Nine things I’ve learned about grief

I’m still sliding down the slope. Some days I don’t even try to get a handhold of something, anything, with which to pull myself back up and into my life.

I started this blog with the intention of writing more, and regularly. My last post was over a week ago. That’s not very regular. Part of the problem is that I wanted this blog to chronicle mid-life—what’s important to me at this stage in life, what I enjoy doing, what challenges I face. And I pledged to write whatever was on my mind in the morning when I awoke. Many days now, and still, my thoughts are filled with my deceased parents in the morning, and I just don’t want to keep burdening you with that.

But the loss of parents is a part of many individuals’ mid-life, so I am going to write about where I stand today.

We visited our grandchildren in St. Louis twice this month. The first week from the 12th to the 20th, we went to celebrate their birthdays. The second week from the 29th to November 3, to help out with the children while our daughter-in-laws’ mother had emergency surgery and was in ICU with an initial uncertain diagnosis. She is doing fine now.

But what I’ve noticed with out of town trips this year is that I am fine, and even happy, while I am away, but when I return the grief hits me like a lead blanket. It pulls me down.

One day, in the week between the two trips, I felt like I had burst through the gray cloud of grief that hovers above me, never too far away. I took  that as a good sign.

I am afraid of heading into the next three months, with the holidays and the anniversaries of events. The last dinner we had with my parents was last year at Thanksgiving. Mom was diagnosed with cancer on December 2. Dad went to the ER on December 4. We moved Dad to the nursing home and later, Mom to the assisted living apartment. Mom went to the hospital on Christmas day. Mom died on January 12th. We buried Mom and celebrated Dad’s 80th birthday on January 18th. Dad died on the 26th. So many significant dates in the next few months.

Does the day of the year carry a marker in our brains that makes anniversaries happy or difficult? Or is it that our planet is spinning back through a place in the universe where events occurred and energies still linger? That’s a little cosmic for me, I know. But the fact that we have circled the sun and returned to this space has not escaped me.

I’ll leave you with nine things I’ve learned about grief so far:

1. Initially, grief is violent, painful, and inescapable, hitting you like a tsunami. All you can do is cling to a rooted support hoping to surface when the waters pass.

2. Grief leaves a silence and emptiness behind after the initial wave passes through, giving you time to look around at the destruction but not the energy to deal with it.

3. Grief fills up your senses and leaves a taste in your mouth.

4. Grief is demanding of your attention, coming in waves.

5. Grief surprises you when you least expect it and causes spontaneous tears at a restaurant or an anxiety attack while visiting a hospital.

6. Grief has far-reaching effects making you view your mortality, question your purpose, and fear the next time it strikes in perhaps a bigger way.

7. Grief may be permanent. It changes your heart and leaves a hole in your life that you learn to live around.

8. I think, with time, grief can help you focus on what’s important here and now.

9. Grief is your friend. It never allows you to forget those you’ve loved and lost.

40 thoughts on “Nine things I’ve learned about grief”

  1. Christine, I think you are working through the grief exactly as you should and I can imagine that the time spent away with grand babies and children is something that brings you much relief from the pressing grief that you experience when you are “home”. I loved your list—especially the last one—grief can be a friend because it helps you remember those loved ones. Today I am meeting a friend for lunch who just reached the 1 year anniversary mark of the death of her 26 year old son. It has been quite a year for her also. Praying I can be of some support and am going to share your post with her. Hugs.

    1. Thanks for your encouragement and support, Beth Ann. I hope you had a good lunch with your friend. I can’t imagine how difficult it must be to lose a child. You’re a good friend to her. Thanks for tweeting the link.

