Sunday, March 20, 2016

Letting Tears Flow

This has been a tough week for my friend Marsha: four months ago last Sunday, her beloved husband of 33 years passed away unexpectedly. Joe's death seemed sudden, but they had always known that he would probably die first: there was a 20 year age difference between them. Marsha is 65 and Joe was 85. He had been getting increasingly frail in the past year, but his mind, his wit, was still as sharp as ever. It was so tempting for all of us to believe that he would go on, full of life and mischief, wonderful insights and ideas, for a long time to come. But one day last November, he fell and broke his hip. His second day in the hospital, he had a massive stroke. And only a few days later, he was gone.

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.


  1. Kathy, your words ring so true. Having "done the grief thing" more times than I wish, I can only second your words.

    If I were to add one thing it is to remember that everyone's grief is unique and perhaps not what one might expect. I encountered this when working at a children's grief center when the dad .of a 12-year-old boy died. It was not a good relationship and the dad was out of the picture much of the time. When we asked each child to recall a memory, good or bad, of the person who died, his was always the same, "One time he took me to the candy store." He wasn't grieving the loss of the life -- he hardly knew it. He was grieving the loss of what never was or would be. That encounter made me realize to be very careful of what I say -- no "You must be devastated," but sometimes an "I'm so sorry" is more appropriate if you're not quite sure where to tread. There can be a guilt that comes with not being devastated or perhaps even relieved and yet being unable to express that, especially with children.

    I feel for your friend Marsha. As you mentioned, it's not that the grief goes away -- it's a long journey that one must make with trusted and caring people who love them unconditionally. But that first year, that first turn of the seasons, the first birthday or holiday -- that's truly tough. I feel relieved Marsha has a friend in you who will simply listen and let her be.

  2. Thanks so much for your insights, Jeanie! They're spot on. I found while working as a therapist (and also while dealing with the deaths of my parents) that some of the hardest grief work after losing a loved one with whom one had a troubled relationship. You're right: you're not only grieving the loss of the person, but also grieving the loss of the chance to change and improve the relationship. Thanks so much for bringing that up!

  3. Kathy, you perfectly describe the process of losing someone, grieving and learning to live life after a loss. There really is no way around grieving, only through it. Realizing this and allowing myself to fully experience my grief over the loss of my sister is what ultimately helped me heal.

    I especially love your advice about how to be there for those grieving. Just showing up is so important. It isn't the words or advice that matter, or are even needed. It's the simple act of compassion and caring by being present for them in whatever way is needed. Six years after my own devastating loss I still have people who show up for me on the hard days. They are treasured people to me for sure.

  4. Great advice. I'm going to flag this post to consult next time someone I know loses a loved one.

  5. Excellent post. I thought i knew about the stages of grief. What I didn't realize but learned through experience is that they do not go in linear sequence (okay, check off denial, let's move on to anger...). No, Grief lingers and circles around and can jump out at you when you least expect it. And if one let's it, it gives some strength.

  6. What a wonderful article and like Tom, one I might refer to in the future. You are so right that too many pull away not knowing what to do or say when just being there is sometimes all that is needed.

  7. Very true and can't be said enough. I'm eight months into grieving my dad's death, and whereas I thought I knew what it was going to be like, I have learned so much. About grief, about myself, and about people and their differing reactions to other peoples' grief. The thing that surprised me most was that the first two weeks I mostly felt simple relief (he struggled so long at the end); then the grief began.

  8. My friend whose husband passed away two years ago says that she feels half of herself is missing. She finds comfort in the thought that he is ghost is ever present in her life. She has taken pictures (recently) at her son's wedding and shown me "Jon" in orbs behind the groom and bride. Other pictures in the same light do not show the orbs. I knew Jon too and he was a strong believer in ghosts and afterlife. He told us he was coming back to haunt us but in a good way. Perhaps this is true.

  9. Kathy, thank you for writing these wise words. Marsha's pain of not having anyone really understand her pain and grief is one I could relate to so well. So often after my daughter's death, I was told I needed to take an anti-depressant. I told more than one doctor that I was in deep grief, but I was not depressed. Thankfully, I had a dear and trusted advisor who supported me through this. If I had needed a pill, I would have taken it, but there is no pill for grief. One must walk through it. Tears are gifts. They truly are. They wash and renew the soul. They help carry away our sorrow. They help keep our hearts soft. The relieve pain. They help give meaning to our deep bereavement. As you said, let the tears flow.

    Blessings to your friend. A grieving person learns early that others are uncomfortable with our grief. That does not mean we have to grieve in ways that make them comfortable.

  10. All of us humans experience grief differently --and we ALL need to realize: 1. that we can't 'fix' someone else's grief situation, and 2. that we understand that grieving is OKAY ---and there's no magic end date to this grieving...

    I know that I 'want' to FIX things when something goes wrong with someone I love... BUT--instead of offering my wonderful suggestions, I just need to BE THERE --and love that person and listen to them without judgment or helpful suggestions...

    HUGGING is a good way to help with the grieving process. So is laughter and smiling and love....


  11. My friend lives across the street from me. I have been thinking of her and April 14 all week. It was this date last year that her husband, 72 and a picture of health, passed away suddenly from an aortic rupture. She is 62 and had only been married to him 7 years. He was her second husband. Her first husband and father of her 2 children, also died from a health issue. The loved each other so much and looked forward to the rest of their (longer) lives together... as most of us do with our spouses. I feel that I have to do or say something on that day. Maybe a letter as you mentioned. I know she'll be very sad. She'll probably spend time with her daughter and family who live in the neighborhood. I'm still sad about it, too.

  12. And Blessings to your friend, Marsha.