Anyone else have their heart on their sleeve? Or in their throat? Life has just gone crazy, with so much loss.
They’ve told you it’s good to grieve. That it’s healthy. And you’ve heard grieving is work.
But honestly, you aren’t sure what that means.
Is there more to grief than just riding a roller coaster of emotions?
The short answer is yes.
It takes digging, weeding, pruning, sweating, and ultimately, even planting and watering.
It isn’t easy. But it’s necessary. And doing that necessary work will help you live—and love—much more meaningfully.
So what do you say? Ready to work?
“Grief does not change you. It reveals you.”
― John Green, The Fault in Our Stars
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Grieving Is Not Just When Someone Dies
Death is hard. It doesn’t matter if it was sudden or expected, if they were 48 or 88,if you had lots of time with them at the end or almost none. It’s still hard.
Even Jesus wept at the graveside of his friend.
If you’ve recently lost your mother or father, I’m so sorry. I’ve been there. That grief definitely takes work to process.
But it’s not the only grief you need to work through:
- Maybe you’ve moved your spouse into an assisted living facility.
- You’ve sold the family house.
- You can’t see your parents because of COVID.
- You don’t have a good relationship with family — or at least the relationship you want.
- You see loved ones slowly slipping away from memory loss, needing a memory care facility. Or their physical strength is waning.
- You’ve moved them in with you, and you’re glad to care for them — but it also means the rest of your life has changed.
- Or you’re burned-out.
Any of these issues cause grief, not to mention job loss, changes in other relationships, or just all the bad news around the world.
It all takes processing.
So how do you do it?
“The darker the night, the brighter the stars,
The deeper the grief, the closer is God!”
― Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment
Grieving Is Not Just About Feelings
Grief definitely brings emotions — sadness, anger, fear, bitterness.
That, my friend, is the work: Figuring out the answer to that question — and what you’ve actually lost.
For that work, you don’t just need feelings.
You need facts.
Or at least how your brain views the facts.
Now, you could just process this in your mind, but I find that’s like just thinking about working my garden. Nothing really gets tilled.
So choose your favorite tool—a journal, loose-leaf, your laptop, or a friend’s ear — and physically list answers.
Grieving Is Figuring Out the Foundations
Change is hard, whether it’s permanent or temporary because it changes so much more about life.
That’s what you’re figuring out here.
1. The Present: What Is… What Isn’t…
You have a new normal. What life looks like now. And what it no longer is.
What is it?
If your mom passed away:
- “What is” is packing up her belongings in the assisted living facility. Mother’s Day alone. Doing life without her.
- “What isn’t” is the chance to call her on the phone and tell her about your day.
If your father has dementia and is now in a memory care facility,
- “What is?” He’s confused, maybe has fits of anger, maybe asks the same question a thousand times a day.
- “What isn’t?” His superman cape — The fact that you’ve always depended on his strength to help you.
If they’ve moved in with you,
- Days are filled with appointments. Food is cooked differently. All the furniture shifted around, so you can’t find anything. The kids are bunking together.
- You don’t have a moment to yourself.
If they moved out to an assisted living or memory care facility,
- You weigh finances. You need to schedule times to see them.
- Someone’s sick and you can’t visit them at all.
The new “is and isn’ts” take a lot of getting used to.
But sometimes they’re even heavier because of what life was like before.
2. The Past: What Was… What Wasn’t…
This is that past stuff that haunts you., either because it happened,or because it didn’t:
- What someone said or did when you were young that never got resolved.
- The empty bleachers at your games.
- What you yourself did. What you didn’t do.
- What you wish someone had done.
It’s also the happy stuff you’d give anything to have again.
- Family dinners, holiday cooking, special events, outings
- Hugs and hearing their praise
“Yesterdays” sit hard in grief, whether they’re good memories or bad.
- The latter, because you can’t fix them.
- The former, because they can’t happen again.
3. The Future: What May Never Be
This is the part that you don’t know yet, but you can imagine.
And from the signs of today, it’s shaking your hope for tomorrow:
- Maybe it’s your spouse that has dementia and is now in a memory care facility. And you wonder if he’ll remember you.
- He passed away, and your halls echo with silence.
- You’re realizing that dream you wanted from this world has slipped away.
- Or you’re stuck in rehab, and you can’t return home.
The road ahead looks deserted. Bumpy.
It’s easier just to sit on the side.
Or you can’t see ahead at all. Those is/isn’ts, was/wasn’ts, may never be’s still block your view.
Take heart. Now that you’ve worked through all the things you’ve lost, you can wade through the emotions they cause.
“We are healed of a suffering only by experiencing it to the full.” -Marcel Proust
Grieving Needs to Work Those Facts through “Stages”
Remember back to middle school health class when they taught you about the “stages” or feelings caused by grief? Google it, and you’ll see professionals actually vary the list. Sometimes there are five emotions, sometimes seven, ten…
Basically, grief is complex.
