On a balmy summer evening in 2011, my beloved 26-year-old son David was killed instantly in a motorcycle accident and my life was forever changed. Suddenly plunged into a crazy altered reality, I wandered helplessly through disbelief, confusion, anguish, and searing pain.
For a long time I felt stuck in my misery, since death is so permanent and so unarguably final. I couldn’t stop thinking about what his last moments were like for him and what his life could have been (and should have been).
But as the days and weeks rolled by, I became increasingly aware of a question that wouldn’t go away and for which I had no answer:
How will I go on?
I knew I had to go on, but I just couldn’t figure out how to resume my life without any hope of ever feeling better about David’s death. I consulted therapists, clergy, organizations, and a multitude of authors that included other bereaved parents.
I finally realized I needed some kind of structure for grieving and it had to be something other than the long-accepted five stage model. Progressing through predictable stages didn’t resonate for me and I couldn’t imagine ever completing any of them. For me, they all overlapped and co-occurred, persistently swelling and receding.
In time, I learned it was necessary and okay to take breaks from my grieving. In order to face my new reality, I needed periodic respite that could shift my focus (even for a short while) and get my mind momentarily away from pain. Sometimes I went to a movie – only comedies, please! – and helping others was always beneficial.
But my biggest realization, much to my loved ones’ disappointment, is that grief doesn’t end. You don’t get over the death of someone you love, in the sense of no longer caring they’re gone. It’s never going to be fine. And I don’t think it’s our job to get over it.
Grief does, however, evolve. I’ve already experienced less frequent and less intense waves of emotion now than when David first died. And because we’re individuals, it evolves differently for each of us. I’ve come to believe our job as grievers is to incorporate our loss into the rest of our lives and weave this strand into the larger meaningful and beautiful tapestry of life.
I identified 4 main aspects, or facets, of grieving I was paying attention to at various times. These include Accepting (as in acknowledging the new reality; not liking or endorsing what happened), Adapting, Meaning-Making, and Replenishing. Each facet was important in the process of incorporating the loss into my life and I learned to regularly spend some time with them, including ones that weren’t organically evident in a while.
Through Accepting I acknowledged my thoughts and feelings by telling my story. I wrote and talked to many people and I made photo scrapbooks and collages. Adapting helped me to discover new traditions and ways of thinking, talking about, and doing what is now my new normal. Meaning-Making challenged me to consider new beliefs, figure out if they fit into my world view, and choose those that felt healing to me. And Replenishing encouraged me to be mindful of and engaged in healthy self-care.
Through this ongoing process I’ve become healthier, more serene, more grateful, and more helpful to others than I ever thought possible. I now feel confident in my answer to that question: how will I go on? I will continue to practice Accepting, Adapting, Meaning-Making, and Replenishing.
And I wish the same for you. By practicing these 4 facets in our individual ways, we can all transform grief into growth.