The Way Through Grief

Grief can be overwhelming, but the hope—for many—lies in the amazing ability we have to heal from the hurt.

By Beth Baker

In 1986, when Diane Weeks was 34, her younger sister died suddenly of a heart attack. She was 32, fit and healthy, and lived just two doors down from Diane and her husband, Roye, in the Capitol Hill neighborhood of Washington, DC. The loss hit Diane like a truck.

“With a sudden death, you have no preparation, no chance to say good-bye,” she says.

Seven months later Diane was stuck in a deepening trough of depression. Through therapy she was able to come to terms with the loss. “It was so helpful,” she says. “Somehow I had had this feeling that it was my fault, that I was implicated in my sister’s death. Then I realized I had no control whatsoever over her death. A lot of people go through life thinking they can control everything. It was a huge relief for me to know I couldn’t.”

Fast-forward 23 years, and Diane faced another enormous loss when Roye died of leukemia, leaving her with their two children, then 11 and 19. “The whole time I’m going through grief over Roye, I’m comparing it to the grief of a sudden death,” she reflects. Roye’s “was so less intense.”

universal and unique

Diane’s experience demonstrates a core truth about grief: it is both universal and unique, different not only for each person but within each person as you go through the loss of different loved ones.

“Grief is cumulative,” says Rev. Deborah Lindsay, minister of spiritual care at First Community Church in Grandview Heights, Ohio. “A loss builds on the previous loss and reignites it in a way.”

The twists and turns of grief often catch people by surprise. In 1969 Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a Swiss-born psychiatrist who specialized in end-of-life care, identified what she called the stages of grief that people experience as they face death or the loss of a loved one: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. Today grief counselors speak less of stages than of a cycle of emotions that may circle back again and again. “People do have common experiences,” says Lindsay. But she cautions grieving people not to get hung up on the stages. “I’ve had people say, ‘I just haven’t been angry,’ like they’re worried they’re not doing it right.”

Indeed there is no one right way to grieve. In Diane’s family her Italian father wept openly, berating himself for not protecting his daughter and wanting to put up her pictures, while her mother started playing country music, brooded, and couldn’t look at the photos. One brother named his new horse for his dead sister, and another was strangely matter-of-fact. “It caused a lot of problems because we all grieved differently,” Diane says.

All this is normal, say grief experts; so too is holding contradictory emotions—laughing through your tears—and feeling bouts of sadness for a long time. “I tell my clients, ‘You’re not crazy,’” says Grace Metz, a grief therapist at the nonprofit Wendt Center for Loss and Healing in Washington, DC. “It’s called ‘grief work’ for a reason. This is damn hard.”

Metz and others stress that grief does not move in a linear direction with steady improvement. Instead it is much more of a zigzag or an ebb and flow. You think you’re doing pretty well, and suddenly you find yourself sobbing in the grocery aisle, clutching your mom’s favorite cereal.

an ongoing process

The grief process can begin as soon as you learn of a loved one’s serious illness and get a hint of the potential loss. But anticipatory grief, as it’s called, can sometimes feel like a betrayal. “Every time I would get discouraged and think he wasn’t going to get better, I would feel really disloyal to Roye,” says Diane. “For a year I was such a cheerleader. When he died, I felt bad. I felt I pushed him. I needed to push him to keep his spirits up, but I felt I hadn’t been sympathetic enough.”

Peter Lustig, of Washington, DC, lost his wife, Anne, to brain cancer in 2003. She was 41. Coming to grips with the loss has been a slow process, he says, but he now feels he has reached a plateau of acceptance. “The first year was a complete shock,” he recalls. “I was still expecting her to come home from a trip.”

In Peter’s case anger followed his initial denial. “I got really mad at her parents with their crappy genetic code, and then mad at Anne for getting sick and leaving me with the children.” And then the guilt rolled over him. “I could have been a better husband. She was sick; I could have done more. I could have found a doctor that helped her better. There’s recrimination on yourself. Then you realize: it was just bad luck.”

Beth Kameras, 57, of Silver Spring, Maryland, agrees. She went through an intense period of loss in 2002 when five family members died in a two-year period, including her mother and her brother, her only sibling. She was very close to her mother, who, she says, enjoyed being “a grumpy Norwegian.” Her lesson to Beth: “We aren’t ennobled by the bad things that happen to us. They’re just bad. What you do with them is just keep walking.”

Some deaths are complicated and can be especially hard to accept, says Metz. Suicide, homicide, and other traumatic death are particularly difficult.

Grief is also deeply influenced by our relationship with the person who died. Although it seems counterintuitive, it can be more difficult coping with the loss of someone you were estranged from than someone you were close to. “If the nature of the relationship has been conflicted or problematic or even cut off totally, the hope that you could ever work it out is gone,” says Metz. “That doesn’t mean you can’t work it through in therapy, but the actual ability to do it with the person in life is gone. You have the death of all sorts of hopes and dreams in terms of reconciliation.”

