it’s brimming with exciting new opportunities to explore and people to meet. Whilst they are not yet ready to jump off, to fly over the wall and immerse themselves in this new world, they’ve faced their fears and glanced at what’s possible. And that’s a start.
Whilst grief can feel insurmountable, three factors can determine how successfully people navigate their bereavement journey. Learning to accept the support of others, shifting their internal narrative and opening themselves up to new opportunities, can help those grieving adopt a more constructive path towards their healing and help them reimagine their lives after loss.
However, taking purposeful action whilst coping with grief can feel impossible and as such, one of the kindest things any bereaved person can do for themselves, is reach out and ask for help.
If you would like to find a supportive community of people who ‘get it’, please come and join my free Facebook group, ‘Widows Rising’, for widows, widowers and surviving partners.