When your loved one dies, everything, and I mean EVERYTHING, changes for you. Your loss is like a drop of food coloring stirred into your life’s batter – everything is colored by it. You can’t open your eyes in the morning without knowing that he or she is gone. Memories of the past, plans for the future – oh so different now. Your very identity is stamped with your loss in such a fundamental way that every experience is interpreted through the lens of grief.
So how do you interact with the rest of the world when their sun continues to rise and set, but yours has gone out? It’s like a giant gaping hole in the middle of everything that’s invisible to everyone but you. You may feel out of step, out of sync with those around you. You may be tempted to put up a pleasant front, or isolate yourself to avoid dealing with the constant pain of the disconnect.
Here’s the deal: for just about everyone else, the event of the loss is a one-time thing. Sad or traumatic, shocking or inevitable, they process the news and are then able to start moving on. For you, however, the event is still unfolding. You are in the middle of a slow-motion exploding of your world. You aren’t working on getting over, moving past, because it’s still happening. You are still noticing, experiencing, coming to terms with what it means to have him or her gone.
There’s no silver bullet, but there are some things that can help. Make sure you have a safe place to go and just be, as often as you need to. It might be a spot in nature, a bench at the local park, where you can close your eyes and be still. Maybe it’s a corner of the living room where you’ve created a small alter to your loved one, with a photo, a candle, and a favorite item. Or perhaps you find pictures and mementos too painful, so hang an image that speaks of peace to you where you can look at it from your favorite chair. This safe place requires nothing of you, demands no interaction or engagement. Practice letting down your guard here and just being.
Humans are storytellers, and make sense of their world through talk. Find at least one safe outlet for talking about your loss: a family member, a close friend, a grief support group or peer counselor, a therapist. A person or group with whom you can cry and rage, share memories and regrets, articulate what you’re learning about life without your loved one.
Of course, you have to be in the world, too. And you may find that you get great comfort from the presence of others. Or it may sap all your energy to try and show up as “normal”. When interacting with friends, co-workers, and your community, be as honest as you can about how you are feeling. Phrases like “up and down”, or “pretty good, given the circumstances” enable you to reflect on the truth, and open the door to empathy and support. Try your best not to worry about how your mood or responses may impact others. You might be afraid of being a downer, of surprising or shocking someone by bringing up your loss. And it’s true – you might. But the flip side is much more likely. They will feel honored that you trusted them enough to be real and authentic. You are giving the gift of vulnerability, bringing your whole self to the interaction, and that builds connection and intimacy. At this time in your life, you can never have too much of that.