The Journey of Grieving Can Take Time
A good friend expressed concern about me in the spring. "Dorian, are you OK? Do you need to see a grief counselor?" she gingerly asked. Acknowledging that I appreciated her concern, I said I was fine. And although I do believe that my answer was true, I will say that life had taken on a gray tinge since Mom had died in September. I found that was having trouble determining which direction I wanted to go.
Thus, I was very interested in an article, "Life Coach: A New Path," by Cheryl Richardson in the September 2008 issue of body+soul magazine. Cheryl described the situation of a woman whose fiancé suddenly died of a heart attack. "The grief was brutal at first, and I couldn't manage at all," the woman told Cheryl. "Over time, though, with the help of a grief counselor and plenty of Kleenex, I got back to functioning again. The problem is I can't seem to do more than that. I'm unable to get on with my life...."
Cheryl noted that several friends and family members had encouraged the woman to "move on." However, Cheryl believed that this feedback was interpreted by the woman to "get over it"; instead, she needed permission to deal with the pain that she was still experiencing two years after the fiancé's death. And she was afraid that by moving forward, she was moving away from the memory of her fiancé and his influence in her life. Later in the article, Cheryl quotes the woman as saying, "I can't explain how important it was to get permission to just be with my pain."
In reading this article, I felt like I was opening an important window into what has been happening in my own life. I had well-intentioned friends who encouraged me to move forward at various times this past year, but I haven't been ready. Yes, I had the three days of bereavement leave right after Mom died, but that short timeframe didn't give me the time I really needed to work through Mom's decline, death, and the aftermath, and integrate this learning into my being. Even though I knew mentally that I needed to go on with my life without Mom (and had the added "benefit" of having internalized this reality while watching the Mom that I knew slowly evaporate due to Alzheimer's), I was having trouble identifying how to set up boundaries that were brought about by her memory and influence and what I wanted for my own life. I also was having difficulty in determining what exactly would make me happy as I moved forward afterward.
To work through this critical dilemma, I took a significant period of time "off" this spring and summer. By "off, I mean that although I continued to work (in order to pay the bills), I didn't reach out to grasp for any new projects. I also put some parts of my life on hold so that I could devote the necessary time and energy to really think about what would make me happy in moving forward. It took awhile to start figuring out what those things would be. A few things emerged (like playing tennis regularly and participating in a new book group), but there are still ideas that are bubbling up. In retrospect, I am really thankful that I dedicated this time to start piecing what I want (and I'm still not done yet).
So back to what family members and friends can do to support a loved one who is grieving. Cheryl's recommendations for helping someone handle the heartache of grief include three steps:
- "Be present and available without offering unsolicited advice."
- "Listen to and affirm the grieving person's feelings."
- "Gently encourage him or her to keep up any self-care and stress reducing habits while healing takes its course."
Despite what our society sometimes suggests is normal on what we should feel after a loved one has died, I've found that grieving doesn't fit into a neat box, or a compact schedule. When I visited with my friend this week after I took a two-week vacation (part of which was spent travelling to spread Mom's ashes), she remarked how good I sounded. I agreed, but I found myself noting that I still am giving myself the opportunity to work through the grieving process. I could say that because I appreciate that Cheryl Richardson's article has given us permission to think about what time we need, as opposed to the expectations of others.