Letter to the Newly-Bereaved Me: What I Wish I Had Known

I’ve been thinking of you lately. Thinking how your world split in half, and how all of your dreams and plans for the future suddenly disappeared, and how you aren’t even sure that you can keep breathing in and out for one more day.

And I want you to know something.

You made it.

It’s been over a year since he died.

That’s not exactly an accomplishment you ever wanted to claim.

In fact, I remember when you couldn’t say the words out loud to the teller at the bank without bursting into tears. I remember when you couldn’t even walk through the aisles at the grocery store that reminded you of him, and how you had no idea how you were supposed to build an entirely new life when you couldn’t even manage simple daily tasks.

That’s why I thought you should know.

I remember when you felt like you were dying too. And the truth is, you are right. Part of you did die with him.

But another part of you kept living. Is still living.

Living.

Day by day.  Breath by breath.

Here is the advice that I wish I had been there to share with you.

The Choice

There will be a moment when you have to choose life. When the grief is so overpowering that you want to give up yourself, and you realize that without a deep determination on your part not just your heart, but your body will shut itself down too.

And on that day, you will search inside and find one small, near-buried spark, and decide to feed it.

And there will be many, many more days when you have to recommit.

In the beginning, your task is survival.

Grief is so profoundly physical. In order to chose life, you have to take care of your body, especially when you don’t feel like it.

Eat, even though food tastes like cardboard and healthy choices seem irrelevant. Eat because chronic weight loss scares your loved ones who have already suffered so much, and because you have chosen life, and nourishment is part of the package.

There will be a night when you really think about how much weight you have lost, and you know that if he were here, he would get in the car and go buy you a hamburger. So, you go through the drive-thru at his favorite fast food restaurant at 11pm, and then sit in the driveway and sob as you eat.

And there will come another day, more than a year after your last shopping trip for him, that you finally feel capable of buying and preparing vegetables again after so many months of choking down processed foods.

It will take longer still for you to have a normal appetite.

Embrace the milestones as they come. This is your journey. No one else can set the timetable.

Let yourself feel what it is to be grounded in this world. Remind yourself that when he was alive you felt happy hiking, dancing, and stretching out in a hot bath, even if he wasn’t next to you at that exact moment. Give yourself the same moments of pleasure now. You need them in order to withstand the waves of grief that will cycle back.

Move your body and be present for the smooth exchanges of muscles and joints. Feel what it is to sweat and to stretch and to breathe deeply. Feel yourself alive.

Tune into your five senses and the messages they bring you. Notice the feeling of sunshine on your face, the texture of a blanket, and the smell of an orange.

Numbness starts as an escape from pain, but it brings its own flavor of hurt: an aching emptiness that wears away your will to live. You will catch glimpses of joy when you live in the moment.

Choose life with a level on intention you have not experienced before. Relentlessly do those things that breathe life into that tiny spark you found inside yourself.

Go to the ocean. Go to the mountains. Let nature speak to you the things that words can’t say.

Listen to music. And sing yourself, even though you aren’t good at it and all your favorite songs make you cry.

Create beauty: decorate a room, plant flowers, coordinate a new outfit. In a world that feels devoid of loveliness, choose to see grace.

Embrace the challenges you face: the new skills to master and things to learn will be exhausting and terrifying and deeply sad. They will also be empowering, and they will connect you to life in a way that is raw and real.

This is a year to live fiercely. Choose life.

When You Feel Too Broken to Go On

I know that you think things will never be normal again, that you are too broken to ever be the same. And you’re right.

You will never be the same person again.

People sometimes ask if things are getting back to normal, and you stare at them, confused. Even on the days when you do the same things you used to do, you will never, ever be the same. There is no getting back to normal.

How could there be, when you are no longer the same?

The truth is, you are better in many ways: Softer, kinder, less fearful, more loving. You have been brave and strong, even, and especially, on those days when it took all your bravery and strength just to keep breathing.

How could you not be changed?

You have lived through the impossible. And every day that you continued forward, even though you felt too broken to try, you built something inside yourself.

