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365 Days of Healing: What I Learned in One Year of Grief

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It seems that everyone feels they know about grief. Everyone has a story to tell, or advice to dispense. Many people do know about grief, but yet, it’s a very personal thing. The information I’m about to provide may help you. It may allow you to understand a loved one just a bit more. Or it may make absolutely no sense to you, as your grief just isn’t the same.

Yet, I’m going to tell you what I’ve learned about grief in this past year. Things I wish someone had told me, or more likely, things I would have told myself had I had the opportunity. Some of these things, I learned through trial and error, while others I seemed to know instinctively. This is my story, my experience. Use it as you will, but I hope with it you can glean just a bit of insight into the sordid underbelly of grieving. If I had been able to impart wisdom to myself when this journey had begun, this is what I would have said to me:

Dear Cheri:

It’s not what you wanted, and it’s certainly not what you planned, but you are now a widow. This will be a very emotional, difficult time for you, and although you’ll have help and support, you really must go it alone. This journey is yours and yours alone, so only you will really know what steps you need to take. These are some of the things you need to know to make it just a little bit “easier”:

Be Kind to Yourself – First and foremost, you have to take care of yourself. If you’re not eating, eat. If you’re not sleeping, try to rest where you can. If you’re finding life too demanding, take a break. If Saturday rolls around and you’ve got piles of dirty laundry and really should go to the grocery store, but all you feel like doing is eating Cocoa Pebbles in bed while watching “Gilmore Girls” on Netflix, grab the remote, hunker down and don’t feel guilty about it. Tackle what you can when you can.

Be Kind to Others – Grief is difficult, and many people just don’t get it. It is messy, and raw, and ugly. There will be people who want to help, but don’t know how. There will be people who will push you to grieve faster, or more efficiently. There will be those who believe you aren’t grieving hard enough or taking the necessary time to do it properly. And there will be those who truly allow you to use them as support as you see fit, the ones who understand that the best they can do is simply be there for you, the friends who aren’t arrogant enough to believe they can – or should – advise you. Try to understand that most people really are trying to help, but they just (thankfully) haven’t been here yet. Be patient with them, and be ready to support them if and when their time comes.

Your Memory Is Going to Suck – There is a common syndrome referred to as “widow’s fog.” It’s real. You will buy groceries you don’t need and forget the ones you do, until your cupboard is filled with six jars of mayonnaise and no ketchup. You will wander through several months without knowing what you did a week, a day, even an hour before. You will look back on this time as though through a haze, and will still only remember parts of everything. This is why you should…

Carry a Notebook Everywhere – Use it for grocery lists, reminders of appointments and to-do’s, the memories that randomly appear, and anything else that may crop up. Even when you think you’ll remember, and despite repeating something a dozen or more times to help you do so, you’re probably going to forget. It’s frustrating, but it’s normal. Just carry the notebook.

Don’t Throw Anything Away Yet – Due to Widow’s Fog (See #3) you will try to get rid of things you see as “junk.” A random scrap of paper in A’s handwriting, those shorts that were so worn that he looked like Robinson Crusoe, or a bag of old golf balls. When the fog wears off, you’ll wonder why you got rid of these things. Unless what you’re throwing away is absolutely, positively junk, put it aside to go through when you’re better able to make the decision. By that same token…

Don’t Wash A’s Clothes Right Away – There will come a time when it will be necessary to wash his dirty clothes, perhaps sooner rather than later, but try to keep at least one shirt he has worn (as creepy as that may sound) just to remember the smell of him. Try to preserve his scent because you’ll want to remember – often, at first, then just occasionally, and finally, only during really trying times. You’ll sometimes spritz yourself with his cologne, and if it comforts you, do it. As long as you’re not endangering your health, and it’s reassuring to you, do what feels right.

Your Health Will Suffer – Despite being of relatively good health, you will now be susceptible to every cold and minor illness known to man. Your immune system will be at its lowest point due to all the stress you are about to undergo. Grief will take its toll on both your physical and mental health. Understand that, prepare for it, and take care of yourself when it happens (See #1).

