In lieu of a wedding gown she wore blue jeans, a white blouse and a pullover sweater. I had on a corduroy jacket.
There had been no invitations or RSVPs. No rented hall. No church.
In lieu of a minister, we had a mayor.
She did not take my name. She had one of her own.
Unsuspecting friends had been invited to our apartment for pizza and beer.
In lieu of a reception, there was a party.
That was her way.
Her wishes were clear. Her instructions unambiguous.
In lieu of anything formal, there is casual.
Even now. Especially now.
In lieu of flowers, cacti
So there have been no announcements, no invitations or RSVPs. No rented hall. No church.
No funeral home.
In lieu of a cemetery, there is the desert.
In lieu of a procession, walk the dog.
In lieu of a headstone, there are river rocks or boulders or hollowed-out sandstone.
In lieu of flowers, there are cacti.
In lieu of sympathy cards she would suggest you write a note … to your husband, your wife, your son or daughter, your mother or father. Not a text. Not an email. A note. On paper. With a pen. Then put it in an envelope and write the address on the front, and attach a stamp to the upper righthand corner, and mail it.
In lieu of speed and convenience, there is reflection and permanence.
In lieu of dropping off a casserole, order a pizza and beer, then invite unsuspecting friends to your place.
Scientists have documented hundreds of instances in which ape or monkey mothers continue to groom and hold on to the corpses of their infants for days, weeks, and in some exceptional cases, even months after the babies passed away. In a new study, scientists have analyzed more than 500 such documented cases among 50 primate species, finding that the behavior is more widespread than previously believed. The distressing behavior is seen as an expression of grief.
“Our study indicates that primates may be able to learn about death in similar ways to humans: it might take experience to understand that death results in a long-lasting ‘cessation of function’, which is one of the concepts of death that humans have. What we don’t know, and maybe will never know, is whether primates can understand that death is universal, that all animals – including themselves – will die,” Dr. Alecia Carter, a researcher at University College London, said in a statement.
A striking coping behavior
The practice of carrying around dead infants didn’t have a clear explanation until now, considering it is costly and provides no apparent benefit to the parent. However, the widespread nature of the practice across time and many species motivated primatologists at the University College London in the UK to embark on a study.
The team analyzed reports dating from as far back as 1915 to 2020, compiling 509 cases of infant corpse carrying among 50 primate and monkey species, 80% of which engaged in this practice regularly.
Our closest relatives, the great apes — bonobos, eastern and western gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans — had the highest frequency of cases, along with Old World Monkeys. Both of these groups carried their dead infants the longest.
For instance, in their study, the researchers describe a case recorded in 2017 involving a female macaque in an Italian wildlife park who carried her dead infant for four weeks, before eventually cannibalizing the mummified corpse. One of the most extreme cases of this activity was observed in 2003, when the corpses of two infant chimpanzees were carried around by their mothers for months.
Although we can never be sure what are the motivations behind this behavior, there are some patterns that point towards a form of stress management. Some of the primate mothers would shriek in alarm when the corpses of their babies were taken away from them, which suggests carrying the corpse is a form of coping strategy to alleviate the great stress caused by infant separation.
When live primate babies are separated from their parents, both the infant and the mother show signs of significant anxiety. A 2011 study showed that rhesus monkey babies do not fully recover from the stress of being separated from their mothers at birth, leaving them prone to a life of anxiety, poor social skills, and depression.
The researchers in the UK found that the younger the infant, the more likely it was for the mother to carry the babies for longer, perhaps because the bond between them was the strongest then.
The age of the mothers was also an important factor. Young mothers were more likely to carry their dead babies. The researchers write that older mothers may be experienced enough to recognize that their infants are gone and may be more psychologically equipped to deal with the broken bond with the baby.
Traumatic deaths, such as infanticides or accidents, were less likely to result in corpse carrying compared to deaths caused by non-traumatic events, such as illness. A death resulting from an illness may not make it immediately clear to the mother that her baby is lifeless.
“We show that mothers that were more strongly bonded to their infant at death carry the corpse for longer, with emotions possibly playing an important role. However, our study also shows that, through experience with death and external cues, primate mothers may gain better awareness of death and therefore ‘decide’ not to carry their dead infant with them, even if they may still experience loss-related emotions,” said co-author Elisa Fernández Fueyo of University College London’s Department of Anthropology.
Clues about the origin of human mortuary practices
The findings have important implications not only for advancing our understanding of how non-human primates grieve, but also how we’ve come to deal with death among our own species. Human social bonds are very similar to those of chimpanzees and bonobos due to our shared evolutionary history. Human mortuary practices and grief may have their origins in these shared social bonds.
