There’s this really popular cliche people like to tell the bereaved when they’re suffering and mired in grief. You’re probably familiar with it. You may have even uttered these words: “Time heals all wounds.” Yeah…it’s not the greatest thing to say when someone you love is hurting. And if your child is grieving, these words may more than just miss the mark. They may even completely confound them since the concept of time is something your child may still be learning and trying to grasp.
A well-meaning friend spoke these very words, while embracing me at my sister’s funeral. I remember having to take a very intentional deep breath when she said this. My shoulders dropped. My eyes welled with tears. My head swelled with this new and incomprehensible notion of a vast ocean of time I’d now have to navigate alone. What was time without my sister? How could it have meaning now? Would the passage of time really stop this incessant and profound spiritual and emotional pain I was in? And if you’ve ever lost someone who was a part of you then you probably know that the passage of time isn’t quite what heals. So, here are are a few things I’ve learned along this journey that may resonate:
The love we share with that person becomes part of the fabric of who we are. Over time, we let go of needing their physical presence to feel connected to them. Their very essence becomes etched inside of us and that love is never lost.
We never “get over”the loss. We learn to live with it and to incorporate into our new existence, which can take a very long time to do. In my case, because my twin took her life, it took maybe even more time to fully grasp an everyday life without talking to her, hugging her, celebrating our birthday together and the list goes on.
Take all the time you need. Grief can become “pathological” according to the DSM after a certain period of time. They call this “complex” grief. And, um, yeah. Grief is complex as a @#$%. And, frankly, there’s no time limit on how long you’ll be in shock, denial, angry, deeply sad, anxious and overwhelmed. And sadly, there’s no fast forward button either. Trust me, I looked! But, the good news is eventually, the pain lessens.
It’s ok to forget. This is a big one so bear with me. When we lose someone we love so deeply we try very hard to remember everything about them: their laugh, their smell, the way their brow furrows when they’re concentrating, how their hand feels when you hold it, what their voice sounds like. We may agonize over it because holding onto every thing about their physical being makes us feel like they aren’t gone from our lives. We may also feel like forgetting anything about them makes their life less consequential, less important. And maybe it also feels like if we hold onto everything about them, our love for them remains. I’m not ashamed to admit that for the first 6 months after my twin died I called her voicemail multiple times a day to hear her voice and also slept with one of her favorite t-shirts. It was part of my journey and maybe it’s part of yours too.
Live for yourself. Sometimes when a loved one dies we feel racked with guilt. In my case, my sister suffered with soul-crushing depression and anxiety and what I now know was Complex PTSD. I lived in “on-call” mode for decades always worried she would one day successfully take her life and I wouldn’t pick up the phone when she needed me the most. And guess, what? No matter how much I tried to save her, she ended up suiciding anyway. And for a very long time I felt unable to forgive myself. I didn’t feel worthy of joy and of being successful. If my sister couldn’t be here and I couldn’t save her, then I didn’t deserve to be fully alive either. And so, here’s what I want you to know if you’re facing that guilt. It’s ok to let joy in, to love, to laugh, and to be fully alive. And it’s ok too, if it takes you time to let the good stuff in. Ultimately, the whole “your loved one wouldn't want you to be unhappy” line of thinking just doesn’t work. The only person who can give you permission to be happy and to live a full life after your loved one dies is YOU.
So, for those needing to hear this today: be gentle with your broken heart and know that there’s no right way to grieve. There’s only self-kindness, self-compassion and chocolate cake. But don’t go crazy with the cake. Small bites. :)