You might not understand the degree to which your personality—your unique way of being in the world—plays into your way of grieving. You may not have allowed for the circumstances of your loss and their impact on you. The importance, power, and uniqueness of your loss is sometimes overshadowed by analyzing your grief and attempting to gauge its “correctness.”
This is why it is so helpful to write or tell your grief story—an honest account of what happened to you and the one you lost. A grief story exposes the beauty, pain, and complexity of your emotions. How you approach writing your story is entirely up to you. But I typically encourage my clients to view their story in three chapters. The first concerns their story of attachment to the one they lost. In the second chapter, we talk about the circumstances of death and the immediate aftermath, such as the visitation, funeral, or other mourning rituals.
The third chapter is life after loss—that is, the life that is unfolding when clients walk through my door and the one unfolding for you now. This third chapter will go on for the rest of our lives. I encourage my clients, as I encourage you, to keep a grief journal going forward.
You, by necessity, must approach this third chapter differently than anyone else. Let me suggest that you write your whole story—all three chapters—in your journal or on your computer. This task can seem daunting, especially if you have never written or kept a journal before. Remember that this writing is just for you. You have all the power. You are discovering your story of grief and should feel free to remember and express yourself as if no one else will ever read what you have written. It’s not important that you create a decent piece of writing—or even a coherent one. Your grief story can be as long or short as you want to make it. It does not have to come together in a linear way. There will be plenty of time to massage and edit later, if that is your wish.
But I do strongly encourage you to write. By doing so, and using the questions and prompts in this book, you will make the feelings and memories that have been floating around inside of you less illusory. Those feelings tend to come and go, but by writing them, you capture them for always.
Through the act of writing, you are also certain to remember and feel things you would not have otherwise. Keep in mind the words of Dr. Rita Charon: “What comes to pen is not always what comes even to mind.”
Your Chapter 1
Start at the beginning, with the day you met or the day your child was born. From there, describe your relationship with the one you lost chronologically, as if you were telling the story to someone who had never heard it before. One memory will lead naturally to another as you write. Try to remember as much as you can—and keep remembering. Feelings are likely to come, many of them painful. Let them come and go, without self-judgment.
Now recall the sights, sounds, and smells. These triggers will also help you further recall details of your relationship and the degree of your attachment to the one you lost. Again, you will probably think of things that had never consciously occurred to you. As you reflect you might come to know the person you lost in a deeper way. If this adds to your sadness, that’s okay. But it might also deepen your love.
A word to those who felt emancipated by the death of a relative or friend: Focus on the fact that your wish was not that another person die. Rather, it was that the oppression or abuse would end, and it never did. If the relationship was one of being fearful, belittled, minimized, ignored, neglected, abused, abandoned, or engulfed, how could you not feel relief when that has come to an end?
In your story, write the truth of your relationship with the deceased. You are not being disloyal to that person; you are being true to yourself. It might also be helpful to write about the relationship you wish you had had with the person who died. Among other things, it will help you see the gap between what was and what you had hoped for. Include in your story your feelings of grief for what you didn’t have.
Your Chapter 2
Now remember the circumstances of death and the days immediately after.
Was the death sudden or violent, or did it occur peacefully at the end of a long, well-lived life?
Did you find the body? What was that like?
Were you in the accident?
Did the telephone ring in the middle of the night? Who called, and what exactly did he or she say?
When did you last see him?
What was the last thing she said to you?
Do you dwell on things like:
“If he had stayed five minutes longer or turned left instead of right, he would still be alive.”
“I wouldn’t have said that had I known I would never see him again.”
“We were supposed to go the ballgame together.”
In the case of sudden death, that event is when your story changes forever. The memories of these horrible moments can run in a grieving person’s mind on an endless loop. Has that been the case for you? Maybe the loop went on for weeks or months. Maybe it still runs.
If your loved one suffered a traumatic death, it’s important to understand that your basic sorrow has a companion, which is the trauma itself. The trauma is part of your story; the more you know about it and the more times you can look at it squarely, the better. In your story, you’re writing about the death and how your mind and body reacted to it.