“The thanatological behaviours that we see in non-human primates today may have been present in early human species as well – and they may have transformed into the different rituals and practices during human evolution,” said Elisa Fernández Fueyo.
“However, we need more data to enable us to further develop our understanding of this, and of how much primate behaviours relating to death may not only be explained by bonds but also by the associated emotions and, thus, resemble human grief.”
When her mother died, 13 days after diagnosis, author of ‘The Grief Handbook: A guide through the worst days of your life’, Bridget McNulty, was — quite literally — lost for words. Here she shares more about her experience with grief, and the simple things one can do to help someone grieving.
A friend asked me, the other day, to write a handbook that explains how to support someone going through grief. I smiled and changed the subject. It’s such a lovely intention, but the fact is that there is very little you can do to help someone when they’re in deep grief.
What I can do — or attempt to do — is put the feelings into words. To try to put the mass of emotions down on paper so one understands (a little) about what it’s like.
In the days and weeks after you’ve lost someone you deeply love, it feels as if your world has been cast adrift. As if you were on solid land, but you’re now bobbing out to sea, on an unstable raft, liable to fall into the water at any moment. All sense, all stability, all meaning has gone, and everywhere you look it’s just an endless grey horizon of sameness. Until you fall off the raft into the freezing grey water, which is desperate and icy, so you clamber back out — back into the fog and fug of grief.
There were three things that surprised me about grief when my mom died 13 days after her diagnosis. The first was how all-consuming and hard it was. I had always imagined grief to be an older cousin of sadness, or a big sister of despair. This was something else entirely. Something physical, and emotional, and mental. Something that seeped into every space in my life and made it harder.
It was only when I did the research for The Grief Handbook that I realised there was a scientific reason behind this. Grief is actually a prolonged stress response, which means your body is stuck in fight-or-flight, flooded with cortisol. Too much cortisol in the body leads to high blood sugar (which I noticed most because I’m a Type 1 diabetic), fatigue, irritability, headaches, gut issues, anxiety or depression, weight gain, increased blood pressure and low libido. A bouquet of physical symptoms that make it more difficult to get through the emotional loss of someone you love, and to grapple with the mental incomprehension that they are gone, now, forever.
The second thing that surprised me was how boring grief was. Every day felt similarly awful. There was no new information to process and yet I needed — desperately — to process the same information, over and over. To tell the same story of the horror of a 72-year-old mom who had been perfectly healthy, and then had sore feet and acid reflux, and then suddenly lost weight, been admitted to hospital with four different kinds of cancer, had a stroke, and died. In the space of two weeks.
There were moments — burned into my brain now — that I had to keep replaying. The hospital corridor where I hid from my dad and howled. The garden where I tried to fold in on myself and disappear. The room where we brought my mom home whole, and where she quickly slipped into a morphine coma, and then — just like that — was gone. The timing the timing the timing… That horrified me the most. We were dancing to The Cure playing live in Cape Town in early March, she was in a morphine coma in late June, she was gone on the 1st July.
The third and final surprise of grief was how words failed me. Words, my constant companion since I learnt how to speak and write, had never failed me before! And yet now, they all sounded hollow. Yes, I was heartbroken — but I had been heartbroken in my 20s when I broke up with my musician boyfriend. Yes, I was exhausted — but I had been exhausted when I was sleep-deprived with young kids in my 30s. Yes, I was sad — but I had been sad about all kinds of minor losses before this… None of the words at my disposal were intense and vivid enough to describe the absolute heartache that made it difficult to breathe, that made me want to vomit, that leached all the joy out of my life.
How, then, do I tell my friend what she can do to help?
Well, I have an answer for that, actually.
Or rather, I have a few suggestions of things that might help, and some that definitely don’t.
The kindest and most helpful thing to do is also the hardest (sorry). If you are close to someone who is battling their way out there on the stormy seas of grief, just be there. Be the tether that holds their flimsy raft to shore. Sit with them if they want company, check in on them even if they don’t know how to respond, try your best to be a constant, steady presence. It is really hard and boring to be friends with someone who is grieving, but if you can manage it you will be doing them a great service. Because one day (who knows when?) they will need to offload some of the heartache and if you can hold their hand (physically or virtually), this unburdening will be a little easier.
