Practical Advice For Dealing With Loss: The First Days.
First and foremost, let me tell you that I loathe unsolicited advice. I detest it. It was one of the most infuriating introductions to widowhood for me. How dare anyone think they have the right to offer me advice when I haven’t asked for it?
All of the well-meaning offerings of Remember to eat or Get some sleep and Be sure to take time for yourself did little to help, and instead made me quite angry in many instances.
Infuriating, but only slightly less so than the ever present It was his time or She is in a better place now platitudes we all get to deal with during times of loss.
I tell you this, because I want you to know that if you are offended or put off by the title of this article and opened it only to shoot laser beams of anger at me through your computer screen, I completely understand.
I’ve been there, love. I get it.
I tried to come up with a different title, one that didn’t bring up such negative connotations, but when it comes down to it, this article is pure unsolicited advice. The worst kind, I know.
So if you’re not ready, don’t read it.
And don’t worry if you’re not ready. These words will still be here when you are. And if you are never ready for my advice, that’s perfectly fine too. I’m selfishly writing it because I am ready to finally start processing some of what I have learned over the last few years.
In fact that is precisely my first piece of advice for anyone newly grieving:
Start when you are ready. This is a lot to process. And you won’t ever be able to begin to process this gigantic shift in your life until you are ready. So don’t rush it. It’s okay to take your time. Just as it took time to fall in love, it is going to take a long time to fully come to terms with your loss.
It has been over five years since I became a widow, and over a year since I lost my sister, and while I once considered myself a relatively well-adjusted human being, I’m only now able to offer my thoughts on the subject. Even now, I’m wondering what the hell I know that may even help!
So cut yourself some slack, and accept that you will likely be processing this for decades to come.
Grief is not a singular thing, and mourning does not have an end date. All of the phases of grief are fluid, and the whole experience can be quite daunting if you try to take it on right away or in some type of progressive order. I’ve gone in and out of different stages of healing and dealing in the last few years, regressing just when I thought I’d made progress, and finding myself resilient in times that I expected to be weak. It doesn’t always make sense as it occurs, but I find that I can finally begin to organize my thoughts, to some degree, when I reflect back.
“We either make ourselves miserable, or we make ourselves strong. The amount of work is the same.” ~ Carlos Castaneda
The First Days
When you got the call, answered the knock at the door, heard the words… if you watched and waited and finally saw that last breath, or if you were miles away… you suddenly entered a new world. You were thrust into a surreal and timeless realm that is often characterized by chaos, regardless of whether this death was expected and planned for or sudden.
Whether it was gentle or tragic, this death altered your reality, upended your axis and signaled a new kind of existence that is unlike any you have known before. You are going to need help with all you are about to face, especially in the first days.
“We are men and our lot in life is to learn and to be hurled into inconceivable new worlds.” ~ Carlos Castaneda
Call in the troops. When my husband died, I was with my family. I had support at my side, even as I learned the news. My husband’s family was a mere 20 miles away. I was surrounded by our kin and I consider myself fortunate in that — very, very fortunate. But it is not just family that I’m speaking of here.
If you have thought about who you would want around in an emergency — the calm-headed taskmasters who can triage, manage the unruly, and actually get shit done — those are the people you need to call. Immediately. Don’t wait.
Get them by your side if they are not already. It may not be who others expect you to call. It could be a co-worker, an old friend or lover, your distant cousin, your spiritual guide, your favorite nurse — I don’t care who it is, just call them. The people you want around when catastrophe strikes… these are the people I’m talking about. Ask them to come. First thing.
I was lucky enough to have a solid group of powerful women to call on immediately. They showed up with food, toilet paper, a carton of cigarettes and a bunch of other supplies that I don’t remember — but I do remember that they showed up. These are the people who I had always thought would be choice candidates as cohorts during an apocalypse, and when my world was destroyed, I called them and they came. While they weren’t armed with guns or directing drones, they were my army. They took over, designated and delegated, made rules and regulated, and laid out the battle plans while I was in ruins.
Even if you are surrounded by family during this time, there must be people around who can function with a little less emotion and a bit more logic than your family can.
The loss you are feeling, you will soon find out, is not yours alone.
Your family and your loved one’s family, your shared friends, they are all feeling this loss too, even if you can’t see it, and they cannot be solely responsible for holding you steady in these first days. Call in the troops. They will come, and they will be grateful for having a role in your survival during these first days of loss.
Be true to your heart. But my heart is broken, you say. My heart is black and full of nothingness, and is only still beating within my chest because I cannot will it to stop. My heart is a wasteland, you say.
And I say to you, be true to that broken organ. It is the reason why this is so damned hard. As you start to make the the calls and come up with the plans… yes, I’m sorry to say you are going to have to make some plans… listen to your heart.
“Look at every path closely and deliberately, then ask this crucial question: Does this path have a heart? If it does, then the path is good. If it doesn’t, it is of no use.” ~ Carlos Castaneda
Let your heart guide you as you reach out to those who also loved the one you lost, to let them know what has happened. You don’t need to be the person to tell everyone. Your heart will tell you who needs to hear it directly from you, if you listen. There are so many words we utter in a lifetime, and these are the ones that are remembered for how they are delivered and by whom. Take your time and let your love guide you as you begin to share this loss with the world.
