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Widowhood Does Not a Grief Master Make

The last few weeks have had many of those around me looking toward me as to what to do during personal loss or disasters, as if John dying has made me the go-to source for grief, sorrow and suffering. What should I say, they ask. What should I do, they wonder. Would this offend, they question.  I am grateful to be asked but find I am often asking the same things of myself because all loss is different. My way of grieving will not be another’s way. This is difficult to explain to someone who has not had a significant sorrow filled life event; that all loss,  all sorrows are not equal if only because those who experience them are unique individuals with goals, belief systems and rituals that are not mine. 

So laying in bed last night, awake, again, as I stared into the darkness, the whirring of the ceiling fan around and around companioning my thoughts, which were circling desperately around trying to think of how I can be of service to those who have asked me for advice, I landed on the feeble truth that I can only offer up what I have personally learned about grief, what have become my own personal grief truths. And as complicated and disorienting as grief is, I was only able to think of three things.

First: Grief/Loss Changes a Person. 

It really does, maybe for worse, maybe for better, maybe lineal but it changes them. This change has driven some of my friends away and others to  crazy worry and frustration about when could I  please just get back to the “old” me, the “before” me. Hard truth is it’s not going to happen because I am not the same person I was before that day John suddenly died, so it is simply unreasonable for anyone to think that someone who has had great disaster occur will ever get back to their before “normal” state.

For me the worse change is that I drag fear around with me like a tattered security blanket. That fear seeps into my daily thoughts and choices. Fear about what ifs and hows and plans b, c, all the way recently to plan k, because really, I say sarcastically to myself, having a back-up plan worked so great when John died-yeah right. But still, the fear is there and I am working hard at quelling it. if not irradiating it completely. I am at least attempting to be the boss of it and put it in the corner when I most need to do so.

A change for the better was harder to think of.  I think maybe I am even more sensitive to the heavy load that each person carries and I really do try to be empathetic and patient with others, even when I really, really don’t want to be. 

Two: No One Is Safe From Disaster

After John died I realized that in much of my life, I am helpless. I am helpless in changing the outcome in many things, and that my attempts at controlling my world only gave me the illusion of safety but in reality provided little else. The harsh reality is that you have no control over who will be where or when and what might happen. I cannot control what my body does internally without me knowing anymore than John could have controlled his heart being bad and dying. He controlled what he could,  he ate well, exercised religiously, had a positive attitude. In short, he did all the things he was supposed to do and had control over, still it didn't make the outcome different-best case scenario for him it prolonged his life by a few years, totally worth it I need to often remind myself, but it didn’t protect him or us from  the disaster of his sudden death.

No one is safe from disaster. And no amount of what ifs or should haves can change what happened, thinking on that is only the mind’s need to search for meaning and  have control where there is very little. Humans are fragile and no amount of trying to control the world or even understand it better will keep someone safe forever, it simply cannot be.

Three: Only the One Touched with Disaster Can Say What Will Help

In the early days I got a lot of sympathy, empathy and A LOT of advice. Move, don’t move, go back to work, hide from the world, get out and be with people, don’t throw one solitary thing of your life together away for at least a year and on and on. Of course then I read others who purged in the first month as a way of helping them to heal. What to do? Who to listen to? How does a person in a fog, in a deep, harrowing grief ask for and get what they need? Better yet, what do they ask for? It took a few months but I did eventually realize that the only person who really knew how to help me grieve and heal was me. Only I know what is best for me in this very personal and sad time, only I know what to ask for,  what to reach out to receive and what to kindly decline. I really do think that most grievers know what is best for them, the trick is getting the griever to a spot where they can voice those needs without fear of judgement and rejection by those they approach. 

Looking at what I wrote it doesn’t look like much really, but I do think that in approaching others early on and deep in grief and sorrow that I will use it as a personal guideline. Also, when I am asked for advice I will kindly offer what is true for me, while always emphasizing that each griever’s personal path and needs are quite unique, hopefully gently opening the ears and heart of someone who honestly wants to be of help to someone touched by disaster to truly listen to the griever.


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Comment by Deebs (Deb) on September 11, 2014 at 12:29pm

Flannery, there is so much wisdom here. I'm in awe of your ability to connect to yourself and understand what the loss means in your life. You are so right that everyone's experience and way of grieving is unique. I was in a fog for eight months and am only now, at the end of the first year, beginning to understand and experience the depths of what has been lost. After hearing about other people's experience, I had hoped the one year mark would be the turning point -- but it doesn't seem to be the case for me. All we can do is take whatever comes, I believe. And accept the irony of "control" with as much grace as we can.

Comment by oceangirl on September 9, 2014 at 2:27pm

Thank you, Flannery. This was wonderfully and truthfully written. I needed this reminder today. 

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