The other thing you can do is to offer practical help. Somehow, life doesn’t stop when grief takes over. Dinner still needs to be made, the house still needs to be tidied, children still need to be played with and admin still has to be done. All these daily tasks can seem completely overwhelming to someone in deep grief, though. Specific help can be a huge relief. Not, “Let me know if I can do anything to help,” (never “Let me know if I can do anything to help!”) because that puts pressure on the person who is grieving to identify what they need. It’ll never happen. Rather: “Can I drop off dinner on Tuesday at 5pm? I won’t stay,” Or: “Can I pick up some groceries for you / tidy your house / take your kids out for an hour so you can have a nap?” Anything to lighten the daily burden of tasks is a big help.
The month before my mom got sick, one of her friends started chemo. She felt so helpless in the face of her friend having to undergo this painful treatment every day (the friend later felt so guilty coming to my mom’s funeral). Her solution? Every morning she sent her a funny meme or joke, and she made her a brightly coloured lap quilt so she wouldn’t get cold during treatment. Something to brighten a few seconds of the day, and something practical and cheery to keep her warm.
Grief is the one thing that is inevitable. It is the one thing you and me and everyone we know are guaranteed of living through. We are all one day going to be cast adrift from the comforting normality of our daily lives, and into the seemingly endless grey fog of grief. And yet, if we know what to expect — if we have held the ropes that hold the rafts of our friends who are out on that stormy sea — it may be a little more manageable. The enormity may be slightly easier to bear.
SIXTEEN months into the pandemic, so much in our lives has drastically changed. Traditions have been put on hold and common habits and practices have been severely altered—for good or for ill. Why, even dealing with personal losses—ours and those of people we love—has been reduced to stoic acceptance. We can no longer hug or hold hands during such times of upheaval and grief. These days, we must be content with reaching out to the bereaved across the digital space, hoping that offering our sympathies on social media will suffice.
I should know. For some time now, news of friends and acquaintances dying from Covid-19—or from other illnesses—have popped up in my Facebook newsfeeds, Chat and Viber groups. Some of them belonged in my own circle of family and cherished friends. When you have shared history and deep kinship with the “dearly departed,” you are gutted by the loss no matter if you had been prepared for it. Yet, we feel something is quite missing when we try to comfort the family left behind.
Take, for instance, a young coworker who recently lost her thirty-something high-school bestie and groupmate. She and her friends (some of whom are now based abroad) were stunned and felt totally helpless about how to deal with it. They were at their prime; they couldn’t imagine one of their own being gone too soon. They all wanted to reach out and extend some help to the bereaved family but how could they make it special for them?
That was when I thought of coming up with a brief guide on the simple things we can do when confronted with the sudden demise of someone we want to remember, honor, and send off in a good and memorable way. This may appear to be a distressing topic to some but it is a reality that many of us might experience at some point in our lives.
A few random questions that have been asked of me:
Is there an acceptable way of inquiring about someone’s death discreetly and without sounding like one is prying?
What is the best way to express one’s sympathy or condolences during the pandemic when even family gatherings are not encouraged?
What are the do’s and don’ts when you want to put together a loving and respectful send off to your deceased friend during these restrictive times?
Before Covid (BC), it used to be so simple. When someone we knew died in our town, my parents, or more often my mother, would make it a point to visit that friend’s wake (sometimes held in the homes or in small community chapels). These rituals normally lasted for several days and the expected way of condoling with the bereaved family was to pray for the departed during the evening masses or to just stay a while with the family members.
It was often a chance to meet up and reunite with long-lost relatives and friends. Wakes were both religious and social occasions and people looked forward to being with other members of the community on such events. This explains why town officials and politicians were often expected to drop by and express their sympathies. Visitors would also hand over small envelopes containing their cash contribution to the funeral expenses. This was a long-held tradition and people would give only what they could afford.
Up to the early years of 2000, I witnessed the same simple tradition still being observed in small towns and communities, but the practice evolved over time. These funeral services were eventually held in funeral chapels or memorial parks. It was of course different when a well-known personality or wealthy person passed on because their wake arrangements were often elaborate—and even extravagant—affairs with food catering and flower-festooned buffet tables for the guests.
And then the pandemic came. In the year 2020, funeral wakes and services ceased to be long and protracted events. Only immediate family members—usually 10 at a time—were allowed at such services, especially if the person died of Covid. It was painful, devastating, and terribly difficult for those left behind not to be able to say their proper goodbyes.
These days, thanks to technology, funeral wakes and memorial services have gone digital. Virtual and online masses, novenas, and tributes are increasingly being held by the deceased’s family, friends, and colleagues with the use of Zoom or other online apps. Friends and kin based abroad are now even invited to join.
As for those who are digitally challenged but genuinely want to reach out to the bereaved, here are some basic steps they can take with just their mobile phones.
1. Give some words of comfort but mean what you say. Prayers, condolences and messages are good but to make it more personal, here are a few comforting words that you can use. The simpler and more heartfelt, the better. You may tweak these according to your own emotions.