Be With People in Public – As tempting as it might be to want to hide out from the world, you are going to have to learn to live your life without your husband by your side. Whether or not you’re actually with others, just being out and about with other humans around is helpful. Reading a book in the corner at Starbucks while customers wander in and out with their Triple Venti Soy No Foam Lattes serves to remind you that the world did not end when yours shattered, despite how you feel right now. Hearing a child’s laughter is sometimes a major pick-me-up. People watching can be an amusing pastime and may enable you to smile or laugh for a moment or two. The point is, to try to move forward (which you’ll learn is a very different thing from moving on), no matter how difficult it may be…

Until It Becomes Too Much – As important as it is to get out and start doing things on your own, becoming comfortable being out as an individual rather than half of a couple, doing so will also make you feel off-balance and exposed. You will feel vulnerable in a way you haven’t for a long time (if ever), and you will eventually need to retreat for awhile. This is OK. In fact, it’s more than OK. Just having been out there long enough to have had enough means that you have challenged yourself and you are making progress.

Try New Things – You need to learn who you are as an individual. If you are really to heal and grow, you cannot do so by hiding out at home. You have to venture into the world sometime (See #8). Step out of your comfort zone. Do things you’ve never tried before. Take chances – small, safe ones, at first. If those work out well, push a little further. Taking risks doesn’t mean engaging in risky behavior. Try new things, but be smart about it.

People Will Abandon You (or at least it seems that way) – When the dust settles, the flowers fade, and the last of the casserole-wielding grief army has retreated, remember that people are going back to their own lives. Just because they don’t have as much time for you anymore doesn’t mean they aren’t thinking of you just as often. But there will also be those who won’t think of you, or who are overwhelmed and find it difficult to be around someone who reminds them of their own loss. Remember the old adage about people who are in your lives for a reason, a season or a lifetime and just know that if they do abandon you, it simply means their season has passed. Don’t hold grudges.

But… You’ll Make New Friendships (if you allow yourself to) – You will suddenly have this strange connection with others in a similar situation to yours. You will find and relate to other widows and widowers. No matter how they might have lost their significant other, they are truly the only people who understand just what you might be going through. You can commiserate, vent, and pour your heart out to these individuals without fear of judgment or retribution. Then, too, when you begin to go out in public, and especially when you begin the process of learning who you are solo (See #10), you will meet new people and forge new friendships. Allow this to happen without feeling that you are trying to fill the void in your life. New friends are not intended to be a replacement for what you’ve lost.

Feel Everything – The biggest gift you can give yourself is to feel. As much as you will want to hide out from the world, and as difficult and painful as this time will be, you must “feel to heal.” Much like coming back from an injury, if you don’t make an effort to push yourself, you can’t move forward. You will struggle. You will hurt. You will absolutely hate the heart-wrenching sadness and anger and guilt you are forcing yourself to acknowledge and deal with. Do it anyway.

And Don’t Feel Guilty About It – You will also have moments of joy and excitement and laughter and days that are better than others, especially as time passes. Feel these emotions, too, without judgment. Just as others don’t have the right to tell you that you’re grieving improperly, so too should you understand that you are the one going through it, and it’s perfectly acceptable to have feelings other than grief or sadness. Allow the pleasure as well as the pain, no matter what anyone else may think. It’s all part of the healing process.

Finally… You Are Stronger Than You Know – Although when all of this starts, you can’t imagine how you’ll get through the next day or even the next hour, you have made it through a year. A year of challenges, a year of new experiences, a year of discovering who you are as an individual again. You have shattered, but you haven’t been broken. You have experienced pain like you’ve never known, but you have kept going. You have learned that it is possible to lose half of your heart and your whole world without losing yourself in the process. And you now know that you are a survivor.

But It’s OK When You Aren’t – With all of this being said, despite your ability to be strong (and the necessity to do so), it’s also acceptable to have moments when you just simply cannot be strong for a second longer. Give in to those moments. Cry the tears that will cleanse the pain. Break down so you won’t break completely apart. These moments can be cathartic and restorative and necessary. Just don’t stay there.

If all of this advice could be summed up in a nutshell, it would be simply that whatever you are feeling, as long as it is genuine, is perfectly normal, and although it may not seem like it now, you will make it through.

xoxo,
Me

© 2017 Many Faces of Cheri G All Rights Reserved

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We Need More Support for Coping With Grief in Rural Communities

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When I was 10 years old, my twin sister, our best friend and I were in a four-wheeler accident and our friend died.

The most defining moment of my life in one sentence. All the times I’ve told my story, whether I wanted to or not, it always started the same, “When I was 10 years old…”

I grew up in rural Minnesota on what my mom called a “hobby farm.” We lived five miles from my tiny hometown. We went grocery shopping once a month because as a family of six, the only place to buy in bulk was an hour away. We thought nothing of driving half an hour to go to a friend’s house, the movies, etc. Now living in a mid-sized city, people seem astonished to hear that; half an hour for some people is too far away.

