After we have lost a person in our own household, grief lives in every nook and cranny. Their favorite spot on the couch, the bathroom toiletries and even in the refrigerator with so many leftovers.
Its easy to stop taking care of yourself when your world is overrun with grief, to stop cooking healthy food so you don't have to see how much is left when the person you love is no longer there to eat too. Looking in the refrigerator and seeing the Tupperware full of leftovers can reduce you to tears when all you wanted was a late night snack.
We know we have to care for ourselves. We are told to exhaustion that we need to feed ourselves, we are just never told how to manage that without the sharp edges of grief cutting deeply.
In the early days of loss, people bring you food, so many casseroles and covered dishes. One day, however, you will have to start to care for yourself and whomever is left in the house. We all know eventually the sharp edges of grief start to round and you can bear the injuries a little easier. In the beginning though, protect yourself. Your life is different now and trying to do things the same is not possible and only will cause you pain. Cook a half recipe, or a third, the image for this post is a chart to cut a recipe down to size.
You will find that the pain of doing things differently is more rounded than the pain of trying to live a life that has been irrevocably altered. You will still find sharp edges where you didn't expect it, a cut to your soul that will bring you to your knees when you thought things were righting themselves, but acknowledging how different your life is now will help you in the beginning. Avoid cooking their favorite dishes and their favorite movies.
Eventually, it starts to feel like you have created too much space between you and the one you have lost and you will want to revisit those old wounds. This is a good time to cook their favorite foods and listen to their favorite music. Eventually, you will find comfort in the old pain, but, in the beginning, find ways to treat yourself tenderly.
What have you changed after a loss?
When we first lose someone, everything is colored by grief. The coffee would be better if your loved one was there to enjoy it with you, that actor that they liked made a new movie they will never be able to see. All the little things are small tragedies in what you can't share and what they can't see. In the beginning we believe that we can never be happy and celebrate again, holidays will always just be what your loved one is missing. Slowly, though, our world starts to right itself and the haze of grief starts to abate. We can start to find real happiness in our lives again, although the haze is never fully gone. For most of us, there will always be a moment that we think how much our loved one would have enjoyed this.
Eventually though, there comes a time when a holiday or event arrives and it is time to celebrate life, and not just mourn. That first year, or several years will be the hardest, (and I recommend a ritual to help you through it here) but you will get to a point that you look forward to celebrations again. For some, this feels a bit like a disloyalty. How can you move on and be happy again when someone you loved is gone? You will hear all manner of platitudes about how they want you to be happy and not mired down in grief for the rest of your life, but doesn't enjoying life again mean you are letting go and there is more distance between you?
When loss is fresh and you feel like you are drowning in grief, when you can finally breathe a little again, you don't chastise yourself for starting to accept the new reality. It only becomes something we really berate ourselves over when we finally start to experience happiness again, and then you are going on the rollercoaster of grief again, and you don't even remember getting on. Feelings of survivor guilt and loss can overwhelm us when we thought we were about to have a good time.
When we suffer a great loss, our grief becomes part of us, a part that doesn't completely heal. There will always be haze of grief when someone who should be there isn't anymore. You are not abandoning them by enjoying yourself, you are a stronger person and honoring their legacy by finding the strength to stand again and smile.
We talk about the different causes of grief frequently, loss of a loved one, loss of a career, loss of expectation. These are all part of something bigger, loss of identity. When we lose a loved one we talk about losing a piece of ourselves, but often we don't really acknowledge that we have, truly, lost part of our own identity. The survivor changes from a spouse to a widow(er), a parent to someone having suffered child loss. a sibling to an only child or birth order being changed. Losing a career changes your identity equally, our work is so wrapped up in how we see ourselves and, unfairly, how much worth society attributes to us as people.
We are aware of the grief caused by the loss, but often we don't acknowledge the loss of identity that we suffer as a result. When we don't acknowledge and articulate the additional loss, we have a harder time recovering from the losses. A change in identity through loss is very different than when we change our identity by choice, going from single to married, not having children to a parent or even married to divorced. Usually these changes in identity have been contemplated over time and are welcome changes even if they may not be easy. When we have a sudden and dramatic shift in identity through loss though, it is not something you have control over and not something you would choose.
We are often so close to being aware of what we have lost in addition, but often fail to fully make the realization that we are suffering multiple losses. If you tell someone that your last living grandparent has passed we instinctively understand that this is more significant than an older family member dying. We don't, however, think about the loss of being a grandchild any longer, or that it makes your own parents generation the oldest living family members. Losing a grandparent is hard, particularly if you were close, but it is accepted as the natural order. We age and eventually die, making losing the most senior member of the family a lesser blow than losing a sibling or child. Once you have lost all the grandparents though, the loss of identity as being a grandchild is combined with the anxiety of looking at your own parents as the oldest generation.
Suffering through grief is messy and difficult but nearly impossible when you don't acknowledge the entire loss. When we don't acknowledge that we have lost more than a person or a career but who we think we are, we come completely unmoored. When our internal identity is altered it can feel like we are unable to find our footing in the new world we find ourselves.
Take the time to think about all the losses you are suffering. Grieve the person you were; spouse, grandchild, child, sibling, friend etc. in addition to the loss of the person. Acknowledge that you have a new title and that it takes some time to find how this new title fits you; widow, orphan, only child, etc. The label can be a painful wound and needs attention to heal the injury to your identity.
How has your own identity been changed by loss?
My name is Abby, my life has been touched many times by loss and grief. This life has led me to helping others navigate their own grief. I have become a INELDA trained End Of Life Doula and a hospice volunteer. I am not a professional counselor or psychologist and all advice given should be treated as advice from a friend.