“I am so sorry for your loss”
“I wish I had the right words but just know that I care.”
“I don’t know how you feel but I am here to help in any way I can.”
“You and your family will be in my thoughts and prayers.”
“I am always just a phone call or text away.”
2. You may offer some kind of support if you’re very close to the bereaved party. Practical assistance such as help with the funeral arrangements, making phone calls to relatives and friends, sending food to their home, or if they have young kids who need attention, offering to take them into your home for a few days to watch them while the parents are busy.
3. Financial assistance is always a welcome form of support especially if you know that the deceased spent so many days in the hospital and are facing huge medical bills. Funeral costs such as wakes and cremation can also be costly. You could spearhead a fundraising effort among close friends who may want to contribute any amount they can afford and you could collect them and maybe account for it so they know whom to thank later.
4. Finally, try to provide comfort by staying in touch with the grieving person periodically. Your support is more valuable after the funeral services are over or when the other friends and mourners have gone and the bereaved is alone again. Friendship should extend long after the sad loss and it can be through a phone call, a text, a card or note.
What are some words to avoid when condoling with a grieving person?
Try not to say these.
1. “Did she/he die of Covid?” We are living in difficult times. Don’t make it any harder for the person by putting them on the spot, especially when they don’t want to bare details of the death. If they share the info on their own, just listen quietly without judging. But better to skip this question.
2. I may have been guilty of saying this at times but according to the American Hospice Foundation, we should avoid saying “It’s part of God’s plan.” We cannot assume that everyone has the same beliefs as we do, so it could upset them instead of reassure them. I think you can only say this when you are absolutely sure about her spiritual beliefs.
3. “You should be thankful for what you have…” This may be true from your point of view but right now, they may not see it that way. Remember, they’re in grief and may be highly emotional.
4.“He’s in a better place now.” Or “he is free from all pain, sickness, and difficulties.” Let us refrain from using these statements especially when we do not know how the bereaved feels.
Personally speaking, the best gesture of showing sympathy and condolences are personal prayers. Our prayers are very much needed and appreciated by those who believe in the power of prayers.
So, it is always acceptable to offer masses for the dead (there are mass cards you can get from your parish church) or to sponsor priests to say masses during their virtual novenas or memorial rites. As one priest friend told me recently when he accepted my invitation for him to say mass for a departed friend: “It’s the least we priests can do during these troubled times: to make available the sacraments of the Church to whomever asks for it.”
This is one genuinely sincere way of showing your compassion and good intentions. Whether the deceased is Catholic, Christian or of whatever denomination, prayers and masses will hopefully make everyone, including yourself, feel so much better.
When my yellow Lab died last spring, I was flattened by an overwhelming sadness that’s with me still. And that’s normal, experts say, because losing a pet is often one of the hardest yet least acknowledged traumas we’ll ever face.
I was walking home from getting my second vaccination shot last March when I suddenly felt like I couldn’t stand. Everything about the vaccine was fine. It was just that I had lost someone very dear to me a few days prior and I was overcome with crippling despair.
I plopped in the dirt next to the side of the road, wailing while I fumbled with my phone to find the number for Blue Cross Blue Shield’s counseling hotline. I explained my needs to an obstacle course of automated gatekeepers and finally got through to a human.
“My partner died two days ago,” I managed to say between sobs.
“Oh, I am so sorry,” said the woman on the phone, clearly moved by my distress. She gave me phone numbers for grief counselors in my area; I headed home with tears running down my face.
What I didn’t say is that my “partner” was a dog. A beautiful yellow Lab named Sunny, who died at 15 and a half.
When Sunny was euthanized in my backyard two days earlier, I knew that adjusting to life without her would be hard. What happened instead was more like a tsunami of grief that swept me out to sea. Now that I’m pushing 60, I thought I was fully experienced in coping with the death of loved ones. But the sadness from losing Sunny was far greater than what I had previously endured after the passing of my parents, grandparents, and other dogs. I was surprised and somewhat terrified that I had the capacity to cry so much.
If I had lost a human partner, there would have been the usual funeral rituals, and being an emotional basket case would have seemed understandable. But our culture treats the death of a pet more like the loss of an automobile. When it wears out, you should just go buy another one. Well-meaning friends and family members had advised this in their attempts to help me feel better. What they didn’t get was that I had lost a soul mate—an irreplaceable relationship—not a piece of property.During our more than 15 years together, Sunny was faithfully by my side as I went through a bitter divorce, raised my son alone, dealt with caring for my mother and her dementia, and endured the death of my parents, as well as PTSD caused by childhood trauma, empty-nest syndrome when my son went to college, stressful jobs, scary health issues, moving to a new town where I knew no one and, of course, the COVID-19 lockdown.Sunny was like a handrail along the edge of a thousand-foot cliff. Navigating life’s challenges seemed doable because I knew I could hold on to her if needed. Now the handrail was gone. Trying to understand why I was in such pain, I sought out a few experts, who explained to me what it is about these transitions that makes them so difficult.