Your heart was intertwined with the one you lost, and the intimacy you shared was yours alone, but though you shared much of your life together, your loved one was not only loved by you. This is where things can get start to get really tricky, if you don’t allow your full, loving, broken and torn to shreds heart to guide you.
You see, arrangements must be made now. Arrangements to take care of the body, to choose to hold or forego a service, the plans to publish or omit an obituary. Who, what, when, where, how?
You know the awful Why, so please trust your heart in this time of confusion and…
Take your time. All of it is much too much, I know. It is so much to deal with, and it is all moving so fast. Even if you knew this was coming, time becomes a formidable enemy now, even as you beg it to be your ally. Do not rush yourself or allow yourself to be rushed. Take the time to work with others, but know that ultimately these first horrible days are just a tiny portion of what you are going to experience from here on out.
Take the time to listen to others, and if you know what your love would have wanted, take the time to tell others what you need and want. You know the inner workings of that stilled heart, and as yours is still beating, take it one beat at a time. Let a patient love guide your efforts and arrangements, and when you need to take a break, do it.
Take time to reflect on the knowledge that the other broken hearts will be healed and many cracks sealed up with the honest outpouring of love in this time. Nothing is healed instantly, and there is little you can do in the first few days that can’t wait a few hours. Some of it can wait much longer.
Take notes. Now this is typically the kind of advice that I balk at even writing out, but it is also so exorbitantly important that I have to include it. There is so much to do, so many legal aspects and mundane tasks to complete that surround the first days of the loss of life, that it can be overwhelming and easily spiral out of control. With a bit of organization, and I consider torn-up shreds of tear-soaked paper towels with black marker scrawls wadded up in your pocket as organization in this case, you can attempt to avoid making the kinds of mistakes that may haunt you. Trust me. I’ve been there.
Hopefully, one of your soldiers has grabbed a notebook, and has started jotting down details that you can’t be expected to remember. The scene goes a little like this, if I recall correctly:
Soldier: Have you remembered to eat?
Me: (blank stare that means, “Eat? What is this ‘eat’ thing?”)
Soldier: I didn’t think so…
In the first days of loss, nothing computes. So how on earth could you be expected to remember what the florist’s number is or where to send the Thank You card to the officiant if you can’t even remember what food is or what you are supposed to do with it?
Me: (blank stare that means, “Wait, what? Thank you cards? Offici-what?”)
Once I realized there were things I needed to remember, like the number for the funeral parlor, the four newspapers, the preacher, the ladies supplying food, the reception hall… once I realized that I was suddenly organizing something much more involved and important than a wedding or a graduation, events we plan months, even years ahead of time, I started jotting things down in a little journal.
It turned into full-blown journaling, in a matter of days, and though that journal has since been destroyed, I still know what I wrote in it. I have two journals, from times like this. One held the details of my love’s demise and documented the dark days that followed. It also held my little life together for a few weeks one May, and offered a piece of sanity that I could carry in my hands, when everything else seemed to be abiding only by the laws of entropy.
Laughing is allowed, especially at things that aren’t even a bit funny. The above situation struck me as funny, even as it occurred. I found myself laughing at the weirdest moments in the days after I lost my soul mate. I wasn’t sure if it was stress, sleep deprivation or psychosis, but I decided early on I was fine with it.
If you can find something, anything, that strikes you as funny in these first days of loss, laugh at it!
You are entering a time of profound sorrow. There is just no easy way to say it, and there is no way around it but through it. So it is of supreme importance that you allow yourself to laugh when you are amused. Laugh when you can, every time you can!
Funny enough, this point is so important, that the Universe made sure to drive it home as I am writing this piece. I took a break to go grab the mail just now, and wouldn’t you know it — over five years later, in a house my husband never occupied, in a state he never lived in, a piece of mail came for him today.
Plasma Cam magazine, proclaiming Make Money in Metal Art, was just delivered to a dead man, five years late. A gentle reminder that in the midst of grief, amusing things still happen. So, I chuckle to myself and think back to our plans for creating our fortune with his forge and my imagination. We had so many plans…
It is true, you are going to be sad for a long time. You are going to wail, your throat closing off and the air suddenly stolen from your chest as you gasp, and you are going to grasp for just one more moment with your loved one, but you’re not going to get it.
Things really are going to be hard. And things really are going to change. And things really are going to get easier, even though it doesn’t feel like they ever will, and they may not for a long long time. That is the starkly harsh reality you now live in, so if you get the chance… laugh.
Laugh early on and eagerly.
You’re still alive, whether you like it or not, and laughter is allowed!
Try to remember the living. Since you are still alive, even though it may not feel like it, it may behoove you to try and remember those other folks who are still alive as well. I’m not saying you will, but I hope you try. This is much easier said than done, of course, especially in the first days.
I was nursing a four-month-old baby when I became a widow, and it was so hard to remember the living, that my family had to use the little bit of banked milk I had in the freezer for the first days. Then they moved on to introducing solid foods, because I could not be made to feed my child. I don’t know how many days this lasted, a couple, a few, who knows… but it happened.