I hope this gives you an idea of the local culture I was raised in. My friend will have been dead for 17 years on July 28, 2017. I remember feeling the four-wheeler start to tip over right before I blacked out. I remember waking up on my abdomen, on the grass, with the four-wheeler on top of me. My sister ran for help while I waited, stuck under the four-wheeler, with our best friend dying next to me.

Most people would acknowledge this as a traumatic event, especially for a child, but I spent most of my life diminishing my experience. Other people had it worse. How could my pain compare to that of her mother’s? I had no right to grieve when she was “just a friend.” I can handle this on my own.

Spoiler alert: I couldn’t handle it on my own.

Rural communities have higher suicide rates and health problems than those in big cities for a number of reasons. One of those reasons might be the stigma surrounding death and grief can still exist in rural areas. People in these communities might not always get the help they need to deal with problems like this. They might not know death and grief can impact your life in substantial ways. This might lead to people feel more alienated for experiencing these things.

It is possible the lack of support in rural communities stems from the low population rates of the areas. It does not mean help is not needed, just that someone might need to get more creative to get help.

We live in a time where technology is rapidly progressing. It’s something that should be taken advantage of when considering the support needed for rural communities. Based on my personal experience, I am trying to develop an online support group for grieving children and teens.

There are many areas where rural populations might not be getting the help and support they need, but it is something that can be and needs to be fixed.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.
If you need support right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255, the Trevor Project at 1-866-488-7386 or text “START” to 741-741.

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The Grief I Carry After My Father's Death

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Grief, I believe, is one of those things often misrepresented and misunderstood. To me it’s understandable because unless one has grieved, one cannot possibly begin to understand grief.

When someone is grieving, they are trying to heal. They are trying to remember someone they loved while also trying to move forward in life. Grief is hard work.

How does one recover from losing someone who meant so much to them? The short answer is they don’t. One never really recovers from the loss of someone they loved, they just learn to live with it.

I lost my dad when I was 15 years old, the only thing I can say somewhat confidently about his death is I will never stop grieving it until the day I die.

To grieve is to have loved, and to have loved is to have lived. I wish someone told me that when my dad died. I wish someone told me it was OK to cry, that it was OK to be sad. I’m almost 20 years old now, and I’m still sad about it. I’m not only sad about it, but I’m angry. I’m angry my kids won’t get to see their grandpa and my dad won’t be at my wedding.

I can deal with anger and sadness, and I trust they will subside sometime soon. But until the day comes when I believe I will be reunited with my dad, I will grieve. I will always miss him and wonder what life would be like with him in the picture. I look forward to that day and trust there will be plenty to say.

Until then, the journey continues toward trying to live a life my dad would be proud of.

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How Grief Affected My Physical Health After My Dad's Passing

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Many people have heard of “broken heart syndrome.” Maybe not by name, but most likely they’ve heard stories of people passing away shortly after the loss of a loved one. I know this to be true, as my Grandfather passed away of a sudden heart attack less than a year after my Granny passed away. I always found it romantic when I heard of very elderly people that pass away holding each other’s hands.

A 2012 study published in the Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association, found that “a person’s risk of having a heart increased 21 times over in the day immediately following the death of a loved one and six times over in the following week.

What I didn’t know is grief can actually cause real physical problems. That is, until my Dad passed away last year.

In the days and weeks that followed, my body and mind seemed to be stuck in a “flight or fight” response. It felt like the anxiety and panic were sitting in my throat. I was hyper-aware and the stress was building.

The first thing I noticed was the disruption of sleep. I would be awake at all hours or sleeping too much. I would wake up with the fleeting memory of a nightmare I couldn’t remember. No matter how much sleep I was getting, I felt like a zombie, walking through my day.

I broke my ankle and heel just a few weeks after my Dad passed away in a pretty bad fall. I had a very caring ER doctor who said falls and accidents increase during grief, and not just in the elderly, but in all ages (including children). In hindsight, the lack of sleep and distraction probably increased my typical clumsiness.

I began experiencing chest pains and a permanent tightness I couldn’t explain. It was bad enough my doctor referred me to a cardiologist who ran tests and couldn’t find anything. In the nine months since it has improved, but not resolved, and I still have days when it takes my breath away.

At first, I explained away the daily nausea as a reaction to my “fight or flight” response; it’s happened before thanks to depression and anxiety. When I discussed it with my doctor six months later, I had lost 20 pounds I couldn’t afford to lose. I had no appetite and when I did eat I prayed it stayed down.