“Our pets are there for us when other humans may not be,” says Robert Neimeyer, the author of several books on grief and director of the Portland Institute for Loss and Transition. “Pets provide what psychologists call a ‘secure base’ for us where we can feel unconditionally loved and trusted. We often have the sense that they understand our emotions intuitively in ways that others do not cognitively.” Neimeyer points out that the emotional bond with a pet can be especially strong for people like me who are survivors of trauma. And he says one of the great ironies of pet loss is that we’re grieving the absence of the very companion who could have made such a significant loss more bearable.
As is true for many dog owners, my bond with Sunny was strongest in the outdoors. She shared my desire to wander in the wild more than anyone else in my life. And we did it daily, no matter the weather or what else was demanding my attention. I estimate that we hiked more than 15,000 miles together. On summer vacations and weekend trips, we hiked up to mountain summits and down to creek bottoms, through slickrock canyons and across snow-covered mesas bathed in moonlight. But mostly we just rambled for miles in the forest near my house, traveling cross-country on paths created over the years by our feet and paws. Sunny liked to walk about ten feet in front of me and insisted on carrying big sticks that were a minimum of five feet long. She would turn her head sideways to thread a stick through closely spaced trees and often looked back to make sure I was still there.
“Isn’t this amazing?” she would seem to say with her eyes.
“Yes!” I would respond, feeling life’s worries fall away.
We floated through the forest like synchronized swimmers, immersed in the joys of sticks and smells and towering pines bending in the wind. I needed this time with Sunny the way many people require coffee in the morning. It was hard to get through the day without it.
After Sunny’s death, my craving for our daily hikes—and for simply seeing her look back at me—was almost unbearable. I filled my house with pictures of her face and walked so many miles with her leash in my pack that I completely wore the soles off my hiking shoes. Eventually I connected with Richard Mercer, a grief therapist and facilitator of a pet-loss support group in Boulder, Colorado, who assured me I was not going crazy.
“The death of a pet is a very big deal,” he said. “I often have people tell me that they are surprised the experience is harder than losing their mom or dad. And there are many good reasons for why this is so.”
Unlike losing parents or other loved ones who don’t live with you, dogs and cats have an intimate place in our everyday lives. We miss their constant companionship, unconditional love, and presence as motivators: they’re a reason to get up and go on those daily walks. Mercer told me the death of a pet can also “activate grief over previous losses,” and I know what he means. I found myself crying about Sunny and also about my childhood dog Lucky, who was kept on a chain and was relegated to sleeping in a flea-infested doghouse—both at my parents’ insistence.
When Sunny was euthanized in my backyard two days earlier, I knew that adjusting to life without her would be hard. What happened instead was more like a tsunami of grief that swept me out to sea.
But the pain of loss also involves neurobiology. “Our field is just beginning to understand the positive benefits that dog ownership has to human health,” says Kevin Morris, director of research at the University of Denver’s Institute for Human-Animal Connection. Nothing against cats, but Morris says dogs are especially adept at being close friends. “All the dog breeds of today came from wolves that were, according to the theory, living off the garbage heaps of humans eight to ten thousand years ago. Dogs evolved to be companions to people in ways that other domesticated animals did not.”
Morris says researchers have found that a dog decreases anxiety and increases levels of oxytocin, a neurotransmitter, sometimes called “the love hormone,” that’s associated with maternal bonding. A study published in Science documented how simply gazing into each other’s eyes created a positive oxytocin feedback loop between dogs and their owners. Loving stares increased oxytocin levels in the dogs by 130 percent, and by 300 percent in the humans. Another study found that kissing dogs mutually increased oxytocin levels. Research has also shown that prolonged interaction between humans and dogs lowers harmful cortisol levels in both species.
“We are really wired to get that good stuff from our dogs,” says Mercer. “We associate the physical response of the oxytocin release to our connection with our dog and that is a lot of what we miss when they pass.”
I tell Mercer how I put pictures of Sunny all over my house and was walking around with her leash, apparently in a desperate attempt to get my oxytocin fix.