I forgot about my children almost immediately, so taken was I with my own grief and disbelief. By the time of the funeral, I was back to nursing and holding my children close, but there was a time when I saw only my own grief.
“Self-importance is our greatest enemy.” ~ Carlos Castaneda
It is extraordinarily hard to think of others while in the midst of the most severe pain of a lifetime, but I think it is essential to eventually making it through the first days. If I hadn’t finally been able to remember the living, I would have joined my husband, as that was the only place I wanted to be. You see, that is how absolutely heart-rending, gut-wrenching, reality-changing it can be to lose a partner.
I could see nothing but my loss. But bit by bit, through the haze of the first hours and into the second, third and fourth days, I knew I had to at least try to think of those of us left alive, myself included.
When my husband died, I was fully aware that he wouldn’t give two shits if we had a funeral or not. He wouldn’t have been dishonored in any way if I had left it out of the papers, quietly cared for his remains and went about my way without a thought for anyone else. He would have been pleased, in some respects, as he was a very private man in that respect.
As I was privy to the intimate details about his own spirituality, beliefs and concerns regarding death, I knew that I was not acting on his behalf when it came to the arrangements. I was acting on behalf of the living.
We had spoken at length on many occasions about what we believed, wished and dreamed of when it came to death, but I knew I couldn’t give him what he considered the ideal arrangements. Frankly, it’s illegal to go dump a body under a tree in the forest and let it rot. Our society doesn’t approve of that type of funeral for some reason, so I knew right away that I wasn’t going to be fulfilling his dying wishes.
I also knew right away, that because of the way he died, there would be concerns for his everlasting soul from those who would want to know that he was ascending to heaven by the power of his own alabaster wings. So I followed my heart and thought of the living and how I could offer them the peace that neither I nor my spouse were at all concerned with.
I arranged, with the help of those nearest him, a service that would both honor his true self and bring closure to those who needed it. You see, now that you have lost the love of your life, it is up to you to allow those who did not know or love your partner like you do, to also heal their own hearts.
Beautifully enough, much peace and comfort can be found in a service that brings others closure, whatever the hell that foreign concept is, even when you know it is sure to open a Pandora’s box for yourself. At some point, try to think of others as you move through these first days. Though it may feel like the loss belongs only to you, be sure to turn your thoughts to others, even if only to selfishly lessen your own entrenchment in pain for a few moments.
Compassion is essential. While I’d like to say that having compassion for others is profoundly healing, and that you can alleviate much of your initial pain by going out to serve at a soup kitchen or by donating all of your loved one’s possessions to a homeless shelter… it is not enough.
It is not enough to be compassionate to others when you have just lost the love of your life. It is helpful, but that is not what this piece of advice is really about.
What I want you to know is that you must, you absolutely must, find compassion for yourself. Do it now. Whether you have lost your mate, or if you are reading this to put on mental file for later, take the time right now to feel compassionate toward yourself.
Hold yourself in your own thoughts the way you would a motherless child, or a shivering puppy just let in from the cold and depending upon you for warmth and security. Focus your thoughts on yourself with the same feelings you would if you were your own best friend, and you had suddenly lost the love of your life. How would you feel for that friend? Develop those feelings for yourself. That is the beginning of compassion, and you’re going to need it, my dear.
There is a difference between feeling sorry for yourself and feeling compassionate toward yourself. And in the first days, the first weeks, the first years, developing self-compassion is the single most important piece of advice I have to offer. It dictates how you treat yourself as you grieve.
Hold yourself just as gently as your lover would, if they were there to comfort you through this time. Love yourself as he would. Be gentle and caring to yourself, as she would. Be kind, speak with love, and tell yourself it’s going to be okay, just like your lover, father, mother, sister or brother would.
Imagine it is you who is gone, and treat yourself just as you would if you were comforting the one you just lost, if they had instead lost you.
Hold yourself close, and know that on the long, often solitary road ahead, it is imperative to learn to love yourself much more than you have ever loved yourself before.
Finally, I advise you to pay attention. Be aware and alert to the sounds, sights and smells that subtly reach you in these first days, and also in the weeks to come.
The birds, the songs, the scents. The strange messages.
The way the inside jokes arise and things that only you and your loved one knew about seem to pop up into reality. Those seemingly illogical and unbelievable pieces of magic that come your way while you are open to the crack between worlds are important. Our reality is what we perceive it to be, and your reality truly is created by your perceptions, especially in these first days and weeks.
Sit at dawn and at dusk, when the gap is opening, and be mindful. In all of this mess, there is magic to be had.
“At dusk, there is no wind. At this time of day, there is only power.” ~ Carlos Castaneda
I do believe that we are left with universal memory that transcends logic.
I also believe that we are shown the energies of our loved ones, as they reconfigure into new forms.
And I believe that if you pay attention, you will see that, though the body has gone, you are not alone.
“A warrior considers the world we live in to be a great mystery, and he knows that the mystery is there to be revealed to those who deliberately look for it.” ~ Carlos Castaneda