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
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.