by Sue Embree-Davis

Grieving is inevitable in life. We grieve for small losses as well as the seemingly unbearable ones. We grieve when we move away from a place we’ve loved, or lose something we treasure, such as a piece of jewelry or keepsake. We can adjust fairly well to some changes that were expected, such as a long-awaited promotion or a child leaving for college.

But no matter how prepared we think we are, the death of a loved one can be devastating. The loss hits us emotionally, spiritually and physically. Others can help, but we need to take the first steps toward recovery. Here are some suggestions:

  • Take a daily walk. If it’s raining, go to a mall.
  • Make sure you eat something at each mealtime.
  • Get as close to a full night’s sleep as you can; don’t take long naps during the day.
  • Don’t make hasty decisions.
  • If you must go back to work, but have some flexibility, consider starting back on a reduced schedule.
  • Invite a friend out to coffee or lunch so that you get out of the house, too.
  • Think about volunteering to help yourself feel useful again.
  • Join a grief-support group in your area or online. There is much peace in realizing that others are going through the same feelings that you are.
  • If you have participated in an online forum, such as those offered by the Sarcoma Alliance, you don’t need to quit immediately. Stay on as long as you get some benefit from it.
  • Do not be afraid to talk about your loved one, laugh at fun times you had, or let trusted others know how much you miss the one who died. Talking about the not-so-fun parts is OK, too.
  • Some people find it helpful to write a letter to their loved one or to keep a journal.
  • As the months pass, plan to take day trips or even vacations with friends or relatives.

Having experienced the painful journey through grief a number of times myself, and then listening to so many others in my work, I have found that, although we have very individual stories, there are many things we still hold in common.

Most folks who work in the area of helping others recover from grief have found certain stages that you need to work through in order to return to a new sense of normalcy and move on. However, it is my belief that there are no timetables in which you must travel these paths. Each of us travels our path through grief differently, and that is to be expected, as long as we are taking even small steps toward that new normalcy we need to find.

Often right after a death or great loss occurs (death of a parent or  child, a difficult divorce, even when a beloved pet dies or a dear friend moves away), a kind of numbness or shock sets in which allows us to function through those initial days and weeks as arrangements, decisions, changes in daily life, and plans must be made. Sometimes, however, we cannot make decisions or take care of our everyday tasks. This is when we need family and friends to be there, just to bolster us up to make it through each day the best we can. In those early days, it is normal to need help, especially when life feels anything but normal.

After we make it through those initial days and weeks, when family has had to go home and friends get back to their lives, we may be left with a huge hole inside filled with anger and pain. This leads to the next phase of grieving: Disbelief and denial tend to leave us thinking that our loved one will walk through the door at 5 p.m. just like they always did. Perhaps our routines have now been changed forever because we have no one with which to share meals, take a walk, go on that annual vacation. Life has an emptiness that we haven’t yet learned to fill.

During the first year, people expect you to be in the throes of grief. By the second year, however, the expectation is that you will be “all better.” If  you are still having difficulty making decisions, feeling lonely or sad, staying at home a lot, and  crying nearly every day, that is normal, too.  Now your work will be to make those decisions left on hold, one at a time, getting back out in the world a bit more, talking about your loved one more, moving ahead day by day.

embreeWill life be the same as before? No. But you are on the road to your new normal —  the new life that you make with friends and family.

Sue Embree-Davis is a licensed marriage and family therapist, specializing in grief recovery for both children and adults. She has led several grief support groups. Sue lost her son Rich Embree at age 25 to undifferentiated soft-tissue sarcoma in 2003. The photo shows her with the Ocean of Hope paddleboard that his family sponsored in his memory.