Grief is Hard. Here are Some Things That Helped Me.
As I’m writing this it’s my mom’s birthday. She would have been 63 today. My mom died in 2010 after an almost 4 year battle with colon cancer. I was 20. My brother had just turned 15. She died right between my sophomore and junior year of college. I went back to school a few days after it happened, which to this day still baffles me. Grief is such a strange process. At the time I remember wanting to go back to school just to find something, anything that felt normal. When I look back on that time in my life now, I don’t get it. My mom died on August 20th. I went back to school on August 29th to start my junior year. The year, as I’m sure you can imagine, was a huge blur. I don’t remember classes, names of professors, or pretty much any of the school year.
It might be weird, but I like to celebrate my mom’s birthday. Her birthday, the anniversary of her death, and Mother’s Day are three days that I always know are going to be a struggle for me. The holidays are hard, sure, but something about those days just punches me in the gut. I feel really strongly (as you guys know), about TALKING about the hard stuff in life. Owning it. Not being afraid of it. Letting people in. Because I was missing her and wanted to celebrate her, I posted about it on Instagram. I want to make it clear that I don’t ever do these things for attention or for sympathy. I post about my own struggles because I believe in honesty and transparency. I also have spent so much time being somebody who doesn’t talk about the hard stuff. I just can’t do it anymore. We need to talk about this stuff. It’s part of being a human.
I’m obviously no expert (and you’ll see below that I think it’s SO important that you talk to a professional), but here are some things that have helped me through my grief process. I hope they help you too!
SOME THINGS THAT HELPED ME WITH MY GRIEF
Professionals. I can’t say this enough. Talk to a professional about your grief. Even if you don’t think you need it. Honestly? Especially if you don’t think that you need it. Losing somebody is confusing, uncharted territory. When you lose somebody that you love it’s like you suddenly live on a completely new planet where everybody speaks a foreign language and you have to learn how to live all over again. You do not have to go through that process alone. Professionals like counselors, psychiatrists, psychologists, and other specialists are equipped to help guide you through the loss of one of your favorite people. Use them. Keep them on your team.
It took me a long time to talk to a professional about that loss of my mom. A lot of that was because I was 20 and didn’t know how to go about finding somebody, but a lot of it was from the messaging that I got from others. I was still a college athlete at this time and regularly got the message from my coach and teammates that I needed to “suck it up” and “get over it”. Was that helpful? Abso-fucking-lutely not. Hearing that message over and over made me feel like I didn’t need to get help, like I was being overly dramatic, and it made me feel like I was weak for still being sad. Once I met my psychiatrist a few years later I realized how terrible those messages had been for my own mental health and processing. Grief isn’t set in stone. It is a long-ass journey that you will probably always be on. You don’t have to be on that journey by yourself. Talking to somebody who was professionally equipped to talk about grief made such a huge impact for me. So did things like antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication. There is no right or wrong way to deal with your grief. Talking to a professional and understanding how it works was (and still is) SO helpful for me. Even if you lost somebody you loved decades ago, it’s still OK to need professional reinforcements.
Spending time with her. Given that my mom died in 2010 I fully get that this might sound crazy, but I honestly don’t care. I still take the time to spend time with my mom. I also look at this as dedicated time to think about her, remember her, and to get sad about her absence if I need it. Even over 8 years later her loss is sometimes too much for me to bear. Setting aside time to “spend” with my mom makes me feel connected with her. Sometimes that means that I write her a letter, go for a walk and listen to her favorite songs, or just lay in my bed and have a recreational cry. Sometimes the thing that helps the most is getting in the car with my brother and driving out to a spot that reminds us of her, like one of her favorite bookstores. When I schedule time to spend with her, it lets me really process the emotions of her not being here. It gives me more than a random five minutes in the shower to remember her. It makes me feel like I am getting to know her better. Setting aside time dedicated just to my mom lets me feel her and to fully feel my emotions. Which leads me to…
Letting myself feel. I noticed that, a few years after my mom died, the nagging sensation to “get over it” kept pushing back into my brain. When you first lose somebody it’s fucking terrible. Everything is awful and it’s hard to breathe and just getting through the day feels like a Herculean effort. Something that is comforting during this time is the idea that “it won’t always be this bad”, so when I found myself breaking down at work a few years later I felt really angry. It had been FIVE years, what was my problem? I realized as I talked to my psychiatrist that I needed to embrace the fact that this is always something I will feel deeply, and those feelings won’t always be easy. It was really hard for me at first, but just letting myself feel whatever feelings come up has helped me a ton. This way I’m not bottling them up, which could lead to a HUGE breakdown later, you know? When I feel a wave of sadness coming on about the loss of my mom I sit with it. I put on her favorite songs, I write in my journal, or I’ll bundle myself up in one of her blankets. I feel the feelings, observe them, and honor them. I give myself permission to be sad. I acknowledge that there’s nothing wrong with me. If I’m really struggling, I tell the people around me. I am a HUGE believer in normalizing grief and mental health. I used to be terrified to tell anybody when I was struggling, but now I own it as much as I can. Letting myself feel what comes up has helped make the days that I do feel sad much more manageable.
Finding friends that have been there. Because you just can’t make dead mom jokes with anybody else, am I right?! My freshman year of college I met a girl named Alex who had lost her mom years before. My mom was still around at the time, but her prognosis was such that we knew she wouldn’t be for much longer. When my mom did pass away, Alex was one of the only people my age that understood the complex wave of emotions I was dealing with on the daily. Since meeting Alex I’ve met a small but mighty tribe of women (and a few good men) who have lost a parent somewhere along the way. Talking to those people is so important because they understand the things that are hard to articulate, and always offer a listening ear when I needed to vent about wedding planning without my mom, or when I feel sad about not being able to remember certain family stories. Don’t get me wrong, having great friends who haven’t lost somebody is important too (and I love them so much!) but sometimes you just need to talk to somebody who gets it. Find those people. There are tons of great groups on Facebook and Meetup if you need some extra help.
Talking about it. I used to struggle to talk about the fact that my mom was sick, or that she had passed away. I noticed how uncomfortable it would make people, especially college students (my mom died a few days before my junior year of college started). Since I didn’t want to make anybody uncomfortable I just … stopped talking about it. Did this help? Shocker! It didn’t. Not talking about my mom made me feel guilty, and bottling everything up just made things feel even worse than they already did. I felt like a ticking time bomb, about to burst into tears at any moment. That’s no way to live.
Now I approach things differently. If it comes up, I talk about her. I try to be very honest and candid about the fact that she passed away. If I am missing her more than usual, I vocalize it. If I need some time alone, I tell somebody. I call my dad, I talk to my brother, I call one of her sisters, or I will reach out to one of her besties. And you know what? They are probably missing her a shit-ton, too. I started talking about my mom when I heard other people talk about loved ones they were missing. I hope that when I talk about my mom it encourages you to talk about your people, too.