Marsha is an independent, highly competent woman who gets along well on her own. But her heart hurts. She misses Joe in so many ways. In between all her fitness activities and times with friends, there are moments of deep loneliness and longing, sadness over losing Joe, devastation that she will never kiss him again, never joke with him, never fall asleep with her head on his chest, never again feel so deeply loved and cherished.
It is that tough time in the grieving process when the shock has worn off and the many tasks that come up after the death of a loved one have been finished and what's left is...the rest of her life without him.
She was out in her front yard the other day, trying to keep busy, pruning some sage bushes when a neighbor walked by and asked her how she was doing.
"The truth?" Marsha said, shielding her tear-filled eyes from the morning sun. "I'm having a rough time this week. It has been exactly four months..."
The neighbor looked concerned. "Are you seeing someone?" she asked. "A therapist? Are you taking an anti-depressant? Maybe that would help."
When Marsha told me about her encounter with her well-meaning neighbor, I shook my head. There are times when we simply need to feel our grief as part of the process of loss. It isn't something that a pill can do for us.
While therapy and psychotropic medications can be useful in certain circumstances, particularly with mental illnesses, there are times, during painful transitions in life, when one has to walk through the fire, endure the pain, grow through the process in order to heal. And the healing isn't complete. Life goes on, but it's never quite the same. The loss of a loved one leaves a scar on the soul, heartbreak that may become less intense over time, but that will always linger in moments of loneliness and longing.
When we see a relative or friend or neighbor experiencing a life-changing loss, how can we best help?
Just being there for the person is a good start. It has been fascinating to see people whom Marsha befriended in the past shy away from her now for a variety of reasons. Some explain that "I just don't know what to say..."
There is nothing you can say to make a person's pain go away, no magic words that will make everything okay. There is no advice you can give that is likely to help even if you have experienced loss as well. Each relationship lost, each grieving process, is unique. But getting past your own discomfort with grief and loss, showing up, letting the grieving person know you care by cooking dinner, extending a lunch or a movie invitation, including him or her in your social plans, writing a handwritten, snail mail note (email doesn't have the same impact) expressing your support, simply calling to ask how he or she is doing, sitting and listening instead of planning the perfect response: all of these things can help.
The process of grief can have times of profound loneliness. No friend, however dear, no therapist however skillful and, certainly, no pill can take these feelings away. But being there for a person experiencing a life-changing loss is important. Your being there lets her know that she has your support during the lonely and anguished times as well as during the moments in between when good times and good talks with friends help the person to create a new normal in her life.
If one avoids the pain and discomfort of grieving with pills or alcohol or frantic activity, this merely postpones the process. That is not optimal. Grief can go underground to increase one's pain with other problems. I avoided the pain of losing both of my parents suddenly within a four month period when I was only 35 by busying myself with the details of their funerals and estates. And to keep the pain tamped down, I overate comfort foods. By the time I could no longer avoid my grief, it was a year later. I had gained over 100 pounds and people around me, besides expressing shock over my physical transformation, wondered "Why isn't she over this yet?" I was just starting the process of creating life anew without my parents when others in the family were well along toward accepting the losses and moving forward in their lives.
There are some instances, however, when postponing the full impact of grief makes sense.
I'll never forget a letter I received from a Glamour reader after I wrote an article in that magazine about delayed grief. She told me that her beloved father had died when she was fourteen and that the loss was totally overwhelming at that time in her life. She felt numb. She compartmentalized her pain and went on to finish high school and college. She got married and had a daughter of her own. A few months after her baby was born, watching her husband hold and kiss their child, she suddenly began to sob. When her husband asked what was wrong, she cried "My Daddy's dead! My Daddy died and I miss him so much..." Her husband embraced both mother and child as they sat in a circle of love and grief and new beginnings. "It was only when I felt strong enough, safe enough in my life and surrounded by love that I could allow my feelings of grief to happen," she wrote.
But. more commonly, the grief process goes on in real time, with times of terrible pain and times of life feeling almost normal alternating in endless combinations. Part of the process is allowing oneself to feel the full impact of loss, to let the tears flow. There are no short-cuts, no painless ways around this.
Part of the process, too, is to live fully, to care for oneself, to allow friends to be there and to embrace all the feelings that life can bring: crying when one must, enduring the moments of profound loneliness, and then allowing oneself to laugh and to feel joy once again during those lovely, lengthening times in between the pain.