Doing whatever you can to feel better is a good idea. Mercer says that our culture’s widely accepted push to achieve closure by “moving on” after the death of a pet doesn’t really work. “The best thing to do is integrate the loss into your life by building a new relationship with a pet who is no longer physically present,” he explains. “We can give form to this relationship by honoring the memories of our pet, telling stories, journaling, and acknowledging our pain.” These memories embody not only the actions of our pets during their lives but also the events of our lives when the pet was supporting us.
Last March, when my 24-year-old son, Austin, and I decided it was time to put Sunny down, he flew from Los Angeles to my home in southwestern Colorado so we could give her a proper send-off. Sunny was being ravaged by cancer, but she still had an appetite. Our tight three-member pack, which had been the bedrock of Austin’s childhood, gorged for two and a half days on salmon, hamburgers, sausage, and some of Sunny’s unusual favorites, including Gouda cheese and lemon cake. Sunny could no longer hike in the forest, but we waded out with her into the Dolores River, where she had loved to swim. After Sunny was euthanized on her favorite patch of lawn amid swirls of fat snowflakes, Austin carried her inside and placed her on my bed. I anointed her with essential oils of ponderosa pine and blue spruce and tied a big pink ribbon around her neck as we prepared her for the crematorium. I had always joked that pink was Sunny’s best color, even though she was incredibly strong and fearless. In the coming days I would tie pink ribbons around candles, my wrist, the box that held her ashes, and a stick in the backyard where I built an altar, all to remind me of Sunny’s life and the tender, sacred ceremony of her passing. This brought me comfort—maybe even oxytocin—as did some of the other tips offered by grief experts.
One of the best pieces of advice I received was the license to cry as much and as often as I needed to. I have cried every single day since March 25, when Sunny passed.
Plenty of people experience this. “I wailed like a little boy,” Robert Neimeyer says of a cat he had several years ago that was killed by a car. “It was the purest and strongest grief I have ever felt in my life.” Copious crying is our body’s way of achieving homeostasis by physically releasing strong emotions.
Though letting the tears flow is healthy, it’s crucial not to remain stuck in despair. My thoughts often turned to Sunny’s tough final three weeks rather than to the wonderful years we shared. Mercer encourages people to make a conscious effort to focus on the good times and burn these happy moments into their brains.
“Meditate on these memories as if they are happening in the present and remember how you experienced them through your senses,” he says. “This is very grounding and builds resilience so that we are better able to handle the tough memories.”
Following another of Mercer’s suggestions, I joined the pet-loss support group he leads for the Humane Society of Boulder Valley. “Pet loss is a disenfranchised grief and not everyone gets it,” he says. “So much of what comes out of the group is just normalizing and validating our feelings.”
The goal of the monthly meetings is to provide a safe place for grieving pet owners to share. Some participants hold a picture of a pet who died a few days prior and simply cry; others tell stories of a pet they lost years ago. I found every meeting to be like a giant hug.
One of the most surprising and hopeful things I learned was that my love for Sunny could be the bridge to bringing a new dog into my life—not as a way to replace her but to honor her.“Some people may feel it would be too painful or disloyal to get another pet,” says Neimeyer. “But the deeper way of honoring the pet is to apply the lessons of loving and living this creature made possible for you by sharing that with another animal when you have reached the appropriate point in your grieving process. This kind of love is so robust that it survives the pet’s physical absence.”
As I stand there soaking in the beauty, Sunny’s physical absence often brings tears. But then in an instant, just as the sun drops below the horizon, all the clouds light up with fiery shades of pink and I feel her essence in every inch of sky.
In June, after speaking with Neimeyer, I decided to reach out to a Labrador retriever rescue operation near Colorado Springs, Colorado—a way to lay the groundwork for the day, maybe a year or two away, when I would be ready to adopt a new dog. I spoke with a breeder involved with the group and told her about Sunny. We agreed to touch base again in early 2022. Then she called a few weeks later.
“I know you weren’t planning to adopt anytime soon, but there is this dog who really needs you,” she said. “You would be the perfect owner.”
The dog was an 18-month-old yellow Lab named Trudy. Her owner had severe dementia and kept her confined to a cement dog run. A neighbor had contacted the rescue operation to report Trudy’s suffering. She’d been left alone in record summer heat and never walked. Nobody knew if her owner was giving her food or water.
The next day I drove eight hours to Pueblo, Colorado, to rescue Trudy. If I had not received counseling on pet loss, I probably would have declined, thinking I was too heartbroken to care for another dog. Instead, I took Trudy home and was soon watching her roll around in the grass and lie on a dog bed and play with toys—probably for the first time in her life. Trudy seemed like a gift from Sunny, or at least a karmic manifestation of Sunny’s positive influence on my life.
