Letting grief make you stronger

By Nancie Wiseman Attwater

Grief is powerful and can break your heart for the rest of your life, or you can learn from it and become stronger. Losing a loved one is something that everyone will go through, but not all come out as survivors in the end. It’s part of life, but a very difficult part. Think of your loss as a lesson to help you live the rest of your life.

How do you survive grief? It’s a difficult question and everyone will have a different answer. You must find your own answer and let that be your focus rather than the sorrow you are feeling. Death is final, there is no going back, but your grief can slowly ebb if you work at it and learn what you can do to feel better for yourself. I don’t have all of the answers, but I have done some real soul-searching to make my new lifestyle work for me. No one can do this for you, you have to take care of your own heart and soul.

I write. That helps me get through the hard days and the difficult nights. Not everyone will feel comfortable writing their thoughts down, but there are some other options, and hopefully, one or two will fit your lifestyle.

1. Grief is like a chronic illness. Some days will feel better, and others will be just like the first day after your loved one died. You will always have grief, but it can be managed. You will never forget them, and remembering the time you had together may be more helpful than thinking only of the time you no longer have with them. It’s always there, in the same room with you at all times. It might be right next to you or across the room, but it is there.

2. Reading about others’ grief and what they did to feel better may help you. How did they survive every day? There are dozens of books and resources about grief. I received an email every week for 12 weeks from the Neptune Society, the folks who cremated my husband, on the stages of grief and how to work through them. Try and read this helpful information if you receive anything like it. It truly is invaluable.

3. Speaking to others who may have gone through the same loss. Choose carefully as the person who lost a child, or a parent may have a different experience than someone who lost a spouse.

4. Finding things to do that focus your mind elsewhere. Not easy to get out and exercise when you just want to go back to bed. There are other things like reading, crafts of some sort, or even just cleaning out the cupboards in the kitchen.

5. Your appetite may change. For most, I think eating becomes an issue because they don’t feel hungry. They live alone now and don’t want to sit at the table across from an empty chair. Wander the grocery store aisles and find things that appeal to you. Even if it is just a chocolate rice cake, it’s something.

6. Alcohol. Be very careful. Using alcohol to calm your nerves or go to sleep can turn into a bigger problem than your grief. I used brandy every night for a month to help me sleep. I knew I was headed in a bad direction, so I had to find other ways to help me sleep. Music is at the top of the list.

7. Get help. Please get some counseling and let your grief pour out during your sessions. It’s a safe place to talk with no judgment. Online counseling is easy to get now. Contact your health care provider to see what they have to offer.

8. Exercise of some sort is a great stress reducer and will increase endorphins that help make you feel better. I’m not a bit gym person, but I have one where I live, and I get there when I can. My exercise is walking the dog. We walk up to 10,000 steps a day, sun, rain, or wind. It helps us both. I feel better, and I think the dog does too, after a long walk. We have several walking paths where I live, and I think we have walked every one of them. One day, my dog saw someone using a walker and ran to catch up with them. Bill used a walker, and I think she thought it was him. She came to a screeching halt when she realized it was a woman. I felt so sorry for my dog because how do you explain death to a pet? She is grieving too, and I’m sure she wonders when Bill is returning.

9. I have to walk by my husband’s clothes hanging n the closet every day. I am not ready to get rid of them. Some days I wear one of his flannel shirts. It’s huge and will always make me cry for a minute, but it’s a closeness I’m not ready to give up.

10. The one thing that I miss is Bill saying, “Good night, sweetheart” every night when we went to bed. I still think he is going to walk out of the bathroom in the morning and say, “Good morning,” but that is wishful thinking and all part of the grieving process. I still can’t believe he is gone, and my brain and my heart need some time before acceptance is part of my reality. I spoke with our accountant the other day, and when we were saying, “Goodbye” he said, “I love you.” This was so sweet, and I have never even met him, only talked on the phone. I sat in my chair and cried for a bit and realized I miss that sentiment too and will always long to hear it again from Bill.

11. If your loved one had a long illness and you experienced anticipatory grief before the actual death, you may find that your grief now doesn’t seem strong enough. You might ask, “Why am I not feeling more sorrow?” You’ve already done a lot of the work, and even though “grief” has not left the room, your day-to-day struggle may be slightly less. Some days will always be brighter than others, no matter when and how you experience grief.