The reality of loss may take a long time to sink in. Diane kept telling herself that if she got through the first year, she’d be okay. She pinned her hopes on getting through the first holidays without Roye and learning how to do all the things that he used to do—from car maintenance to buying a new furnace to being the “alpha male” to their rescue dog. “But when one year happened, this new feeling came over me,” she says. “It’s going to go on and on and on. This isn’t going to end.” She was grateful, though, that Roye had left them financially secure; grief is even more difficult when a main breadwinner is suddenly gone.

Metz observes that often after six months or so, “the magnitude of the reality filters through more deeply. All the secondary losses begin to be colored in—what it means to not have your mom there or to have your beloved friend not available. I just saw a client who really wanted to make her [deceased] mom’s mac and cheese, but she didn’t have the recipe.”

family and tradition

Adapting family traditions or creating new rituals can be comforting. If your mother always presided over an elaborate Thanksgiving feast, maybe you’ll want to go to a cabin in the woods that weekend rather than roast a turkey. Or maybe you’ll try to re-create her dinner and toast her for all she taught you—whatever feels right.

Both Diane and Peter drew strength from knowing that they were responsible for their children. They simply didn’t have the luxury of curling up in a ball and weeping.

Every year, Peter takes his children to Cape Cod, where Anne is buried in a family plot next to his father. “We plant flowers and reminisce,” he says. “We go there to be with her and imagine she’s floating in the ether somewhere.” They also set aside time on her birthday and the anniversary of her death to tell stories or eat her favorite foods—bacon and chocolate. Jack and Lily, who were six and four when their mother died, continue to see a grief therapist.

More than a year after Roye’s death, Diane’s son, Henry, began wearing his dad’s T‑shirts and pajama bottoms around the house. He sometimes takes down the box with Roye’s ashes and lights candles.

“Grieving can be a rich spiritual time, if you’re willing to really be in it,” says Lindsay. Your own suffering can make you more compassionate toward the suffering of others, she explains, and grief may move you to feel more gratitude toward life. At the same time, you may question your religious faith. She stresses that no questions are off-limits when you’re experiencing grief. One parishioner came for counseling because she was struggling with anger. “She worked up her nerve to ask me, ‘Have you ever been angry at God?’ I said, ‘Of course, lots of times.’ You could see the relief on her face,” says the minister. “I think God has big shoulders and can handle our anger and frustration and sadness.”

There is also, paradoxically, a lot of hope, she says. “There is hope that the experience of grieving can bring families together, can get people talking about things they haven’t talked about before.”

Taking Care

Metz urges clients to take care of themselves. Grief, she says, is a “24-hour-a-day job that nobody sees.” It’s normal to be forgetful and preoccupied. “Find ways to self-regulate,” she advises. “That means coping with stress: doing breath work, meditation, massage, yoga—all can be very helpful.”

Most people get through their grief with the help of family and friends, but many seek help from a grief therapist, a support group, or a spiritual adviser.

Diane found solace at her local gym, where she was assigned a trainer who had also gone through a recent loss. Diane looks forward to her weekly exercise regime. If she’s feeling too upset to work out, she and her trainer spend time talking.

Some find comfort and meaning in keepsakes of their loved one. When Beth’s father-in-law died recently, she was surprised how her other losses reemerged. “I found at his memorial service that I put on the earrings and bracelet my mother gave me,” she says. “I wanted them with me.”

Others enjoy giving special items away. Seeing your mother’s tea set being used by a friend can be comforting, as if a part of her lives on. Diane gave Roye’s dress shirts to a brother-in-law, who could use them for work. “Roye would have liked that,” she says.

Planting a tree, setting up a memorial fund, bringing flowers to the gravesite at special times—all can be comforting. So can speaking freely and frequently of the person you’ve lost. Keeping your loved one’s memory alive is an important part of healing.

No matter how overwhelming the sorrow, people do get through. “To me there is hope in the way people do, over and over and over again, live through terrible tragedies and recover from them,” says Lindsay. “Human beings have amazing resilience and an ability to enjoy life again and appreciate someone who is no longer here physically but is still a part of their family.

“Fortunately,” she adds, “we heal from hurt. That’s where the hope is.”

If Someone You Know is Grieving

Offer concrete support in the way of meals, transportation, help with household chores, or a gift certificate for a massage. Some parents appreciate babysitting, whereas others want to keep the kids close.

Just be with the person in whatever emotional place she may be. Don’t try to cheer her up or give advice unless she asks. Take a walk, invite her to tell stories about her loved one, or share your own memories. Take cues from her.

Don’t assume you know how she is feeling, and refrain from sharing your religious perspective. Viewing a death as “God’s will” may be comforting to some but devastating to others.

If you were friends as a couple, keep inviting the bereaved person to be part of things. Try not to let her feel abandoned.

Don’t worry that you don’t know what to say. Your presence will be enough.