This is the primer on grief I wish someone had handed me when my own heart was broken many years ago.
Grief is such a sensitive, complex, and expansive topic that it feels odd to attempt a neat set of rules. Yet, I knew so little about grief when I first encountered it that I feel compelled to share my learnings.
Dear reader, if you’re experiencing serious grief, I’m so very sorry. I hope you’ll remember these pointers throughout your healing journey.
#1: Make space for grief
Nothing prepares you for grief. So please take it easy on yourself. Slow down as much as your life allows you to. Your body gives out cues for ways in which it needs your care at this time and it would be best to heed them, whether by sleeping, crying, breathing deeply, or nourishing yourself. Give yourself the space to handle memories and feelings as well, and to process everything that’s happening. Don’t underestimate how much grief will ask of you; it will stick around one way or the other as long as you resist it.
Some of this may seem rather obvious but it’s easy to slip into feelings of guilt for needing so much or to get exasperated as new layers of loss continue to reveal themselves when there is so much on your plate. So many of us (myself included) charge on through our grief, thinking that we can get through anything if we put our minds to it. Wrong. Grief and the wounded heart don’t work that way.
Unsurprisingly, in my research interviewing divorced people I found that the best healing journeys often featured intense self-care accompanied by soul-healing activities. Clichéd though it might be, travel à la Eat, Pray, Love is a great idea. So give yourself as much time as your schedule allows to just take care of yourself, without guilt or judgment.
#2: Find support in the right places
It’s well-known that our society doesn’t do grief well, but I fully understood this statement only when I experienced it firsthand. Put briefly, it became painfully clear just how much our society has been stripped of its ability to feel, which is a topic too large to delve into here.
For now, please bear in mind that many of the responses to your grief will be unhelpful — from well-meaning but poor attempts at commiseration to straight-up avoidance or obvious discomfort. Even people who genuinely care might suggest that you consume yourself with some project, distract yourself, or “fix” the trajectory of your life as soon as possible, when really what you need to do first is practice fierce self-care.
The truth is most people around you might not know how to support you adequately during this upheaval in your life. They simply don’t have the experience to understand what you’re going through. Some of them might also be feeling distressed or shame about your situation, which prevents you from expressing your grief.
However, it is vital that you find support and express yourself in order to learn the emotional lessons that this phase of life requires of you (as per Rebuilding: When Your Relationship Ends). Look for people who have experience with what you’re going through and with whom you can feel held and understood. There may be secrets you cannot share with people close to you, so look for unbiased and trustworthy third parties with whom you can be completely open. Therapists, coaches, support groups, and meetups can help. Journaling is extremely therapeutic as well.
Do ignore the people who are dismissive or judgmental about how you’re progressing through your grief. You might be told to just pick yourself up, to just snap out of this mindset already and get back to your normal life. But there is no normal for you to get back to when you’re having to build a new self. You’re experiencing a great loss. It’s ok to feel really really bad for a while.
#3: Grief doesn’t have a timeline
As hinted at earlier, grief washes over you with an unfathomable logic, according to an unpredictable timeline. Moreover, the shape and form it takes is as unique to each individual as their own fingerprint.
All that advice about how long it takes to mourn the loss of a partner (e.g. half the length of your relationship) or that time will heal all things? Ignore it. The idea that “normal” grief unfolds in a tidy linear fashion via seven stages starting with denial and ending in acceptance? It persists even though there is no evidence that most people go through most of the stages or in any particular order. Such frameworks shed light into what you’re experiencing, but they can also breed unrealistic expectations and self-criticism instead of the very self-compassion that grief is nudging you towards.
What I’ve found is that sometimes it is best to just let grief be. You can neither rush it nor avoid it. When you least expect it, another bout of sadness appears. At such times, please remember that it is waiting for you to work through it. Once you’ve done the inner work and grief has lessened its grip on you, you can’t help but move forward.
Grief is rough, but it does go away
Grief is the hardest work you’ll ever do. It’s also the work you and your loved ones are least prepared for, so be extra kind to yourself. Know that you’re not alone and have faith in your resilience. I wish you my very best as you heal and rebuild yourself.