I bought her a bright red leash and have been slowly teaching her to walk in the wild. She is partly crippled from being confined to a cage, so there’s healing to do. We are healing together.
Trudy and I wander daily on a mesa near my house. It’s an awe-inspiring, oxytocin-generating landscape where a vast expanse of sagebrush is luminous green in the late afternoon light and the sky is a blue ocean filled with archipelagos of clouds. Some clouds are puffs of popcorn. Others are giant curtains of mist dangling over mountain peaks 50 or even 100 miles away.
I still carry Sunny’s pink leash in my pack. I expect I always will.
“Sunny!” I routinely shout into the sun-kissed abyss while Trudy delights in sniffing the ground. “Isn’t this amazing?”
As I stand there soaking in the beauty, Sunny’s physical absence often brings tears. But then in an instant, just as the sun drops below the horizon, all the clouds light up with fiery shades of pink and I feel her essence in every inch of sky.
On other days I hike alone through the forest following the favorite secret paths that Sunny and I made together. Several times I have come upon a tree or bush that takes my breath away. Tied to a twig in the middle of nowhere and for no explainable reason is a bright pink ribbon.
Dealing with the grief of losing a loved one is emotionally taxing and can lead you to search for coping mechanisms in order to get through especially tough days. But when you’re newly sober and still adjusting to your recovery plan and the different habits it includes (and, crucially, does not include), that search may be especially tricky to navigate. “Loss can directly interfere with [a newly sober person’s] ability to make these lifestyle changes, sending them back to the addictive coping mechanism that worked for them in the past,” says grief counselor Diane P. Brennan, LMHC. Rethinking the grief process, though, while leaning on the supportive elements of a recovery plan can actually help with the task of grieving while sober (and keep you from derailing your progress).
Chrissy Teigen is in the early stages of her journey with sobriety and recently shared her experience of soberly grieving the loss of her third child during pregnancy last year. “I don’t really feel like I fully processed Jack, and now that I don’t have the alcohol to numb it away, things are just…there, waiting to be acknowledged,” she wrote in a recent Instagram post.
However, what grieving experts say is essential to remember is that, first, there isn’t a seamless way to “fully process” or get over grief. “It doesn’t function like recovering from a cold or flu, but instead, we learn to live with it,” says bereavement-care specialist Virginia A. Simpson, PhD. And second, because feelings of loss do beg to be confronted, finding non-self-numbing ways to cope can help with both managing the tough emotions and learning from them. For Teigen, that strategy might be getting her favorite lasagna dish (as she shared in her Instagram post), and for you, it might be something else entirely.
“Loss can directly interfere with [a newly sober person’s] ability to make these lifestyle changes, sending them back to the addictive coping mechanism that worked for them in the past.” —grief counselor Diane P. Brennan, LMHC
And in working through any bout of grief—for folks who are newly sober, long sober, or otherwise—it’s also key to understand that the process is not linear. That is, it’s not one-size-fits-all for every person or type of loss, and it doesn’t present in neatly organized stages to progress through. “The pain comes in waves, washes over us, then stops for a while,” says Dr. Simpson.
But while this is true for all people who grieve, when you’re also navigating sobriety, remembering that undulating feeling—being fine one moment, devastated the next—as something to be expected is key to keeping yourself from reverting to self-numbing whenever it arises. Below, the experts share a few practices to consider when developing your own process for how to grieve while sober.
5 tips for how to grieve loss while newly sober, according to grief specialists:
1. Embrace your sobriety or recovery plan with renewed vigor.
Gripping onto an existing routine—as much as you can, given the logistical upset triggered by loss—is one method experts recommend for managing your mental health while grieving. And, in fact, the rigidity of a sobriety or recovery plan itself may entail helpful pillars to hold onto as forces outside your control change rapidly.
In practice, that means sticking to your usual eating, exercising, and sleeping schedules as closely as possible, says Brennan, and also continuing to do things that bring you joy. That includes seeing the people whose presence you enjoyed before the loss, too: “Spending time with good friends can help support the idea that, at the end of the day, you’re still you,” says Dr. Simpson.
2. Dedicate time to new happiness-inducing activities.
If you feel as though your existing set of joy-sparking activities could use a refresh, adopt new ones that can both support your health and act as coping mechanisms. On the list of suggestions from Brennan and Dr. Simpson: Exercising, meditation, journaling, and drawing—all of which can serve as temporary distractors, release mood-enhancing neurotransmitters, and even engender a new hobby.