12. Grief will stay in the room with you wherever you go. It might be next to you or over in the corner, but it will always be there. I went to my local grocery store, where I always bought cream puffs for my husband. He loved them and asked for them whenever I went shopping. I just happened to walk past the cream puff section of the store while shopping the other day and started crying. That’s how grief stays with you. A simple reminder of your loved one can – when you least expect it – bring sadness and tears. I had to walk away and wipe my tears and told myself to stay away from that section of the store if I possibly can. I’m in charge of my grief, the cream puffs are not, so I need to manage when I think I can walk by them again and not break down in tears. It’s the age-old phrase, “Choose your battles.” Always choose where you are the winner.

13. I have found that at least once a day since my husband passed away about three months ago, I have had to tell someone, “My husband passed away in August.” For some reason, it happens every day. The bank, Social Security, the state, or the HOA where I live, someone! Even the pest control people needed to know. I found after a while that it became easier to say the more I said it. I can now say “Bill passed away” without crying. I may tear up, but saying it more often sort of takes the “sting” out of the words and their meaning. This made me stronger and more accepting of what has happened and the need to let everyone know.

14. When someone asks me how I am doing, I’m still not able to answer without tears. I went out to lunch with a friend the other day, and she kept asking me over and over how I was doing. I told her I couldn’t answer right now, which may have been hurtful for her because she really cares, but I had to stop the tears. It ruined the lunch I was looking forward to, and could not eat another bite. It was a well-meaning gesture, but I didn’t want to cry at the restaurant. I need to get stronger on this issue and with my answer. Usually, I say I’m “OK,” but that isn’t enough for the people who really care sometimes.

15. Keeping busy helps, but don’t overdo it. One task, a phone call, or a chore a day is useful for keeping up with everything, like paperwork for a government agency or retirement income changes. Some of these calls are very frustrating. I talked to Social Security at least once a week for a while, but I made the call when I was rested, had eaten something, and felt I could handle their questions as well as they could handle mine. You never know what kind of day the person on the other end of the phone has had, and if it feels like all you get is rudeness and no answers, maybe it’s best to try again another day.

16. I had to learn to cook for myself. This was a benefit to me. Bill always did all of the cooking, and I had to take over when he could no longer work in the kitchen. I’m not a great cook, but I do try to manage something for breakfast and sometimes dinner. I was going to look into cooking lessons next year and see if this gives me a new place to meet some people and make a friend or two.

17. Let kindness become a part of your life. I have a pretty good temper when provoked or feel someone isn’t giving me the service I think I deserve. I am working on being more gentle with my fellow humans because I have learned that life ends too soon. I want to be remembered for being nice, not crabby. My husband lived that way every day. I should have learned it sooner but was always so busy taking care of him that I didn’t give it much thought. I am learning from him still, and my grief makes me remember him and his “moral compass” that always seemed to be in the correct direction. I’m also trying to get my compass in the correct direction while I manage everything on my own.

18. A friend told me that it takes about two months to get everything straightened out – the insurance, social security, banks, and retirement accounts. I scoffed at this, thinking I’ll give it about a year. That’s also what they say is the length of time to accept the death of your loved one. I’m three months out, and the money issues seem to be clearing up, but I’ve got a long way to go to get used to the loss of Bill. I’m OK with that, I’m still working on this and will for a while, I’m sure.

19. Make your home all about you. You don’t have to remove mementos or photos, but now you can arrange the furniture or bathroom. Bill used a walker, we had to have wide paths for him to get through the house. I can now change this and rearrange things for my comfort. Bill also had several photos of old relatives hanging on the wall. I had no idea who any of them were, so I removed them and put up photos of my family and some of my artwork. It’s hard to do, but his family photos belong to his children, not me.

20. And finally, it’s OK to laugh despite your grief. In fact, laughing is good for you. A good sense of humor can’t cure all ailments, but data is mounting about the positive things laughter can do. Laughter enhances your intake of oxygen and stimulates your heart, lungs, and muscles. It also increases endorphins that are released by the brain. Laughter can cool down your stress response, soothe tension by stimulating circulation, and aid muscle relaxation. Laughter also has long-term side effects like improving your immune system, relieving pain, making it easier to cope with difficult situations, and improving your mood. I do my best to be around people who either make me laugh or at least seem happy. If someone has so much sadness themselves that it makes me feel sadder, I will say hello, but walk away as soon as is comfortable.

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