By Lynn Newman
“To be happy with yourself, you’ve got to lose yourself now and then.” ~Bob Genovesi
At a holiday party last December, I ran into a friend from college who I hadn’t seen in twenty years.
“What’s going on with you? You look great!”
“Oh, well… My mother passed away and my husband and I divorced.”
“Oh Jeez! I’m so sorry,” he said. “That’s a lot! So, why do you look so great?”
Perhaps it wasn’t the greatest party conversation, but I did with it smile.
“It was the hardest year of my life, but I’m getting through it and that makes me feel good.”
Sure, what he didn’t know was that I had spent many weeks with the blinds closed. I cried my way through back-to-back TV episodes on Netflix.
I knitted three sweaters, two scarves, a winter hat, and a sweater coat.
I had too many glasses of wine as I danced around in my living room to pop music, pretending I was still young enough to go to clubs. And at times it was hard to eat, but damn if I didn’t look good in those new retail-therapy skinny jeans.
Another friend of mine lost his father last spring. When he returned from the East Coast, I knew he would be in shock at re-entry. I invited him over for a bowl of Italian lentil and sausage soup. As we ate in my kitchen nook, he spoke of the pain of the loss of his father, and even the anger at his friends who, in social situations, avoided talking to him directly about his loss.
Looking down at my soup, I said, “Grief is a big bowl to hold. It takes so many formations, so many textures and colors. You never know how or when it will rear its head and take a hold of you. Sometimes you cry unfathomably, some days you feel guilty because you haven’t cried, and in other moments you are so angry or filled with anxiety you just don’t know what to do.”
Grief is one of those emotions that have a life of their own. It carries every feeling within it and sometimes there’s no way to discern it.
One of the greatest teachings in Buddhism is the lesson of impermanence—that everything that comes into being will go out of being. But impermanence is just a concept until you face the ugly beast straight into his beating, bulging red eyes.
These are the things that helped me get through such a trying time:
- Self-care, self-care, self-care. (Oh, and did I say self-care?)
The shock of loss to all of our bodies—emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual—is superb. When we wake in the morning, we question the very nature of who we are. Upon awakening there is a split second when everything is okay in our world. And then we remember. The storm clouds cover our head again.
Our bodies need to be fed during this time, in order to handle such trauma. Self-care is personal, but I did the things I knew my body wanted:
Lots of baths, fresh pressed organic juices, sticking to a daily structure, such as meditating in the morning, exercising, journaling, reading inspiring books, talking with friends, getting out in sunshine, taking walks, admitting my weakness, and learning to nurture myself.
These were the base things that I knew I needed.
- Accept there’s a lot you don’t know.
When the pain of loss happens, it’s like a lightning bolt comes and shakes the foundation of the ground. We question everything—our identity, who we are, where we come from, and where we’re going. There is power in surrendering to the unknown.
In coming to accept that we no longer have control over what happens to us, we realize that what we once knew we no longer can know. In fact, much of the spiritual experience is coming to realize all that we are not, and less about what we think we are or what we know.
Here, there is great freedom. And it helps us to meet life’s adversity with courage, head-on.
- Allow time and space.
I learned once in a counseling psychology class that it takes two years to grieve the loss of a loved one. In human time, that seems like an eternity. There are stages. And each stage brings a remembrance, especially once you start hitting the “year marks.”
During the last year, each “mark” felt like Valentine’s Day without a lover. “Oh, this is the day I knew my marriage was over,” “Oh, this is the day my mother died,” “Oh, this was the last holiday we spent together…”
Recognizing that grief needs time and allowing space for the grief process to unfold gave me permission to hold that great bowl.
- Accept that sometimes you have a bad day for no apparent reason.
Months, even over a year in, I would have a day (or several) where it felt like there was no reason at all to feel in the dumps. I wanted to refuse to let it get to me. “Stay productive, keep it going; at least, that’s what your mother would want.”
But on those days, I just held up at home. Watched The Real Housewives on Bravo if I needed. Read People magazine. Saw a chick flick. Ordered a pizza with mushrooms and olives and ate it all.
I came to learn that grief pressures you to go within. I told my friends, “Bad day. Can’t talk. That’s all.”
I didn’t try to force it to be something different.
- Allow light in the middle of it all.
Although there were many weeks of despair that seemed to bleed together, like a faded diary dropped in a hot bath, there were days in between when I experienced joy.
A fun lunch out with a friend, New Years out with my brother, a no-reason-to-be-happy-day when I felt vibrant and creative. Or like at that holiday party, which I didn’t really want to go to, but I put on make-up and blow dried my hair and ran into an old college friend.
Embrace those days and don’t feel guilty. Life is to be lived, because one day—and we all know the adage—we will die.
- Accept that this too shall pass.
Like everything else, all suffering will go, until one day it comes again.
The greatest thing about death is that it helps us grow up. It matures us. It brings wisdom. It strengthens our bones. It teaches us to let go.
We learn we can go through hard times, and with little effort the sun shines again. We can take off our shoes and touch toes to sand and run on the beach, knowing that we made it through. Our happiness never really went away—it still exists inside of us—yet, we are remembering it anew. Fresh, transformed, aliveness engages us again.