People who have lost a loved one generally report an improvement in their sense of grief after 6-12 months. Generally. Not everyone. Because everyone is different. The depth of their grief depends on who they have lost – a parent, grandparent, child, spouse, friend. On whether the death was expected or not, and on what their beliefs are for the afterlife.
I’m now five months in… While I’m certainly doing better in the sense that I can concentrate again, function “normally” in my daily life, have regular sleep patterns, and eat well, there are still days where I feel no better than I did during the first week. At the same time, I feel increased expectations that I should be starting to “move on” by now. That dwelling on a painful loss is not good for me. I’ve come to realize that our attitude toward loss and grief is so stunted that most people in our society have a hard time when faced with a grieving person. What to say? Should they talk about the person who died or will it cause too much pain? Not knowing what to do or say, most people choose not so say anything at all and thereby inadvertently contribute to killing the dead person once more by shying away from speaking their name.
In my frustrations and feeling of powerlessness I’ve read dozens of books on how to live with grief. The two best ones are written by Esben Kjaer – a Danish journalist who lost his six-year old son to an aggressive and incurable type of lung cancer that statistically should affect one out of 17 million people. As a way to deal with this loss he wrote “My invisible son – the art of living with your dead loved ones” and most recently “Death – a survival guide”. Unfortunately they are only available in Danish so far, but I’m sure they’ll be translated sometime.
He has so many beautiful and painful insights that I can relate to and for all of you who feel awkward in the presence of a grieving person I offer you his most valuable insights here:
Talk about the person who passed away. Never be afraid that bringing up their name will make the grieving person sad. To those who have loved and lost someone – hearing others speak their name is the most healing sound imaginable. Grieving people will be sad anyway – you cannot make them feel worse by talking about their loved ones. I’ve discovered that it’s entirely possible to be profoundly sad all the time and still find moments of joy and laughter. But never be mistaken. I am sad. I always miss him. And by talking to me about him, you help me keep him alive and present.
Realize that there are no stages in grief
The past century has been characterized by a most horrific view of grief. That we all go through stages of grief and eventually come out on the other side having put it all behind us. This is utter bullshit – yes, Freud, I’m talking to you. Fuck you for imposing this view on our society. Freud believed that love was a limited resource, and that by dwelling too much on the love for a dead person you took away from the living. Therefore better to forget the dead person as fast as possible and move on. Luckily most psychologists and grief therapists have realized that this is an outdated view. Instead, the more modern (and much more true) view of grief is that we walk down two separate tracks, making intermittent jumps between them. One track is the one where we disappear into our grief and are consumed with sadness. We dig into our memories and long for the person who left us. The other track is the “normal” track. Here we continue our daily lives, take on a new hobby, meet new people, buy groceries, etc. The new view of grief is that we will shift between these two tracks all our lives but that, ideally, we should spend increasingly more time on the “normal” track.
Know that there is no cure for grief
If we have a cold, we run to the pharmacy to buy cough syrup and lozenges. If we can’t sleep we have our doctor prescribe sleeping pills. If we have a headache, we take a painkiller, and antacids help with a stomachache. Which pill do you take for a broken heart? We cannot cure grief in the same way that we also cannot cure love. They are states of being, not diseases. So we shouldn’t try. I have grown to loathe two very specific phrases when talking with other people trying to understand how I feel. “Getting over it” and “moving on”. Some may argue that they are different. Many people say “you may never get over it, but you’ll move on”. This is just semantics. You can get over a cold, or that boy you liked in the 8th grade who didn’t like you back. You can NEVER get over the loss of a loved one. And you probably can’t move on either. You can go on living, sure, but your life will be changed forever. You will forever carry the heavy burden of missing someone who was supposed to be here. And while you may continue to live a happy and meaningful life – you’re not moving on from grief. On the contrary, you’re learning to live with your grief. I find great comfort in believing that it is possible to be a happy person who happens to carry grief with you. And by the way, if they offered a pill that could cure grief I wouldn’t take it. Because if I don’t have my grief it would mean that my best friend never meant anything to me and that I no longer care that he’s gone. I want to grieve. Grief is not the price of love – grief is love. And by acknowledging and befriending my grief I carry him with me.
Never say this
Aside from saying “move on” or “getting over it” (as no one will ever do after having read this post), don’t pretend to know how the grieving person is feeling. If you haven’t felt their particular loss – you don’t know. If you haven’t lost your own child, best friend, parent etc., then you don’t know. And even if you have, you have not experienced this particular relationship, so you’re still just as clueless. You should accept that you cannot feel what the grieving person is feeling and never pretend that you can.
Grief is a mental space journey that takes you through all kinds of emotions
Be kind to a grieving person even if they say or do something that hurts you. Know that they are just a passenger on their own emotional rollercoaster and that they may be just as surprised as you if they accidentally offend you. People in grief can oftentimes feel very uncomfortable in their own skin and that can make them a pain to be with for other people. Accept this and allow them some peace and quiet. Sometimes it’s better to just be with them quietly than to try and say anything random to lift the mood or fill an awkward silence. Don’t ever say that there must be some kind of meaning that we just can’t see yet. There isn’t. There is absolutely no meaning in young people dying, or in bad things happening to good people. There’s no master plan. But nonetheless, while being utterly meaningless these deaths may bring around something else that is meaningful.
Nietzsche is quoted for having said “If you know the why, you can live any how”. We can accept most things if we see a meaning in them. There is no meaning in death, but we may still find some meaning in our grief. For me, the thing that have been most meaningful has been all the new wonderful people I have met in the wake of my friend’s death. Being able to support and comfort my friend’s brother and parents has been incredibly meaningful. Hearing them thank me for helping them keep his memory alive is meaningful. Writing about him and my grief and now this guide here on my blog has been meaningful. Learning about myself in this process and redefining who I am is meaningful. So, there was absolutely no meaning in my friend passing away so young in an accident. But I’m trying to find some meaning out of this and that can be meaningful. And this is what helps and comforts me.
Love never dies
People may die but love is eternal. I still love my grandparents who passed away in old age and I still love my friend. I always will. I firmly believe that it is healthy to keep the connection to our loved ones alive even if they’re no longer a physical part of this world. We should talk about them, remember them and always love them. People who have left such an imprint on our hearts can never be erased. We shouldn’t try to. We simply need to redefine the ties and relations and they’ll be with us always.
My best companion in this endeavor is my friend’s brother. Several times a week we send each other encouraging messages and often talk about the person we both love so dearly. I love how we can be such a comfort to each other, even though we’re thousands of miles apart at the moment. A week ago he sent me the song “Remember me” and told me that we together would always remember him and thereby keep him alive in our hearts.
Though I have to say goodbye
Don’t let it make you cry
For even if I’m far away
I hold you in my heart
I sing a secret song to you
Each night we are apart
Though I have to travel far
Each time you hear a sad guitar
Know that I’m with you
The only way that I can be
Until you’re in my arms again
I cried a river, but they were happy tears because this felt so meaningful. I reciprocated by sending him the link to the beautiful cartoon “How to have an invisible brother” created by the eldest son of Esben Kjaer who lost his younger son to cancer at age six.
He loved it and thanked me so much for sharing it. There we were, thousands of miles apart remembering and missing a person we both love. That was meaningful.