  2. #7 is certainly true for me despite what those dopey grief counselors propose as comfort. #9 another one of life’s paradoxes but integrating it with our thoughts shows a very advanced level of understanding and acceptance. Mother passed Sept of last year. Remarkable point: she was born Jan 26, 1924. Fortunately it was a quick 5 weeks from diagnosis to death but those 5 weeks play over and over in my mind every day. It is not grief but a haunting that stays with me daily and father feels her presence in dreams every night. In life she was very cold, aloof and austere but expressed her love repeatedly in those closing days. In 1983 my daughter was born 6 hours after my mother’s mother passed. Dad will be 90 the 29th and no particular identifiable illness except age. You mentioned grandchildren-yes that puts me in a special place. Last weekend was science project time with one granddaughter and culmination of 5 weekends of our joint effort. Keeps me alive in the now. I think it is OK to hit these lows but we can’t let it immobilize us. That diminishes our ability to be alive and available for those around us and although we feel cheated by death of parents we cannot cheat our loved ones out of the fullness of our own presence even as derailed as we may feel.

    1. Your wisdom is one of the things I like most about you, Carl. Sometimes someone has to walk the same path to really understand, and your experience with your mother largely mirrors mine. Mom only lived 6 weeks after her diagnosis. And as you say, it was a quick six weeks of supporting her, moving her, wrapping my arms around her and lifting her from the bed to the bedside commode. Desperate and insistent words of love that were largely absent before. So many details that haunt (what a great word) me too.

      The advice in the last lines inspires me. Thank you for that. Thinking of you.

  3. Beautiful Christine! Those who grieve know this to be true. I would add a 10th for me personally, Jesus brings relief to our grief! Isaiah 40

  4. Christine, I have been thinking of you these last few weeks. With the recent passing of my mom and your parents and wondered how difficult the upcoming holiday season would be. Your “random thoughts” were timely and so right on with the way I’ve been feeling. I will have you and your family in my thoughts and prayers during this holiday season and hope that wonderful memories will ease the pain of our parents passing. All the best, Susan

    1. It’s so good to hear from you Susan. I don’t know how difficult the holidays will be. I’m hoping that since I’m fearful of them, they may pass easily. It’s kind of bad that illnesses and deaths came right on top of the holiday season. They will forever be entwined in my mind.

      It’s good to know I’m not alone in my feelings, although I don’t wish them on you. I think it is a natural progression, and my attitude has always been that it’s best to walk with my eyes wide open and deal with the pain and loss now. Although bad days still knock me for a loop, overall it has all gotten easier. I imagine it will continue to do so—if we can just make it through Christmas.

      Thinking of you too. Take care of yourself.

  5. I think those first year anniversaries are the toughest to get through. So much happened in your life in such a few weeks. It really will take a long time to be back to normal. But it will never be the normal it was. Be gentle with yourself, dear one and on days when even that seems impossible, hang on to all you can of memories and love. On another maybe inappropriate note, perhaps your home could use some energy clearing – a smudging. It’s a thought that came to me as I was typing this. I will hold you in my heart and prayers.

    1. Thanks, Joss. I think you’re right about the first year. Your wisdom and understanding are a comfort, as always. Thanks for your prayers. I’m enjoying watching you in Europe.

  6. Christine,
    you know I have shared your grief, first of my dad, then both of your wonderful parents, You have insightful thoughts about grief, and I know you have been deeply affected by this, as you should. I don’t think, however, that grief has to be permanent. I think it is meant to make us stop for a while, to review the life that was lost, to reevaluate our own lives, to soothe our wounds. But I think it needs to transform into something else eventually so that we can move on, as we must. Maybe it transforms into appreciation for the life lived, or maybe into awe for the beauty of all that life gifts to us, or maybe for some people it is just forgetfulness so they can move forward in life.

    1. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment, Karen. You know I value your opinion. I don’t know whether the grief is permanent, or not. Probably not. I don’t feel grief about Annie anymore, and haven’t for quite a while. But the changes grief makes in us are permanent. Our lives are changed forever. Perhaps that is what I should have said.

  7. When we hang on to negative emotions (hurt, frustration, anger, sadness, or grief), we are getting in the way of the natural healing process. Instead of letting time work its magic, we tend to aggravate the impact of the initial injury by letting it eclipse everything else in our lives.

    Whenever we choose to hang on to the past, rather than letting it go, we are robbing ourselves of the joy, peace, and happiness we could be feeling right here, right now. People get stuck for days, weeks, months, and even years, watching the same stale re-runs over and over, instead of choosing to move forward.

    I expect that’s why you are HAPPY when you visit your kids and your grandkids ~ because you let the grief recede. You don’t think about water over the bridge. You exist in the NOW where happiness resides.