3. Drop the need to “accept” the loss.
Dr. Simpson warns against pushing yourself toward acceptance “because to accept means to embrace, and no one wants to embrace loss,” she says. Instead, it’s helpful to simply acknowledge the reality of the situation by establishing a new relationship with the lost person. “That could mean redefining your role in life so it’s no longer tied to that person,” she adds. For example, consider who you are and how you might define yourself among your friends, at work, or in other contexts, rather than as solely a mother, father, child, sibling, or the like, to the lost person.
4. Lean on a support system.
Rather than self-isolating, tap the loved ones in your life for additional support, both with processing the loss and staying on top of your sobriety plan. Bringing those people into your space more often allows for more accountability, as does joining a designated support group with people who’ve experienced a similar type of loss as you have, says Brennan.
5. Practice gratitude when you feel moments of positivity.
Sure, you won’t be able to just find life’s bright spots any time of the day. But whenever the tidal wave of grief subsides just enough for some degree of calm, take advantage of the moment to remind yourself of the things you’re still grateful for, says Dr. Simpson. “Gratitude is like building a muscle, and the more we teach ourselves to seek it out amidst our pain, the stronger our gratitude practice will get and the more things we will find to be grateful for.”
In the past eighteen months, more than four million people around the globe have died from COVID-19. This massive loss has shined a spotlight on a normal, but painful, part of daily life — grief. Grief can occur for a variety of reasons: you can grieve the loss of a relationship, or the end of a career. However, the most acute and deep grief often comes around death.
Although there’s no prescriptive way to move through grief, there are healthy ways to process loss. If grief begins interfering with your daily functioning and keeps you from healing, you may be experiencing complicated grief. This condition can have a big impact on your life, and often requires medical treatment.
Here’s what you should know about grief, especially if there is a history of substance use disorder in your family.
Grieving can be incredibly painful. That often leads people to look for coping mechanisms to get through. This can be problematic for people who have a history of substance use disorder. Research has shown that people who have a history of addiction are more likely to experience complicated grief, the type that keeps you from moving on and healing. In addition, when people with a history of substance use disorder experience complicated grief, they’re more likely to turn toward maladaptive coping strategies, like using drugs or alcohol.
If you experience a loss, you should try to be proactive about maintaining your sobriety while you are grieving. Talk to trusted loved ones and medical professionals about how to cope with the pain of grieving if you are struggling. Have an emergency plan so that you know what to do if you’re very close to relapse, or if you have used.
The Stages of Grief
Most people have heard of the five stages of grief. Although people don’t move through the stages in a predictable manner, the stages can help normalize how you feel when you’re grieving. This alone can be helpful, reminding you that many other people have been through what you’re experiencing.
The five stages of grief, as explained by researcher Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, are:
Denial: When you first experience a shocking loss, you might not be able to comprehend it. The denial phase is characterized by feeling numb, and focusing on just getting through each day.
Anger: As you begin to understand the depth of your loss, you may become angry about it. You might feel abandoned by God or the universe, or that the loss is unfair. Although anger might feel like a surprising emotion while grieving, it’s important to feel your anger and move through it.
Bargaining: During the bargaining phase, you try to exert control and change the outcome of the loss. You might find yourself saying things like, “I’ll stay sober, as long as I get my mom back.”
Depression: At this stage, the reality of loss has settled in. You’ve realized that you can’t bargain a solution or rail against the injustice of the loss. You settle into depression, which may put you at increased risk for relapse.
Acceptance: Finally, after moving through the pain of grief, you might find yourself coming out the other side. You may notice that you’re remembering your loved one with joy and gratitude, rather than just focusing on the pain of losing them.
The New, Sixth Stage of Grief
Recently, David Kessler, a grief expert who worked with Kübler-Ross, introduced a sixth stage of grief: finding meaning. To truly heal from a loss, you must find a way to create a meaningful life, living in a way that honors the person you loved and the meaning of their life.
This sixth stage is especially important for people who have a history of substance use disorder. In healing from addiction, it’s important to create a meaningful life. This can give you the impetus that you need to stay sober. Focusing on the components of a meaningful life — self-awareness, positive relationships, and intrinsic motivations — can support you in overcoming grief in a healthy way.
A Hand to Hold: When to Get Help
Grief can become overwhelming. Communicating with your healthcare providers and your recovery community can help you navigate the grieving process. However, if you experience any of the following, you should reach out for more immediate help:
An inability to recall good, happy memories about your loved one.
Being unable to acknowledge or accept a loss
Having thoughts of self-harm or suicide
Thinking frequently about drug or alcohol use or relapse.
Grief never goes away entirely. However, you can learn to incorporate grief and memories into your life in an emotionally healthy way, remembering what was, while continuing to live your life in the present and future.