Learn From My Mistakes: How to Process Grief & Loss

My mom died when I was in 9th grade after being diagnosed with cancer 6 months earlier. I was a young teenager and DID NOT handle grief well. Honestly, I didn’t really handle it at all. All the things I’m going to share with you below, I literally did not do. I did basically the exact opposite. And it made me moving through the grief incredibly difficult. So I share these tips with you in hopes that you can learn from my mistakes or you can support someone else through this difficult process.

Keep in mind that grief and loss is different for everyone. It can look like the loss of a job, the loss of a family or a home, it can be through lost dreams or hopes, it can be through divorce, or death. Your grief is different than someone else’s. Think about these 4 tips through the lens of the experience that comes to mind for you. The tips I have likely will need to be shifted or altered to fit your personal experience, but the general sense of them should still be applicable.

  1. Say it Out Loud

Say the thing that happened out loud. Speak it. To yourself, and to a trusted friend. It’s easy to avoid when it doesn’t feel real. Saying it outloud makes it so much real. Speaking the words, “My son died” or “My wife left me” or “I got fired from my job” or “My company is bankrupt” are important even if they’re incredibly difficult. When the sentence from your head leaves the tip of the tongue, you’ve introduced thought to reality. And that’s where you must begin.

My mom while I was at school. I found out after my field hockey game and went to a friends house because I didn’t want to go home. I got ready and went to school the next day and I can vividly recall a friend saying to me in class, “Steph I heard your mom died, I’m sorry”. I hadn’t processed nor did I want this to be real, so I replied, “No she didn’t”.

Yall, I WAS NOT willing to accept what happened. I don’t think I spoke the reality of what happened for days if not weeks. I kept denying it. Not until I actually acknowledged what happened could I even begin to process that my mom was no longer here.

2. Feel the Feelings

I am an avoider of feelings. I say I don’t have them, and that’s not true. We all have them. Some of us embrace them while others avoid them. I avoid them. I don’t like to feel them. They often hurt. And if there’s anything I am a pro at, it’s avoiding being hurt.

So I managed to avoid feeling the feelings that go along with my mom dying for about 3 -5 years. I don’t know that there was a time this actually “changed”, but I think I tried so hard to avoid feeling them, that it was finally easier to just let them in.

I avoided them by coping, by anger, by really anything except feeling them. And once I finally did, it felt like my mom had died all over again. The obstacle I’d been avoiding for years was now the only way forward. As Marcus Aurelius said, “What stands in the way becomes the way”.

3. Expect Both Good and Bad Days

There will be days you get out of bed and the sun seems a little brighter. The music is a little more upbeat, and life is just a little more joyful. It will be a great day. And you will go to bed that night and wake up the next day and things will feel hard again. That is grief.

In the grieving process, some days will feel easy. Like you’re healing. And then there are those days like your anniversary, or a birthday, or a specific driving route you used to take to work and it feels like you can never escape the dark.

I’m here to tell you that you can. You can escape the dark. Not every day, but I promise that you will begin to see more good days than bad. I promise that if you mark on your calendar how you feel on a 1/10 scale every day over weeks and months, the average will increase. There will literally be better days ahead. Not all of them, but most. And most is enough for me.

4. Find Someone Who Addresses What Others Avoid

Find someone to talk to that you trust. The person who will talk about the things that everyone else avoids. Who asks how the holidays are for you without so and so there. Or who asks how they can help when you’re still not able to find a job after you got let go from your last one.

While I can encourage you to see a counselor or an expert of these things, I cannot speak from experience. I know I would have processed through all of this much better and more quickly if I had seen someone I trusted but those I did see I decided to close myself off to. Instead of trusting, I spent years and years avoiding and slowly learning how to process this grief on my own. Miraculously I am at a place (15 years later) where I can write this post. But if you or someone in your life is experiencing loss or grief, seek a trusted friend or be that trusted friend .for someone else

I share these 4 tips to help you begin to move through grief and loss from a place of experience, not from a place of academia or study of these topics. What worked and was helpful for me may not be what’s the most helpful for you. So I encourage you to take hold of what you will, and leave the rest.