5 Things I Wish I’d Known About Grief
Death is the only certainty in life, so at some point you will experience the loss of a loved one. It’s inescapable. By my mid-30s I have attended more funerals than weddings. I should add “professional mourner” to my résumé. I’ve lost a parent, friends, colleagues and even my former husband. I wish someone had warned me about the toll it would take on my body and mind in the subsequent days, months and years so I knew my feelings were perfectly normal. Information I found on grieving was often confusing and conflicting, so I decided to detail my own experience.
Here’s what I wish I knew:
1. Grief can have physical symptoms.
In the year following my mum’s death, I had a stream of seemingly unrelated health problems. It started with digestive issues, then flu-like symptoms: runny nose, headache, sore limbs and exhaustion that would send me to bed long before dark. I finally went to the GP convinced I was dying, but when I explained my symptoms he told me this was a common side effect of bereavement. Grief and the stress it puts on your body can suppress your immune system, making you more likely to get sick. You may also fear every cough, sneeze or headache convinced it’s a sign of something more serious. Jumping to the worst-case scenario is common following the death of a loved one, but rest assured, feeling unwell is more likely to be the result of grief than anything sinister.
2. There is no right or wrong way to mourn.
A person’s grief is as unique as a fingerprint, and there’s no “one size fits all” approach to mourning. Response to death is often dramatized as weeping and wailing in an exaggerated fashion, but emotions can be just as powerful without tears. Whether you spend days holding a vigil or channel your anguish into work, family or relationships; everyone deals with emotional trauma in different ways. Do not compare yourself to others. We all have our own coping strategies. Another thing no one told me is every loss is different. I thought having been through the process once I was an expert, but I found myself grieving more deeply for a friend than I ever did for my grandmother, which surprised me.
3. People will say unhelpful shit.
Death makes people uncomfortable and when they’re uncomfortable they will say unhelpful things. I’ve had the experience of losing a parent compared to a hamster dying or luggage going missing on holiday. A boss complained loudly about having to buy a Mother’s Day gift and asked me what I was getting my own mum (despite knowing she was long dead). To get herself out of that hole she made a joke about the money I save on presents now that I’m motherless. People think that platitudes and clichés help, but I don’t need to hear that everything happens for a reason and that it’s all in God’s Plan. Since the only religious member of my family was struck down with terminal cancer, I’m not a huge fan of the man upstairs.
4. The “firsts” really hurt.
When a loved one dies the first year can be tricky for hundreds of reasons. I had mentally prepared myself for the anniversary of my mum’s death without considering the 365 days of firsts that floored me in ways I didn’t know were possible. The first time you experience their favorite places, songs, films and food without them breaks your heart. The first year of birthdays, anniversaries and Christmas when you find yourself quietly weeping in a shop when faced with a sea of cards and gifts for someone who no longer exists. The first year often feels like standing still while the rest of the world moves on without you. Then there’s the guilt — the first time you laugh — properly laugh — after someone dies and it sounds alien to you. Or when you wake up and they aren’t the first thing you think of and you realize life really does go on.
5. You need to find other members of the club.
The loss of a loved one is undeniably grim. Growing up, I was told not to discuss topics such as death for fear of upsetting or offending someone. I now realize this is bullshit and you need to talk about how you are feeling. The best people to speak to are those who are in the club – the Dead Parents/Friends/Siblings/Partners/Children Club. It’s a club no one wants to be a member of, but once you’re in it you understand. There are spaces online where you can find fellow club members, and social media is a great place to start. If your grief is affecting your ability to sleep, work and function on a daily basis, you may need professional help (I know I did). Speaking to your GP is a good place to start. They can often offer a referral to counseling, prescribe medication if needed and advise on support groups in your local area. Nobody has to go through this alone.
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