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How Traumatic Loss and Grief Change You

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Two weeks and a traumatic loss separate these two pictures. This is the weight of grief.

In late August, we celebrated my father-in-law’s birthday. Life was as “normal” as could be, outside of typical stressors. We spent a lovely afternoon at a popular local restaurant. While my two young kids made small messes at the table, we discussed future vacation plans. We talked sports and shared sips from our brewery flights. It was so nice that I paused to ask for a family photo, which my father-in-law was happy to capture. With the sun shining down upon us, things felt right.

Exactly one week later, we received one of those early morning phone calls you never hope to get. A family member calling well outside a usual time.

He was gone. Just like that.

We don’t know the exact cause, but we are thankful to know he didn’t suffer. My husband and I were speechless and devastated.

Familiar feelings began to surface. Around the same time eight years prior, my husband served as my rock as we faced the loss of my dad. He died by suicide two months after our wedding. This was a transformative moment for me as I reluctantly learned the impact of traumatic loss. I know the road that follows — it’s a heavy and complicated grief journey one continues to navigate long after the memorials subside.

My father-in-law had become like a dad to me. He gave me life advice, helped us with home repairs and reminded us to test the smoke detector. His faith inspired my healing.

In America, we’re typically given a handful of days to neatly address a family member’s passing. In that time, we try to gather family, unbox photos and go through the motions of a funeral while deep in shock. Attempting to do this while parenting two children under four is emotionally exhausting.

It left a mark.

I took this “griefie” when the overwhelm of the prior days had reached its peak. I remembered that earlier family photo — which I’m so fortunate to have and now cherish. I thought about how those innocent and joyful feelings were suddenly so foreign. I had seen my new reflection in the mirror moments before. The sleepless, puffy eyes. The unwashed hair. The plain, pale face. I wanted to show it. The weight of grief is real.

I had never really thought about my appearance while grieving. The day my father-in-law died, I ventured out to pick up a few items for our family at the grocery store. Still un-showered from the early morning chaos, I entered the check-out line in workout attire (my quickest, comfy grab) and a ponytail. The cashier asked for my ID to ring up the case of beer I’d bought for my husband. Innocent enough, the male employee took a look at my license picture then glanced at me and said something to the effect of, “If I may be so bold, you look really nice with your hair down.” So deep in thought about what we were facing, it struck me. He had no idea why I looked so disheveled. I’m sure it was meant as a compliment, but the idea that I could have been more polished in that moment further prompted me to share.

Grief and loss are hard work. Afforded a few days outside the office to manage, bereaved loved ones are not on vacation or taking it easy. We’re coming back depleted. I recently read that Facebook updated their bereavement policy to 20 days based on Sheryl Sandberg’s loss experience. This feels appropriate to give families time to cope, reflect and plan for a future without their loved one. During heavy grief, it can also be helpful to allow for time to do nothing. The emotional investment can feel exhausting. This is a period to rest and give yourself grace.

This picture reflects the week of uncertainty and sadness, the unexpected planning, and the beginning of a new grief journey. I’m running on fumes. I’ll do my best to conceal the evidence, but it’s still there. And it will be for some time, even if I shy away from talking about it.

With loss comes the guilt over how long one might take to recover. Do we ever truly? While we might go back to looking like ourselves on the outside, the inside is heavy.

This is the weight of grief.

Photo courtesy of the author

Follow this journey on Our Side of Suicide 

Originally published: October 25, 2019
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