The grief journey sucks — I won’t sugarcoat it. You’re frustrated, depressed, angry, bitter, sad, overwhelmed, indecisive and yes, happy, too. Usually all in the same day. Sounds like an emotional roller coaster, right? That’s because it is. The grief journey is full of uncontrollable twists and turns. It’s a sad, wild, scary, heart-pumping and sobering joyride. I’m only slightly kidding.
I wish I had the foresight to know what I was truly in for when Mark died. He was in hospice care, so I was prepared for his death in knowing his burial wishes, who he wanted present at his memorial, the songs he wanted in his video tribute, what he wanted to wear, etc. But I wish I had known just how much of my life would be impacted by my coming grief. The true grief that no one warns you about.
Even weird, unexpected things, like knowing I’d break down crying in the grocery store realizing I didn’t have to buy Cracked Pepper Turkey Breast at the deli anymore; or how I’d lose my marbles realizing the only reason I could have area rugs in my kitchen and bathroom again was because he was dead; or just how lonely I’d be drinking my morning coffee alone at the table. You aren’t prepared for those moments, because those are the “little things” that allow your grief to quietly dig its claws deepest into your heart.
A few weeks ago, I noticed an unsealed Vanilla Chai Tea K-Cup I opened for Mark the morning before he died. I never used it, as he was sick and sleeping that day. I don’t remember putting the cup back into the swivel holder, or why I didn’t throw it away, but there it was. I stared at it…and my heart sank. He died nearly a year ago, but that moment tugged at my breath with such force I couldn’t contain the emotions. I cried in the kitchen for a few minutes, let the feeling pass, and went on to make my own coffee.
There are fewer of those moments now, but when they come, I let them unearth the sadness. I do not put them away, I feel them wholly and go on about my day. For me, that’s the best way to manage it, because bottling up the little things adds up and usually results in a tear-fest of epic proportions.
As I’ve said, the real grief doesn’t come in those first few weeks, when friends and family are at your beck and call and the most supportive. It comes when the cards stops, dinners have slowed, and life returns to normal for everyone else. It comes in the months and years later. Time has absolutely no relevance in grief and has no limits on the love we carry for those we have lost.
Grief can be compared to a roller coaster ride. Grief tosses you upside down and spins you in circles. And while you can’t escape the ride once you’re on it, you do learn to balance yourself as it throws you all over the place.
Did I mention how much your brain fails you too? It’s referred to as “widow brain,” and it’s a real thing. You forget to do the most important things, like turning off the stove when you’re done cooking. But you remember ridiculous details, like the shoes your Aunt wore at the funeral.
So write everything down, and then double check. Your brain is working to keep you alive and breathing, not to help you remember dentist appointments or to put gas in your car. Studies prove this, although I won’t refer you to them. Just know your brain shuts off and you’ll become more inept than you ever thought you could be. Go with it, you get a pass.
Take a life break, buy tissues and be gentle with yourself. Grieving is emotional and physical trauma. It weighs heavy and sometimes feels unbearable. I remember thinking my sadness would never end and I would have to fake smiles forever. You don’t. You will smile again and one day you’ll laugh like crazy and it will feel amazing.
I had one of these moments three months after Mark died. My oldest son (he’s 26 and quite witty!) and I were reminiscing about Mark one night, and I was complaining I hadn’t heard from his family. No one. Someone’s ears must have been ringing, because his sweet cousin reached out to me to check in. The first (and only one) I ever heard from. My son said I should tease her as she’s a good egg with a sense of humor. Anyway, in response to her inquiry, my son said, “Tell her you and Mark have been fighting a lot, so you flushed him down the toilet!”
I laughed so unbelievably hard. So hard, I lost control of my bladder a little. (We’ve all been there!) What he said was SO. VERY. FUNNY. I could have sworn I heard Mark’s deep belly laugh too. It felt amazing to release so much physical energy in the form of a laugh instead of snot and tears! My shoulders relaxed and my stomach ached with joy. His cousin must have thought I lost my mind (and I have, because…you know, grief) but she responded with a laugh herself.
Never lose HOPE. Your life is NOT over. If you ever feel this way, call someone…anyone. You are very much here, and your person wants you to live your life. You can let go of their physical self and things too, but only when you’re ready.
Nora McInerny, a fellow widow and founder of Still Kickin‘ said in one of her novels, Your attachment is to the person, not the thing. Paraphrased, but she’s right. I had a breakdown about this issue earlier this year, and I know (now) you can only do this when you are actually ready, not because you want to be ready. This man knows who he is, and if he’s reading, I hope he knows that debacle had everything to do with me and nothing to do with him.
In any event, it’s okay to let go of things. You’ll figure it out as you go. It’s okay to completely reset your life, because you are living a new one. A reimagined future where your person no longer walks at your side, but within your heart. Take that new job. Kiss your crush. Donate their clothes. Go out with your friends. LIVE.
You will still love them with all that you are, I promise. Time won’t matter. You will still talk about them as if they are still here, because they are. The parts of them you loved so much, you now carry within yourself. You will try to emulate them, and that’s okay. Grief changes you. You’ll do crazy things like quit your job and decide your credit rating doesn’t really matter as much as it used to. You start to appreciate what truly matters in this life. You will still feel that tug of loss and love when you think of them, but your heart will allow you to long for and love someone else too. And you won’t see it coming.
I unexpectedly developed feelings for someone late last year, and while it didn’t work out, I was so grateful that I did. There is a lesson to be learned with every experience you have. I still think of this man often, and how alive he made me feel. It mattered. He mattered. He saw me, and not as a widow, but as a living, breathing, exciting woman.
It felt amazing. The timing was wrong, because grief had not hit me fully yet, but I will carry gratitude and fondness for him forever. I was so relieved my love for Mark — and the pain I buried from his loss — did not inhibit my ability to develop those feelings. While it was a little weird to miss Mark and desire someone else, it’s not wrong to feel either of those things, even at the same time. For what it’s worth, I’m still figuring it out the process, but I know I can still desire, and so will you, when you’re ready.
Have gratitude that your journey isn’t over, because it isn’t. Stay hopeful. Know you will learn to walk with your grief, because I promise you that while you may not be able to see it yet, you and your grief will walk together one day. You will find hope buried under/in all of that sadness. You will cry…but you will laugh. You will still forget important things, but you will adjust. You will smile again, you will love again, and you will move forward.
And please know, there is no such thing as the “right way to grieve.” No matter what anyone tells you. Their thoughts and opinions on what you should or shouldn’t do…don’t listen. There is no map for this journey, and no way out of it either. Your grief journey is yours, and you’ll do much of it alone. It’s the hardest trip you’re ever going to take. There are no exit ramps and there are no short cuts, so navigate it however you see fit, because the grief journey is unique to all of us.
How are you navigating your grief? Share your experience below in the comments, and help support your fellow grievers!