How to Cope With Multi-Layers of Grief

Grief

Grief is a peculiar emotion, one that affects everyone differently and at different times. It isn’t an emotion like happiness, which strikes everyone all at once, or humor, which causes an outward reaction that is expected and brings a group together. No, grief is altogether singular and unifying, yet it isolates the heart in its own dull ache.

My family has been hit hard with grief this past year. First, my mother died last July. It was a somewhat sudden death, and while I say it was “somewhat sudden,” she had been ill for some time, the doctors had anticipated her recovery before she unexpectedly went into cardiac arrest.

I have spent this last year helping my children cope with the loss of their grandmother while I attempted to cope with the loss of my mother. Grief is not a neat and tidy little bundle of emotion where you are able to tick off each stage (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) and be done with it. I have learned that grief is complicated and messy. It is uncomfortable and it makes other people uncomfortable. Most of all, it is lonely.

Everyone in my family has approached their grief differently. My eldest has internalized his emotions a bit more. Being 18-years-old, he is able to articulate his feelings and emotions better than my 8-year-old who has struggled to explain her fears of people she loves disappearing from her life. The last school year was rough her, always wanting to come home and be with me, until she finally settled down about October. She had a kind teacher who let her bring a picture of a my mother to keep in her desk and would let my daughter come tell her about her grandmother whenever she felt lonesome for her.

Sadly, my husband’s mother has passed away last week and we must do this dance with grief yet again. Once again, my son retreated to his room in the basement and chose to not talk about it, knowing he could come speak to us when he’s ready. My little girl, once more, dissolved into tears and insecurity about the people she loved, following me around the house and told me, “I feel like everyone is dying.”

Grief is our new houseguest who won’t leave, who has made itself at home and sits in the corner reading a newspaper. It glowers at us if we attempt to live a normal life, rustling the pages to remind us that it is still there.

Two deaths in a year is almost too much to bear, and yet here we are having to juggle the ramifications of life’s irony: To live means to die. It is those who live afterward who are left to make sense of it all.

However, I do feel better equipped to help my children now then I did a year ago when I felt so overwhelmed with my own grief, and I hope to be as good of a support to my husband as he was for me.

Here are some things I have learned while traveling grief’s journey:

Grief is an outward expression of an internal experience

The profound internal feelings of sadness and loss can be expressed differently at different times. While some people might cry, other people might not be able to eat or sleep. Some might excessively clean or bake. There could be anxiety or stomach pain. These outward expressions could be physical, emotional, or psychological, but none of them are wrong. Don’t feel guilty if you’re not grieving “the right way” because there is no right way. It’s more important to allow yourself to express the feelings than it is to express them in a particular way.

Allow people to help with your grief, but be brave enough to say “No” or to ask for what you really need

I found myself surrounded by people who were eager to help me in many ways. I had many neighbors and friends who brought me food and flowers, and others who came by to just give me a hug. I was so appreciative. At the same time, there were times when I felt really overwhelmed and honestly just wanted to be left alone. Finally, I had to ask my husband to step in and he became the one to screen visitors for me when I wasn’t up to seeing anyone. And you know what? It was fine. People were understanding and respected that I needed space because people are kind and compassionate. Sometimes we are the ones who think we have to accommodate everyone when really they are happy to accommodate us. When people ask us what we need during these difficult times, tell them.

Listen to your body in your grief and give it what it needs

Whether it be sleep, tears, a special meal, a Diet Coke, or even just staring at the window, follow through on what your body is telling you it needs. Grief is teaching you important things during these moments and you need to be a humble student. Even if it is binge watching all seasons of The Crown (which is what I did soon after my mother died).

Reconcile in your grief what you once thought was unreconcilable

I had complicated feelings when it came to my mother, and there were moments in my life when I had a lot of anger over a lot of different things. I’ve come to recognize that while I might still be disappointed in some things, and I might still feel hurt about others, it is time for me to let the anger go. Notice how I don’t mention forgiveness. I won’t tell anyone what to do with their forgiveness. That is for everyone to decide on their own. However, I will say that once someone is gone, it is sometimes easier to let go of some difficult feelings and emotions for your own well-being. 

Acknowledge that others are also experiencing grief and help each other 

In my case, I have my children to help through the grieving process. They are each at different ages (18 and 8) with different needs and memories of their grandmother, and so they both have needed me at different times. I’ve also had my father and my two siblings to mourn with, my father being our greatest concern as he fell into a depression after our mother’s death. There have been times when we have had to put our grief aside to help one another through different tender moments. Regardless, we have reached out to each other and it has helped to have support from each other through the grieving process.

Consider the following resources if you would like more information on coping with grief:

As you can imagine, it has been a difficult year and while I don’t expect it to necessarily get easier, I do expect the time to grow softer on us. I know that we’ll grow closer as a family as we grieve individually and together. Grief isn’t easy, but it can be easier when we are together.