After getting the news from my weeping brother that our father had died, I went on a long, slow amble around my neighbourhood.
It was an outrageously beautiful autumn day in Boulder, Colorado: golden aspen everywhere, just enough of a breeze, bluebird sky. I was 26 years old then, and I was infuriated.
How dare the world continue on as if nothing had happened. How dare the sun shine so brightly, the sky be so crystalline, the aspen quaking in their golden riot be so real, so there, and yet so lacking in understanding.
Why didn’t the whole world stop and grieve?
Grief, as it turns out, is an incredibly tricky emotion. Losing a person, an animal, something close to you, can be quite difficult to process. I lost the majority of my writing work for 20 years while camping in Vedauwoo, Wyoming, on a rock climbing trip. The grief from that was tough to process; at time it felt like I’d lost my voice, too.
Grief is especially hard to process because there is no right or wrong way to do it. The five stages of grief –denial, anger, bargaining, rejection and acceptance– don’t occur in every individual and if they do, they are often jumbled, out of order, and/or repeating themselves. The sheer overwhelmingness of experiencing such loss often feels like more than we can handle, as if one is drowning, or suffocating. It can involve feelings of numbness, extraordinary sorrow, and isolation. Grief is especially difficult because it is both universal and highly personal: it feels as if we are entirely alone in the experience, yet it is something nearly all humans feel at one time or another in their lives. Grieving can feel never-ending, like the world will never be the same again.
There are some things you can do to help cope with grief, however. Some of them may include:
-Talking about it. Talking about your loved one’s life and death, about memories of them, about your feelings now that they are gone, can be tremendously helpful, especially in not isolating further.
-Practicing acceptance: of the event, and of your feelings around it. Acceptance does not mean agreement or appreciation. Acceptance doesn’t mean you have to like or understand it. Acceptance only means you acknowledge it.
-Take care of yourself and your family. Especially yourself. Eat well, exercise, and do things that are good for you, such as meditation, involvement in community groups, or volunteering.
-Help others in their grief. This can seem like a huge challenge as you may be so lost in your own, but reaching out to help others who are grieving helps you feel less isolated. Sharing memories and stories of loved ones who have passed can help with acceptance and creating a sense of normalcy.
-Celebrate the lives of your loved ones. Whether that’s a party or a prayer, continue to live on in the spirit of those you loved so dearly. Do things to honor them, to keep their memories alive in your life. For my father, I practice Buddhist principles and meditation, and I feel his spirit anytime I am at a sacred Buddhist retreat place near my home. I also practice some of the things he taught me: abundant love, questioning authority, and protesting injustices. These things help keep him alive in my heart and my life.
Finally, of utmost importance, protect yourself and your need to grieve.
Grief has no set timeline, no absolute end. Ten years later I still get the occasional pain, hurt or desperate need for my father in my life, and he never will be again. If people in your life are belittling your need to grieve or its consequences for you, perhaps set those friendships aside for now. Surround yourself with people, events, circumstances and situations that are supportive, loving and protective towards you. My discovery is that time really does heal wounds, and I don’t feel the same way I did on that bright autumn day over ten years ago. That doesn’t mean I don’t still feel grief or have issues around my relationship with my father, but it’s not so acute, not so painful, not such a huge part of who I am.