I know you don’t want to hear about personal growth. You would have never traded his life for all the personal development in the world. The idea is infuriating.

Of course not. But I am proud of you. This experience could not have left you unchanged. It was too big. You chose to let it change you for good, and that is a beautiful tribute to your loved one.

It’s okay to accept the opportunities for growth that emerge, even though they aren’t worth the loss that brought them to you.

It’s also okay that some days you aren’t your best self. You won’t always be kind, thoughtful, articulate or wise. Sometimes you won’t even manage rational.

Grief is intensely personal work. Some days it will grab you by the neck and not let go, until the only thing you can do is struggle to breathe, and remind yourself that you have chosen to survive.

There will be times that you overlook things you need to do for people who matter to you, and other days when you remember, but you just can’t love them in the way that you want to. There will be days when the sadness you are carrying comes out as ugly anger.

It’s okay. Those aren’t the days that define you.

This brokenness that you feel doesn’t define you either. It is a beginning, a challenge. This empty space is an invitation to choose what will fill you now, and what will overflow through all your cracks and jagged spaces.

I’ll give you a hint: chose love.

It will be awkward at first, trying to love with a heart too damaged to feel in the usual ways. But intention is powerful. When you decide to love, somehow all the shortcomings of the situation and your own exhausted reserves fade in significance.

Sometimes love means wrapping yourself in your own arms and giving yourself the space and the acceptance to grieve.

Sometimes love means surrounding yourself with children and animals whose joyful need for you pulls you out of your head and into the moment.

Sometimes love means being present for the grief and pain of others.

Love for yourself, love for others. It’s the same in the end. It’s choosing to open to your own heart.

More than a year later, I am still broken. I don’t expect that some of those pieces will ever be repaired, nor would I want them to be. But the jagged edges are softer. Now it’s the brokenness that drives me to volunteer for hospice, to write about grief and healing for people I have never met, and to hold space for my own family as they continue to heal.

It’s not the brokenness that matters. It’s what you do with it.

When You Think It Isn’t Possible for You to Be Happy Again

In the beginning, it’s a dance between overwhelming sadness and numbness.

The numbness is a blessing. It lets you function at times that you would not be able to otherwise.

But sadness is okay too. Even this overwhelming, bring-you-to-your knees kind of sadness. Loss, unexpressed and buried, doesn’t heal. It festers into anger or guilt on the surface and leaves you with aching emptiness inside.

Sadness experienced washes those layers of complication away. There is still pain, but not suffering. Without the internal resistance it becomes possible to sit with pain, and to learn from it.

So, let yourself feel. Let the emotion flow. And here’s the secret. When you allow the sadness, you also make space for happiness.

I know that talk about happiness seems out of place in the eerie devastation of new loss. But there will be moments when this dance between pain and numbness gives way to split seconds of happiness. Lean into those. As you let yourself feel both sadness and happiness, the windows of happiness will lengthen. The sadness will become softer around the edges, and easier to carry.

Eventually you will discover not that the sadness disappears, but that your heart has been stretched to hold both at once. There will be a richness and depth to your emotional life, and to the love that you still hold for your person.

There are so many ways to remember him. Tears are one. But so is laughter.

I realize that not everything I’m saying makes sense today. How could it? There is a life-changing year ahead that you have not walked yet. But here’s the biggest thing I want you to remember:

Keep walking, even when you can only see far enough ahead to take one single step at a time. Just keep walking.

Even though nothing about this feels predictable, safe, or easy. Even though the hurt is so big that you can’t fathom continuing to carry it. Even on the days when you question everything.

There are good things ahead, and I promise you will get there.

 

Love,

Angie

6 thoughts on “Letter to the Newly-Bereaved Me: What I Wish I Had Known”

  1. Had a very similar loss at about the same time as you. I have found that there is a huge gap between what you know, and how you experience it.

  2. Thank you for this. I am at the same point in my life having lost my husband one year ago. What you say is true. Sending strength to you, and all the others experiencing this profound progression in their lives.

  3. Thank you. Trying to prepare my kids for the inevitable. I think your article will speak to them. I’ve put a paper copy along with letters I’ve written to them personally.

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