November is the month of gratitude, and so I wish to express my love and gratitude for my companion and teacher, Bentley, who died in my arms October 2nd. Bentley was a Lhasa Apso who came to me at a profoundly difficult time in my life and journeyed with me through an amazing thirteen years.
I’m no stranger to grief: I lost father, brother, husband, stepfather, uncle, grandparents, friends and pets all by the age of 32. But Bentley’s passing reminded me yet again of just how difficult grief is. What makes it worse is that there is no social etiquette, no cultural wisdom or ritual to cope with death any more. No one knows how to deal with loss: not the bereaved, and not those around them. We all would prefer that death just go away. We pretend it might. This is such a mistake, because not only is death part of life, it’s what makes our lives meaningful.
It’s sad to think that we need guidance in how to grieve, how to be with someone who has gone through a loss. It’s as basic as The Golden Rule: treat others as you would be treated. Simple as that sounds, we don’t do it. We freeze up when faced with death. Between the tremendous fear and ignorance in our culture regarding grief and mourning, no one knows what to do, what to say, how to be.
In light of this sad state of affairs, I offer this, my Guide to Grief.
IF YOU HAVE LOST SOMEONE
EXPRESS. As horrifically painful as it is, allow the grief to have it’s way with you. Let it rip while it’s fresh and tearing your heart to shreds. Cry an ocean. Write. Paint. Do whatever you do to get it up and out. Do not worry about being a certain way for other people. Do not censor yourself. Repressing is not normal and it is not healthy: it will make you sick.
NO JUDGEMENT. Do not judge yourself for anything you feel or don’t feel. Do not put a timer on your feelings, or think you should be “better” by a certain point in time. Do not think something is wrong with you if you have a good day. Likewise, do not think something is wrong if you fall apart at a movie ten months down the line.
DO NOT CONFUSE HEAD WITH HEART. You may know that the death was inevitable, that the person/animal is better off not suffering, but this does not obviate the feelings you have about it. Do not try to keep yourself confined to the realm of logic, as if that should take care of everything. You know what you know, and you feel what you feel.
CHOOSE YOUR FRIENDS WISELY. Be careful about whom you allow into your experience. Choose only those people with whom you feel safe, those whom you believe will understand and be able to comfort and support you. Try not to tell the whole story to the clerk at the grocery store, or the casual acquaintance who you brush by at Bi-Mart. This does not serve anyone, especially you.
DON’T PUSH. Don’t try to do things you are not ready to do. Don’t try to be cheerful and nice if you’re not. Don’t allow anyone else to push you. Be honest with yourself, and remember–no judgment.
BREATHE. It’s not easy to breathe when you hurt. The body tends to hold the breath under duress, perhaps because breathing releases emotion and there it all comes again and you’re a mess sitting there at the red light. I often found my chest hurting and would think What’s wrong? only to realize that I’d forgotten to breathe. Breath is life. For better or worse you’re still here. Breathe.
ALLOW GRIEF IN. Because it is so god-awful painful, there is a strong temptation to avoid grief at any cost, through diversions of work or alcohol or even clinical depression. This only serves to prolong and complicate the process. Trust me. The Sufi poet Rumi wrote: “ That hurt we embrace becomes joy. Call it to your arms where it can change.” If you don’t embrace it, it will sit and fester and rot at the edge of your heart. It will steal your life.
TAKE YOUR TIME. Know that it is normal to grieve for a long, long time. A year is considered completely normal by psychological standards. Take two if need be. You do not need to be medicated (unless you are in danger of hurting yourself). There is nothing wrong with you. You have lost a part of yourself. It will take time to put yourself back together. There’s no schedule, no order, no right time to “move on.”
REMEMBER LIFE. Even In the midst of your sorrow, be aware of the solace and beauty around you. Find just one, small something to be grateful for each day. And remember, death is not the opposite of life, it’s the opposite of birth. There is no opposite of Life. Energy cannot be created or destroyed: it only changes form.
I think a good share of us who lost a loved one (human or animal) push aside our grief and try to suppress it because today’s society demands it. We supposedly have a “time limit” that we need to be better by, or so the common thinking is. It is wonderful that you have reminded us that it is OK to allow the grieving process happen and that is the only way we can fully accept and heal. Granted, the pain of loss will never fully go away, but the mind-numbing pain and despair will lessen over time if we allow ourselves to feel it. Also, I think it is wonderful that you remind all of us that it is alright to have a good day. I know there are a lot of people out there grieving that believe that if they have laughed at a joke, had a pleasant day at work, or any other “good thing” that it is a sign of disloyalty to those we lost. Thank you for reminding us that it is OK to have a good day and there is nothing wrong with us if we do. Thank you for sharing.
I have done a ton of reading since my husband died 15 months ago. This morning I read my journal entry from one year ago, August 1st, 2020, in which I had saved this article. I was struck by two things. The first was how very far I’ve come. I hope the grief continues to get easier/ softer/ better (?), but if this is as good as it gets, I can live with that. That is not something I could have said a year ago. The second was that of all the reading I’ve done, trying to find my way through, this is the article that has resonated with me, helped me, the most. So simple, direct, and true. Thank you for sharing, thank you so much.