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What Everyone Should Know About the First Year of Grief

By Kay Talbot, Ph.D.

The first Christmas after her husbandís death, Marta knew she couldnít stay in their home for the holidays. "After my Ďhave-toí list was done," she says, "I ran away to Hot Springs, Arkansas and stayed for three days in a hotel. I indulged myself in the famous hot springs bath and got a massage. A Christmas Eve service on TV and telephone time with my family on Christmas Day was all of the holiday that I could handle. The rest of the time I read, cried, and ate chocolates. I allowed Christmas to flow around me that year. It was the best that I could do."

Getting through the holidays without our loved one is one of many challenges we face in the first year of our loss. We are challenged in so many ways that we cannot take loss in all at once. We can only see the world from where we stand; and to most of us, our new world looks and feels like landscape without gravity. There are no maps to guide us through this fresh grief. But others who have made the journey can help by sharing what they have learned. They show us it is possible to turn stumbling blocks into stepping stones along the way.

Working your way through

After my daughterís death in 1982, I learned that the first yearís grief doesnít flow neatly from one stage to the next; it has multiple patterns, fluctuating cycles, lots of ups and downs. First-year grief will surprise you in many ways, but here are a few things you can expect.

Expect sudden "grief attacks." Practical matters demand attention in early grief when we are the most confused and least interested in things we used to care about. We must decide how to get through each new day. Some days, getting out of bed may take all the energy we have. Trips to everyday places like the grocery store feel so different. In my case, simple things like seeing my daughterís favorite cereal on the store shelf brought immediate, excruciating pain.

I call these unexpected reactions "grief attacks." And unlike the response we would get if we had a heart attack while shopping, those around us donít know what to do. We get good at hiding our pain, at postponing grieving for a more appropriate place, a better time.

Expect exhaustion and disruption. Early grieving is perhaps the hardest work you will ever do. It is common to have difficulty sleeping, changes in appetite and blood pressure, tense muscles that are susceptible to strains, a weakened immune system. Be sure to tell your physician about your loss and any physical symptoms you have. If your doctor canít or wonít listen, find one who will!

After a loss, many people return to work, school, or other activities feeling vulnerable, less confident about their capabilities, less able to concentrate, distracted by memories, and flooded with emotions that disrupt thinking. For others, work is the only place they are able to concentrate- focusing on tasks helps take their mind off their loss for awhile.

Those around us may have unrealistic expectations as we return to work or school. When one mother whose only child had died returned to work, her supervisor greeted her by saying: "Iím sorry about your loss but I want to talk to you about improving your work performance." Expect to be stunned by the ineptness, thoughtlessness, and discomfort of some people, and to be thrilled and deeply touched by the kindness and sensitivity of others. Sometimes those you expect to support you the most canít or wonít meet your needs, while others you werenít that close to before reach out unexpectedly.

Our loved ones are still, and always will be, a part of us. They are threads in our fabric and we cannot lose their love.  - Darcie D. Sims TouchStones

Expect ongoing "echoes." We experience so many emotions after a loved one dies. We may feel relief that our loved one no longer suffers, then feel guilty about being relieved. For a time we may be unable to feel much at all. While learning to live with the hole in our heart and fatigue in our body, other responsibilities beckon. We must file insurance claims, pay bills, write thank-yous, decide what we want to do with our loved oneís possessions, and on and on.

Just when we think everyone surely has heard of our loss by now, the reality of our loved oneís death echoes back to us. A call comes from the dentistís office about scheduling her a checkup, or we run into his old friend who just moved back to town. Once again we must tell our story, respond to someone elseís pain, experience fresh waves of grief. Knowing certain events are coming, such as seeing the grave marker or reading the death certificate or autopsy report, does not prevent us from hurting. These are tangible reminders of the reality of death, while part of us still hopes itís all been just a bad dream.

Without your former companion, you no longer have a "mirror" to reflect back to you who you are and what you want in life. Now only you can furnish the answers by getting to know yourself.