    You can do the same at home.

    Grief is like a blanket ~ you can kick it off any time you’re tired of having it as a constant companion. That’s not to say you won’t have tearful moments, but you will let the tears drift away faster each time. And you’ll stop chasing after them.

    I did NOT mark the anniversary of dad’s death this year ~ or the date of his memorial service ~ of the date we sold our childhood home ~ or any other “negative” dates from the past 2 years. Instead I focus on celebrating the JOY that I can find right HERE and right NOW.

    Hope you will soon be able to say the same.

    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Nancy. I have found that the tearful moments are fewer and farther between, and typically are quite brief. I don’t believe I am chasing after them, but I also am not ignoring them.

      I marked the anniversary of Mom and Dad’s deaths every month at first, and now don’t think about it, although I suspect I will remember on the annual anniversary, at least for a while.

      It’s good to hear from someone who has been through a lot recently, especially someone like you with your indomitable spirit. I’m glad you’re doing well.

      1. So much of life follows from the THOUGHTS we think.
        If we change the thoughts, the emotions we’re feeling change too.

        When you’re with your kids and grandkids, your thoughts are conducive to happiness, so you feel happy.

        Keep thinking those thoughts!

  8. I lost my birth father when I was 28. He was murdered so I didn’t have much time to even fathom losing him. The grief I had at age 28 was so much more intense. I am now 55 & am dealing with my aging mother & stepfather. I find myself thinking about the grief I will have when their time comes. With age comes acceptance & understanding. At 28 I thought I might die myself from grief. It took at least a year for me to even feel as if I wouldn’t. Of course court trials & reminders of the events made it only worse. November 3rd would have been my father’s 78th birthday & I found myself sitting around that day wondering what he would have looked like. I am now older than my Dad was when he died. I try imagining him as my father & all I could do was imagine myself older than him. I remind myself that everyone has lost someone…everyone feels grief…So we are all in this together. I also remind myself that the ones we have lost are happy, healthy & eternally safe. It is ourselves who grieve & suffer. I will gladly accept that in exchange for their eternal happiness. I just carry on & pray a lot. I’m praying for you to Christine.

    1. Oh Cindy, what a tragic thing to happen. I imagine losing your father that way at the age you were carried with it a lot more than simple grief and probably shifted your whole sense of safety and stability. I believe everything you say about losing your father so young.

      Try not to worry about the future with your parents, but cherish the time you have now.

      I also remind myself that I am not alone in my grief. We all have loss and will likely have more. We are in this together. That realization is one of the best things that came out of my whole experience this year. Thank you for your prayers.

  9. I have certainly been learning a lot from grief the last few months.

    You had two losses one right after the other. And that first year, everything about it is hard.

    I find myself dreaming of my mother, oblivious to the fact that she’s gone in the dream, and when I wake up, that’s when it hits me again. That’s when it hurts the most these days.

    1. I know you have, William. I’ve had waking moments of flipping back into thinking, “I need to call Mom to tell her about this. . .” And then I remember. That happened a lot more at first and I can’t remember doing that at all recently. I think with time the reality sinks in. It’s still early for you.

      I’m sorry for your loss. But like Cindy mentioned above, we all have losses and are in this together. As I told her, that realization has been a bright lining to this cloud.

  10. Christine, what you have shared here is very powerful indeed. The nine things about grief are very poignant and I relate mostly to number 9.

    I feel like I’ve lived with grief for most of my life but not necessarily because of death. The grief I felt when I lost my young, first husband to cancer when he was 21 I thought would paralyse me but I was young myself, 21, and although it profoundly affected me and the choices I went on to make, I was able to find a way to move on and heal although I never forgot him. In fact, I’m writing his story even now as you know!

    However, the kind of grief that I live with is the type that struck me when my mum left my dad and my dad became an alcoholic and I never lived with my dad again. The grief when my 22 year marriage ended and the family life I so hoped and prayed for came crashing down.

    Yet, I have not, to this day, lost either of my parents. I still have my dad, 81, despite his alcoholism (his numerous prison stays have kept him alive) and my mum at 78. I am not ready to lose either of them and I can’t even imagine what you went through and what you are facing now with these many significant dates coming up.

