Here are10 practical self-help steps for someone going through the grieving process. These tips are excerpted from my ebook, Evolving Through Grief. I am an unwitting authority on bereavement, grief, suffering and sorrow - I've lost my sister, two best friends, two brothers, mother, father, brother in law, and my son.
Again, although my family and friends had good intentions, perhaps a few moments of complete quiet would have helped rejuvenate my spirit. It's not to say that I should have been left alone, because I probably was too unstable to be left alone, but at least I should have tried to rest more. I also should have forced myself to eat more nutritionally, and should have taken a multi-vitamin to supplement my lack of appetite. If you are fortunate enough to have a loving caregiver, tell that person to help you to remember to eat, to sleep, and not to overdo anything that can be taxing to an already emotionally and physically depleted person.
Ultimately, the initial first few days are the hardest. Simple bodily functions are no longer second nature. After you have been a nurturing caregiver to another living, breathing human being, and that person no longer requires your guidance and care because he or she has left this earth, you are no longer the person you used to be. It's like having a stroke and you have to learn to walk and talk again, except in this case, you may remember to walk and talk, but you don't know how to eat, sleep, dream, or love. You may not even remember how to care for yourself or for anyone else. All of these have to be learned again. In essence, you begin to reinvent yourself.
When you start to feel your sanity slip, do whatever positive thing you can think of to hold on: pray, meditate, go get a full body massage at a spa, scream at a starlit sky, take a trip to a new place, stare at sunsets, lay in an open field and watch the clouds drift, or do all of these things at once: Just do something for you! And don't feel guilty about being selfish about it. You can't do anything for others if you don't take care of yourself first. You can't be loving to others if you aren't loving to yourself first. Then, when you start to feel a sense of renewal, think about extending the love you still want to express for your child in a way that will benefit others. Believe it or not, there will always be someone else who has experienced greater sadness and loss. My brother in law, Abe, sent me a wonderful book called, Finding Purpose for Your Pain, which conveys this same thought. If you truly understand that we are all connected, you begin to understand that the dynamics of your heartache and how you handle it can be a source of comfort and inspiration for others.
Often, it seems easier to pray when you're heartbroken and downtrodden, and sometimes we forget to pray when things are going well. If you have never been a prayerful person, maybe this is a good time to start. A silly movie comes to mind that had a wonderful quote: "Be the miracle." It was from the movie, "Bruce Almighty" and though the movie might have been more entertaining than enlightening, it still held an important message for me: We each can be a miracle no matter what situation we may find ourselves in. If we, as parents who have lost our children, can find a way to be the miracle, it will be that we can learn to carry our burden of sadness no matter how heavy laden and weak we are. ASAP: Again, believe it to be true for you and it will be. How will you know if it works if you haven't tried it?
One of the main things that demanded my attention was that I still had a wonderful family that needed me: my husband, Thomas, my two teenage daughters, Chloe and Rachel, and my six year old son, Joseph. Knowing that they were taking cues from me in how to cope with our tragedy gave me some strength in getting through the routines of living week to week, and month to month. Probably one of the most positive things that happened was that a friend, Laura, had bought Joseph some children's books on grief which were so enlightening and helpful. As a small child who had lost a sibling, Joseph really needed me to guide him through the process. As a result, I gained a lot from the books as well.
Try to occupy your own time and mind with something that will make you feel useful. In the first couple of weeks, we planted trees in honor of my son that were actually gifts from good friends. A close friend, Mary, from work bought me some beautiful frames at my request, and I poured over family albums and had some of my favorite pictures of my son enlarged for framing. My brother, Rick, bought me a scrapbook, and I began to clamor through my son's belongings looking for special memorabilia to save, such as old report cards, Mother's Day and birthday cards that he had made. My principal, Barbara, from the school where I taught fifth grade, bought me a large 16 by 20 inch frame with fourteen slots in it. Picking out pictures of my son that were especially important for immortalizing into the frame took me a week to finish. When I think about having done all these things in my son's honor, I know that I was trying to show the world that my son was still alive in me and in my heart, and that I could never use the past tense of the word, "love," in referring to him.
My love for reading was rekindled when a friend of my husband's sent me a lovely book of daily devotional readings called, Streams in the Desert, by L.B. Cowman. Every morning, I began with reading scripture, beautiful descriptive poetry and prose on faith and hope, and found that somehow, some way, I was beginning to feel rejuvenated and reassured that God really had a purpose in taking my son from me to live with Him. Moreover, I began to feel inspired to write poetry again after two months of being a walking zombie. I found that being lonely meant that I had to become my own best friend all over again.
The opening verse in Chapter 3 is from a song, "Home to Myself." That was my personal song to sing whenever I felt lonely as a teenager. I actually began to write poetry at the age of fifteen to combat the loneliness I felt. I figured that I could always talk to myself, if there was no one else to talk to. As a teacher, I have always taught children that writing in a journal, or prose and poetry, is a wonderful way to get in touch with your thoughts, and to organize them. Thus, to combat my loneliness in the second month, I began to write my thoughts down in my journal. When I read my poetry now after a year has passed, it brings back all of the torment and sadness, yet offers a ray of hope to me. I feel like I was lost at sea and somehow swam back to shore. I felt that I was buried in the desert, somehow dug my way out and stumbled across a trickling stream.
One of the things that people don't understand is that parents need to continue talking about their child, recounting and reliving every little thing he did or said, good or bad. Many books on grief encourage this type of conversation, so that parents can come to terms with the different relationship that they are beginning to build with the child who is gone. It is a relationship that may not include future joys, but there are so many countless moments of joy in our memories that are precious and priceless, and these need to be preserved for posterity. Talking about them and reminiscing allows us to hold onto these precious memories.
As a poet, I tend to write down my thoughts. Even if writing has never been one of your hobbies, you must realize that what you are experiencing is incredibly unique. Outliving your own child is not the usual course of nature in a person's lifetime. This kind of grief is by far the most difficult one to cope with and the most painful. As I reminisce now about how I felt a year ago, and the calendar has just turned to September, a year and three months later, I'm shocked at how differently I view the world, my relationship with my husband, with my surviving children, with my sweet, beloved son, Gian, and ultimately with myself. This period has been the hardest to sit down and write about, because this chapter of my life a year ago (2nd trimester of grief) was by the far the hardest chapter for me to live.
Even if you don't feel that you're a good writer, it can be so healing for you to keep a journal. The phases of grief can be sporadic and have differing intensities in different circumstances. In the days following my son's birthday, I constantly referred back to the poem I had written to lift my own spirits. Then, as the Georgia weather began to turn into cool, autumn air, I became restless and upset, because fall had always been my most favorite time of the year. Then I found that I couldn't face the autumn without my son. I couldn't face the time passages, the constant memories of autumns passed. I wrote poetry to help me to collect my thoughts, give them a concrete foundation, and to help me to express my sorrow.
Eventually, though, I nose-dived into shock, which led to depression, which led to anger, and eventually led to numbness. The important thing to say here is this: I kept writing about what I was experiencing, so I wouldn't have to hold it all in. I've since found journal entries from that time that seethe with anger and blame. The pain jumped right out of the pages and grabbed me by the throat when I recently read them. The acknowledgement of that pain is what actually led me to begin writing this book. The fact that I actually survived through all of that turmoil let me know that I was managing to harness the pain that I was experiencing. As I continue to harness this pain, I know in my heart that I'm on the path to healing. Chronicling the journey has allowed me to assess my own grief work.
This article is available as a PDF you can download: Roe Ziccarello: 10 Steps to Heal Your Grief
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