I was also catching every cold and flu that went around. My immune system didn’t seem to be able to fight back like it should. In December, when I had the worst flu of my life, I really began to realize how much my lack of sleep, lack of exercise (thanks to 10+ weeks in a cast) and not eating properly was affecting my overall health.

Having fibromyalgia I know body pain; I live with it daily. Nothing prepared me for the pain I would experience in the months that followed my Dad’s passing. Every joint felt inflamed and every muscle ached. It felt like the longest and most severe fibro-flare I could imagine. Like I had been hit by a car I never saw coming.

I have been making more of an effort to improve my physical health since the new year. As a result, I also finally feel like I am grieving.

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What Do You Say to Someone Grieving When You Can’t Say It Will Be OK?

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Many years ago, an old boyfriend asked me to tell him what my wildest fantasy was. I looked at him. “You really want to know?”

He nodded, eager.

So I leaned in close, lowered my voice, and told him how I wanted — more than anything — for someone to tell me that everything was going to be OK convincingly enough that I believed it.

I knew from the way his face fell that he was disappointed with my answer, but there was nothing else to say. It was the truth.

Everything is going to be OK.

It’s such a magical phrase, one of my favorites still. I’ve said it countless times to everyone I love, and once I had kids I found myself saying it to them constantly: everythingisOKitsOKitsOK all strung together to soothe them when they were sad or hurt or scared or over-tired or mad. I even say it in my sleep when they whimper next to me, just a reflex that pops out of my still-unconscious mouth, as instinctively a part of my parenting now as checking the toilet seat before I sit down or whipping my arm out across the passenger seat when I brake too fast.

I’ve said it to myself even more, probably a million times over the years, using it as a mantra to get through awkward phases and job losses and bad breakups and bad hair days. But when my mom died, it didn’t work. It just wasn’t true and I knew it.

Still, I tried:

“Everything is going to be OK,” I would say to myself while lying on the bathroom floor, the only place in my house with a door that locked so I could cry without scaring the kids.

Everything is going to be OK,” I whispered to my littlest when he was born and it hit me in a wave of terrible realization that he would never meet his grandmother, not once.

“Everything is going to be OK,” I tried to sing to the tune of the Christmas carols that brought me to my knees the first holiday season after she was gone.

Now the words were hollow and flat, not even touching the ache in my heart. Because here’s the thing: there is no “OK” in grief. There is the loss, and then there is the hole in your life shaped like the person you lost. That hole doesn’t fill back up, I have come to realize. Time might heal wounds but it doesn’t fill holes and it certainly doesn’t bring anyone back. It’s been three years and I still think I sometimes see my mother out of the corner of my eye in a crowded grocery store or driving down the highway. The best I can hope for is that the raw edges scar over and I don’t have to walk around torn open and ragged forever.

I think this is why people struggle so much to find the words when someone is grieving. What do you say when you can’t say it will be OK? How do we comfort each other when the simple truth is life can be hard and loss is inevitable and it can hurt like a son of a bitch pretty much forever?

And am I doing my kids a disservice by always promising that everything will be OK, when very likely it sometimes won’t be?

My youngest — the one who will never know his grandmother but has her eyes — came running to me last night, a fresh red welt on his forehead where he’d bumped it playing. I scooped him up, held him tight, and put my face down into his hair. Instinct kicked in and I started to say it, the usual, but then I paused and forced myself to inhale. I could smell his hair, the faintest traces of that baby smell that he had less of every day mixed with shampoo and the yogurt he had smeared on himself after dinner. His face was ruddy from crying and he grabbed fistfuls of my shirt and used it to wipe his eyes.

“I’m here,” I said quietly, trying it on. It felt right. It wasn’t a lie. “I’m here,” I said again, louder this time, and he softened into my chest, accepting that there was indeed space in me for him.

There is space in me for him. There is space in me for his brother and sisters too, and his father, and our families together and our friends and all of the people I love and see struggle and want so badly to reach out and say the thing that might help, the only thing we both know is true when we both know that maybe it’s not ever gonna be the kind of OK again that it used to be before:

“I’m here.”

It rings true because I think there’s space in all of us, in our hearts and in our prayers and on our couches and on our shoulder and in our ears. There’s space in our arms to carry together what is too heavy to carry alone. There is room to witness, and to witness is to love, and to love is enough, or more than enough, or maybe: it’s everything.

So it’s been a long time since anyone wanted to know what my fantasy was, but if anyone asks, I have a new answer. Just be there, I would tell them. Make a little space for me.