Bear in mind that your responses to the trauma may might have included denial, intrusive thoughts or flashbacks. Don’t try to fit your story into these symptoms, but do look at them to see if they are part of your experience.
You may want to work with a professional therapist as you work through this exercise, or you may choose to do it alone. In either case, this exercise (or a version of it) is important. Keep in mind that these experiences are already happening in your life; you’re not creating them by writing about them. There is no harm in writing down what you are feeling today.
“I had a flashback that caused me to lose focus at work.”
“I drove five miles out of my way to avoid being anywhere close to the scene of the accident.”
“I jumped at the sound of a slamming door.”
Now let’s turn to the days immediately after it happened, including the visitation and the funeral.
See the faces and hear the voices of those who came to support you.
Remember how you felt when there were fewer people at the funeral service than you expected.
What was it like to have a house full of people after the service?
Did you have exhaustion from the time of caregiving before the death?
When did you feel most comforted?
When did you feel most angry, confused, alone, bereft?
What was it like as you walked from the gravesite?
What if your loss was a “good death”? As I’ve said, it is impossible to fully prepare for the finality. Explain how you thought you had been prepared but felt a great void nonetheless. Be on the lookout for moments of profound love, kindness, and grace.
Your Chapter 3
We are living in the third chapter of our grief stories. Typically, in the normal narrative arc of a novel or a movie, this is when resolution comes. But remember this: Our final chapter will have a different ending than a book or movie. Although this chapter has a beginning, it really has no ending—or it doesn’t end until we do. The third chapter is dynamic. It will change over time, but it will not end.
That might be a troubling notion for many, especially those looking to cross the finish line of mourning, to achieve acceptance or closure. But those things don’t actually exist in reality. And would we really want them to? What we’re after is to live our grief story going forward, to embrace it and the feelings that are associated with it. We grieve because we love. And the feelings of grief and love that we experience will come up in different contexts as our lives change.
Have you had periods of insomnia?
Who surprised you with their comfort? Who disappointed you?
Did your loss affect your religious beliefs or faith?
Did it affect your close relationships?
Did you save his last voicemail message? Did you listen to it? How often? What did you feel when you did?
Could you give away her clothes?
What was it like to live in the house without her?
Did you try to avoid your favorite restaurants or parks? Did you consciously return to them? If so, why?
How was your first major holiday without her?
What did you do on his birthday?
Was the second year as painful as the first?
Have you kept reminders like photographs, plaques, or other sentimental possessions of your loved one in a prominent spot in your home?
By the time you picked up this book, weeks, months, or even years may have passed since your loss. The longer it’s been, the more memories of your post-loss life are waiting to be retrieved. Take your time. Approach this part of your story as a kindly objective observer, one who looks on without judgment.
Finally, your grief narrative is about what is happening today and in the months and years to come. Claim that part of your story. As with other parts of the journey, journaling may be useful.
“I had a hard time waking up today.”
“I was so comforted when my coworker put her hand on my shoulder.”
“It’s opening day. He loved baseball.”
“I laughed today when I remembered our first date.”
“Hours can pass when I don’t think of her at all. Why do I feel guilty about that?”
“The cherry blossoms are out. She always loved those.”
“I have never spent a Fourth of July without him.”
“I forgot he was gone and picked up the phone to call him.”
“I was driving behind the same model of her car tonight.”
“I am going to make the scrambled eggs the way she liked them.”
“I thought my heart would break when I saw her son walk across the graduation stage.”
“How could I miss him this much after all this time?”
So chapter three will go on. Pay attention to its twists and turns, ups and downs. Continue to honor your remarkable story. But for now, congratulations are in order. You’ve bravely remembered. You’ve put expectations and self-judgment aside and felt love, joy, resentment, sadness, anger, confusion, gratitude, and regret over this story, which is like no other. You’ve done it.
This adapted excerpt is from GETTING GRIEF RIGHT, by Patrick O’Malley, PhD with Tim Madigan. Sounds True, July 2017. Reprinted with permission.