-Dorothy Edgerton "Learning to Live Alone"

Expect "if onlys" and "should haves."

Most grieving people have some unfinished business with their loved ones. It helps to talk with someone you trust about these concerns. You may not have had a chance to say good-bye or resolve certain issues. You may regret doing or not doing something. Perhaps you believe his death could have been prevented, or her life prolonged.

Prior losses or several losses at the same time can complicate your grief. As much as possible, sort through and separate the thoughts, feelings, and beliefs that accompany each loss; then decide what action to take. Do you need to forgive yourself or others? To ask your loved one for forgiveness and guidance? To do something to fight evil or prevent tragedy?

After Wendyís sister and niece were killed by a drunk driver, someone special told her that the experience would either make her "bitter or better", and that she would have to make a decision about how to live her life without her loved ones. She chose to join Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD), to do what she could to prevent future tragedies and help other grieving families. Our loved ones live on in positive ways, and we are able to move beyond our regrets, when we make these kinds of choices.

Expect deep questions. Loss causes us to re-examine our beliefs about the Universe, God, and how the world works. Your faith and belief system may comfort and sustain you during the first year of your loss, or you may feel angry and disconnected from it. Remember that it is okay to question. As Job learned, God wants to be in relationship with us no matter what we are feeling.

You may be drawn to people who have experienced a loss like yours and can understand some of your feelings and questions. This is one reason many people in early grief find comfort in bereavement support groups. But remember that no one can ever totally understand your grief, your questions, and what your loved one means to you. Like all relationships, each personís grief is unique and complex.

Grieving requires enormous energy, but pretending that youíre not grieving requires even more. You begin to sense that your world is anxious for your to get on with your life, and that no one understands that this is your life and you are getting on with it. "This is it, folks." Then other times you pretend and you wear a mask and perform like a trained seal just to keep whatís left of your world from leaving you.

- Sue Catherine Holtkamp, Ph.D. "Grieving With Hope: A Personal Journey"

Take your time, but do your grief work.

During early grief, you may want to stay busy all the time, avoiding painful emotions and the exhausting work of grief, hoping time will heal you. Thereís no set schedule and no recovery period for grief. But time alone does not heal- itís what we do with the time that counts. Take the time you need to do your grief work. But also take time away from grieving to do things you enjoy, to rest and replenish yourself.

When a loved one dies, our hoped-for future dies, too. Beginning in this first year, and continuing on from there, living with your loss means taking on new roles, new relationships, a new future- without forgetting your past. Sometimes, life takes surprising turns. Before my daughterís death, I never would have imagined Iíd become a grief therapist. It wasnít part of my "plan." But as the wise adage goes, "Life is what happens to us while weíre busy making other plans." Confronted with loss, we can weave the strands of our past into a new, meaningful future we never would have planned to live. Doing so is a conscious choice.

Take Heart

Getting through the first year of your grief is like winding a ball of string. You start with an end and wind and wind. Then the ball slips through your fingers and rolls across the floor. Some of the work is undone, but not all. You pick it up and start over again, but never do you have to begin at the end of the string. The ball never completely unwinds; youíve made some progress.

My daughterís spirit and our continuing bond of love gives me strength each day. May your loved one be there to help you during this painful first year, and in all the years to come.

Kay Talbot, Ph.D., is a certified grief therapist and author living in Vallejo, California.

Sources of additional help

Books: Remembering With Love: Messages of Hope for the First Year of Grieving and Beyond by Elizabeth Levang, Ph.D. and Sherokee Ilse, Minneapolis, Fairview Press, 1992. Grieving With Hope: A Personal Journey by Sue Catherine Holtkamp, Ph.D., Chattanooga, Franklin-McKinsey Publishers, 1995. Grief Expressed When A Mate Dies by Marta Felber, West Fork, Arkansas, LifeWords, 1997

Magazine: Bereavement Magazine, Colorado Springs, Colorado, (719) 266-0006,

CareNote: Learning to Live Alone by Dorothy Edgerton, St. Meinrad, Indiana, Abbey Press, 1990.


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