A version of this post originally appeared on LizPetrone.com.

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Healing My Grief

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Healing grief isn’t all rainbows. It isn’t just that we choose the higher feeling thought and forget the pain. It also shouldn’t be swimming too far into the deep of the dark part of our broken hearts. Can we fix grief? No. It’s not something to be fixed. It’s something we can heal parts of and learn to live side-by-side with the rest. Some of the emotions can be healed, like anger and denial, but there will always be a bit of grief in our hearts because that grief is our love for the people we’ve lost.

Healing has to be a balance. Every day? Yeah… no. At certain points in my grief journey I have jumped onto a unicorn and rode off into the sunset. I have thought, “Forget all of this pain. I am going to lock it up in my heart… stuff it down… I am flying this unicorn into the light and I’m going to be joyful and eat pink cupcakes every day and pretend my heart isn’t on fire.” Why? Because some days that is all that kept me alive.

And you know what? That’s OK. Sometimes it helps me to be hopeful, to be grateful, to be joyful. Sometimes I need that unicorn to fly me off in my mind to a new life… one that isn’t on fire.

Does being joyful cover up the pain? No. Does looking for a rainbow make the pain go away? No. But you deserve to try to find your hope. You deserve to laugh out loud. You deserve to feel joy. Some people think spiritual mentors telling you to look for the love and light are only hiding their own pain. That is not me. I am putting my pain out there for all to know about. I am opening up the zipper on my shattered heart and doing my best to show you what’s inside. And I’m also trying to show you that there isn’t only darkness and pain inside of my heart — there is also love, there is also light. I accept both. I embrace both.

It has been 16 months since my husband died. Sixteen months that in some ways feels like 17 years. I miss him every. single. day. I still sometimes want to climb a mountain and scream and curse and yell.

Am I cured of my grief? No. There is a missing spot in my bed where my best friend used to sleep. There is a missing place at the dinner table, in the car, on the couch, and in my heart. Grief lasts forever because it is love. But it changes, it evolves, it softens, and you become a different person than you were before. I no longer recall what it’s like to live a life without a twinge of pain in my heart every day. I’m kind of used to this now.

Am I still in shock? No… and sometimes just a little bit… yes. Sometimes I step back and look at my life and I just cannot believe that this all really happened. That he is really, really gone and is never going to hold my hand or make me laugh again. I almost can’t breathe when I think that we will not grow old together. That he won’t be there when I’m old and grey to sit around a campfire with and recall our adventures.

I have been down in the dark hole of grief. I have sat down in that dark, cold hole in my mind and not wanted to climb out. I have wanted to stay deep in my grief because it’s where I could drown myself in my love for my husband. I felt that climbing out of that hole would be a greater and more exhausting excursion than I possibly had the strength for. How did I get out of that darkness? I got mad, I got angry, and I reached down deep and fought for my life. I had to believe I was still worthy of life, of love, of happiness. And all of those emotions raised me up out of that hole.

Grief for me is falling back and forth, round and round between all of the “stages.” Shock. Anger. Denial. Bargaining. Acceptance. Over and over. Sometimes all at once. What I was never told was that there is life beyond those stages. There is still grief beyond those stages. And those stages are just emotions. I still feel anger sometimes and have come to fully know that I’m going to be honest with myself about it. Feel it, name it, learn from it, heal it. I still have grief but it’s not like those first days, weeks, months.

I’m at the top now. I still have grief but I also can feel joy again. I see rainbows, again. I’m flying on a unicorn and spreading love and light because it feels good. It feels better than sitting in that hole not wanting to ever climb out.

Does being a widow suck sometimes? Yes. Do I have things about my life now that I don’t love? Things about myself that I don’t fully accept? Yes. I’m human. But, I’m working on it. I’m loving myself through it.

That’s part of the healing, part of the letting go for me.

Does pain bring every single person who experiences it a purpose? Of course not. Am I special because I believe my pain gave me a purpose? Heck no. I’m just a regular, broken-hearted girl. But I have found my purpose, and I am going to spend the rest of my days making other people feel less broken. Which in turn, makes me feel less broken.

I want you to know that life is both. It’s joy and pain. Rainbows and thunderstorms. Unicorns and lions. Light and dark. And both have beauty, meaning and purpose.

Your healing journey will not be all darkness. It also won’t be all rainbows, joy and unicorns. It will be both.

Be vulnerable. Be honest. Be raw and real, and this may help you see what you still are grateful for in your life. And those painful days? Love yourself through them until you are back into your light.

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