But here are the basic five:
- Guilt/ Bargaining
So how do you work through them? Rather than just coasting?
“There is no grief like the grief that does not speak.”
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
1. Look at one of those new normal “is/isn’ts” that we talked about before.
Maybe Grandma has dementia, she can’t take care of herself anymore, and you have to sell her farm and move her to a memory care facility or assisted living.
Meaning no more trips to see her horses. No more summer vacations with all the cousins. No more Thanksgivings in her barn. Everyone’s arguing about what to do with her china. And you just want to sit with her and tell her about your day.
But she keeps asking who you are.
- What do you do when you want to forget about it? (Taking a break with friends here and there is fine. Sometimes it’s even needed. But if you’re frequently looking for a place to bury your head in the sand, that’s a form of denial.)
- How does it make you angry, sad…? (No, sad doesn’t have to mean tears. But it might.)
- When do you find yourself thinking you’re responsible for the way things turned out? Maybe if you’d visited more…not turned her hair gray with your antics when you were little. (That’s guilt)
- What do you still try to do to correct it? (Yep, bargaining)
Check out how each of your thoughts fits into those grief “stages.” Then, speak truth to yourself. It’s not wrong to admit where you’ve made mistakes. As the Bible says, “If it’s possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Romans 12:18).
You can have compassion, support, love.
But remind yourself that you can’t control other people, make them act a certain way, or protect them from every illness — their mental illness, their memory loss, or their frailty.
It’s the kind of heartache you can feel in your bones.”
2. Acknowledge all the feelings.
The song is wrong. They aren’t “nothing more” than feelings.
As you see what new normal facts (i.e. those is/isn’ts,…) bring on the grief stages, accept that those are valid emotions.
- Anger is often considered a secondary emotion. One that pops up when you feel hurt or lonely.
- Sadness can make your stomach hurt. Maybe you can’t eat. Can’t sleep. You’re depressed. You may even feel like you can’t cry.
- C.S. Lewis, after his wife died, stated, “no one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” (A Grief Observed)
- And if you can cry, don’t apologize. Those tears are healing.
“To weep is to make less the depth of grief.”
(William Shakespeare, King Henry VI, Part 3)
3. Work towards acceptance—and, if necessary, forgiveness.
There’s no timeline here.
- Some will get there quickly
- Some not so much.
But if you find yourself stuck in one emotion, reach out for help. Grab that friend’s ear again. Or a pastor or licensed professional.
You don’t have to work through this alone.
“No matter how long it’s been, there are times when it suddenly becomes harder to breathe.” (Anonymous)
Those “Stages” of Grief Aren’t Really Stages
(Notice how I always put the word in quotation marks?)
Unfortunately, “stages” implies steps. One after another. Linear. Something you travel from here to there, and you’re done.
- You might slip from one “stage” to another.
- You might skip “stages” altogether.
- You might go back and repeat them in a circle.
In fact, you can come to complete acceptance one day. Feel like you have a handle on your new normal.
And then, you hit an event, a milestone, and you find yourself back knee-deep in the raw.
- An anniversary
- A birth
- A memory
In fact, working through grief is kind of like playing that Saran Wrap Ball Game. The one where you have lots of little gifts spread out in lots of pieces of the plastic stuff.
Take off one layer, and you’ll find another. And another. And another. Finally, you get to the prize, and you celebrate.
But then the ball comes back around and there’s more to peel.
There IS hope. There’s that prize just waiting for you to reach it.
But finding it takes the same work of peeling back those “is and isn’ts” and the emotions that come with them.
“How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”
—Winnie the Pooh
How Do You Know If You’re Doing It “Right”?
Grief looks different from person to person and in varied situations. It even depends if you’ve gone through something like it before.
- Sometimes you need to sit in denial for a little bit to finish up business. Like that numb feeling that helps you plan the funeral.
- Sometimes the grief won’t hit for months.
- It can affect you physically with health issues and stress. It can affect your dreams.
- You might feel like you’re walking through a fog.
What do you need to remember?
“It is perfectly okay to admit you’re not okay.” (Anonymous)
Take it easy on yourself. Give it time. Find someone who will listen. And most importantly, keep working
Don’t give up. You’re worth it!
“In times of grief and sorrow I will hold you and rock you and take your grief and make it my own.
When you cry, I cry and when you hurt, I hurt. And together we will try to hold back the floods to tears and despair and make it through the potholed street of life.”
― Nicholas Sparks, The Notebook
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For more help, read these other posts about emotional issues like depression and grief.
Elizabeth Daghfal is a writer, teacher, speaker, and community volunteer. When she isn't teaching or writing-- Who are we kidding? Her husband and five kids say she's ALWAYS teaching and writing. She has a passion to help people who are struggling and is happy to say her shoulders are drip-dry. Born and raised in the South, she now lives in Wisconsin and loves it--except for the fifteen months of winter. Read more about her at elizabethdaghfal.com.