    My husband lost his mother very quickly last year, taken ill and one week later died in hospital at the age of 87. She had looked after his younger brother who had Down’s Syndrome all his life. He died very suddenlty two months after their mother died at the age of 50. My husband lost his father several years ago. He said he is now an orphan. My mother felt the same when her mother, my grandmother died at the age of 94.

    ‘Grief is your friend – it never allows you to forget those you’ve loved and lost’. I can’t offer you anything other than my prayers as you face the coming weeks and months…

    1. Thanks for pointing out some of the different kinds of grief we may experience in our lives. I’m sorry you had to go through so much, especially in regards to your marriages. Life is full of ups and downs, isn’t it. Something has to balance out the sadness, and perhaps we feel to fully experience the joy we have when it happens. I also think an attitude of gratitude is crucial.

      Thank you for your prayers.

      1. Ahh, thank you Christine, but as you say, life is up and down and we all have our various struggles.

        You are so right about being able to balance out the sadness and in that perhaps we can truly be thankful for each new day and also when we experience joy, to take it by the horns and grab every last drop out of it.

        My prayer is that God’s peace will flood your heart and soul.

  11. That’s such a pretty photo showing the bench with the petals strewn around.
    When you started to write your blog, you had no idea what would transpire during your middle years. Sometimes those thoughts need time to be “digested” before they will spill out on the page. I like how the nine things you’ve learned about grief show a progression of healing. What started out as a tsunami ended up being your friend. My dear, I’d say that’s progress!
    I agree with Nancy’s comment about not making a point of marking the anniversaries. You will be keenly aware the first year, but as time passes, it will drift away–if you let it. Hugs.

    1. That’s a photo I took outside my parents’ home a few years ago in the spring. Dad loved to sit on that bench under the tulip tree and watch the world go by.

      I know you are wise when you say thoughts need time to be “digested.” I wrote about my sister Annie the first year after she died, but I am not able to fully process everything that is going on in my mind about my parents. There was just too much stuff that happened, with too many poignant details, with a very large impact. But I will have to sift and sort, understand and organize, before I can put it all away. That’s just how my mind works.

      I think Carl said it well when he said ” It is not grief but a haunting that stays with me daily. . .” Although I can say I don’t feel “haunted” by it every day, the experience I have could be described that way.

      I am confident I will eventually make peace with it all. I am just trying to acknowledge the extent of the loss, allow myself time and not rush myself.

  12. Hi Christine .. you’ve had so much going on and all that emotion was evolving too – it can catch us at times .. and as the others have said it all takes its time .. and that is your time … your space to grow through the grief …

    Brilliantly written post – thank goodness for grandchildren, but I’m glad your DIL’s mother is ok .. I feel for you with the anniversaries as they are all at this sort of time –

    With big hugs – Hilary

    1. Thanks for stopping by Hilary. I’ve been stuck in a bench in the blogging world but hope to start strolling around again soon. Looking forward to catching up with you.

  13. It is the painful things that connect…what you are experiencing is familiar to many of us. You described it beautifully. I hope you can give yourself permission to be sad during the holidays if you need to.

    1. You’re right about the connection through painful experiences. I do really feel it. And thanks for reminding me to allow myself to feel whatever it is I need to feel during this time of years. Already I’m experiencing more sadness and loss than I had been because of the planning and thoughts about the upcoming celebrations.

  14. The one thing about gried is that there is no time frame and no guidelines or rules. Just take each day as it comes. You are sharing a journey that many find difficult to do. Take care.

    1. Thank you Renee. I’m very far behind, as you can see by how tardy my response is. I’ve had a rough time this year staying on any kind of track.

      The support and kind words from readers like your have truly given me comfort.

  15. Christine, I stumbled on your blog when WordPress made several suggestions of related articles to link to. I read yours and while our circumstances are so very very different, I don’t think you could have put it any more perfectly with your list of nine things about grief. It’s a challenging road, but in the end, I to am realizing the reality that grief is our friend because of what it can never let us forget – blessings.
    Good bless!


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