An Open Letter to Anyone Who Has Recently Experienced a Loss

Dear Friend,

I’m sorry you’re having to go through this, and more than anything, I hate that this is now a part of your life. While I don’t have magical words to make this better, here’s what I want you to know.

Maybe there’s a reason this happened. Maybe there isn’t. One day you’ll hopefully see good in the person you become or the life you live because of your loss. But today does not have to be that day. Because this sucks. It’s unfair. It’s hard. And it’s exhausting. Don’t diminish that.

Cry. Or don’t cry. Just don’t let those around you make you feel as if you’re supposed to be acting a certain way. There’s no recipe for grieving (but how great would it be if you could simply measure out a cup of tears, a spoonful of anger and a pinch of numbness to feel better?). Also, don’t worry about progressing through some framework or set of stages. Everyone is different.  Just do what feels natural for you. Respond how you need to respond. Give yourself permission to grieve.

Ignore the stay strong’s. You are strong. You’re living through an unfathomable amount of pain. You’re reading this, which means you woke up this morning (yup, it’s important to celebrate the small victories right now). Being strong doesn’t mean that you keep it together. It doesn’t mean you have to hold back the tears or censor your reactions. It doesn’t mean that you have to give a tight-lipped smile and pledge to people that you’re OK. In fact, letting the tears out is one of the strongest things you can do. Grieving tip #87? Composure is overrated.

Know that there will be people around you who don’t get it. They can’t. In the same way that it is nearly impossible to adequately describe the pain you’re feeling, it’s difficult to relate to this unless you’ve been through something similar. So when someone says the absolute wrong thing, try to remember that he or she is inherently limited in his or her ability to relate. If you’re able, assume best intentions, because some of these people will be your closest friends. Remember, this is your experience and your reality. People tell you to “stay strong” because they want to believe that if this happened to them, they’d be OK. Likewise, when they tell you to “move on” or “get over it,” it’s because they want to believe that they’d be able to get over it if this were to happen to them – that it’d be like any other bothersome thing that fades.

From experience, I know that this next bit of advice can be hard to swallow, but it’s probably the best I have. Write down your memories. No really. Do it. A bullet list of thoughts will suffice. I know you think there’s no way you could forget a person you knew so well. But details fade. And maybe, at first, it will only be the small details – the ones you think may not be missed if they’re forgotten. But collectively, they add up. Ask friends and family to write down their memories too. You’ll be grateful for the collection of stories and remembered moments later.

I’m not going to lie to you and say you’ll eventually get over this. “Getting over it” is one of the greatest grief myths I’ve uncovered. The pain will never fully cease. It will, however, change and become less consuming. Years later, you’ll still have hard days, but overall it really does get easier. Remember, this is one of the hardest things you will ever live through. Emphasis on the live through, because you will get through this even though it doesn’t always feel that way.

So, find the things that make you feel even the tiniest bit better. Write. Listen to music. Talk. Run. Take a shower in the dark and cry.  Scream into a pillow. Read. Or, create. Most importantly, let yourself sit in your emotions. Feelings are OK. They’re good. Whether you’re angry, sad, confused, relieved or even happy, it’s OK. These emotions you’re feeling? They mean you had something worth missing. It means the person you lost continues to hold your love. Celebrate that.

Oh and please don’t feel guilty when you have a day when you’re not consumed by thoughts about your loss or loved one. It doesn’t mean you love them any less. It doesn’t mean you miss them any less. It simply means that you’re starting to adjust to your new normal. So let yourself smile. Let yourself laugh. And, most importantly, let yourself live.

Lastly, even though it may feel like it sometimes, you are not alone. You probably won’t believe me until you find others who you feel can relate, but I hope you commit yourself (even if it takes a search party and smoke signal) to finding them. Until then, check out Hello Grief’s online community or do a quick Google or Twitter search for others. It’s worth it.

Sending you more good vibes than you can imagine,

Someone who’s been there

P.S. You’re going to be happy again. Promise.

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#LifeAfterLoss: Finding comfort from Twitter

My name is Sam, and I’m a quote-a-holic.

You know that feeling when someone seems to have put words to your thoughts? I love it. I mean I really love it. I also love when you get the whoa-I-never-thought-of-it-that-way or the oh-I-need-to-remember-this feelings.

Chalk it up to the fact that I like being provoked; I like to feel and man do I like to think.

So, in the same way that music and song lyrics have helped me cope with my loss, reading the thoughts of those who have also experienced the death of a loved one has helped as well.

You know the old adage that says it’s wise to surround yourself with good people? It holds true in both the real world and digital world. And when you’re grieving – even years later – it’s refreshing to surround yourself with people who get it, even if its through virtual means.

There are countless inspirational Pinterest and Instagram accounts you can follow to fill your social media world with a healthy dose of hope and positivity. There are groups you can join and pages you can ‘like’ on Facebook to help you cope too. But for me, there are few things more comforting than the sporadic, daily reminder – in the form of 140 characters – that I’m not alone.

Amidst news updates, friends’ musings and your regular, everyday social media clutter, I’ve mixed in accounts that help me to remember my dad and remind me to grieve well (remember: an all-grief timeline would get exhausting).

You can view or subscribe to my ever-expanding list here, but here are a few of my favorite accounts to get you started.

Know of a must-have account for the list? Comment below.

 

Saying that my dad died: The five ways I share my story

If you’ve experienced the death of someone close to you, it’s inevitable that at some point (well, many points actually), your loved one’s death will come up in conversation. In the 11 years since my dad’s death, I have shared variations of my story more times than I can count, and each time, I’ve felt a little better and healed just a little bit more. In the process, I’ve also realized that depending on the person, the context of your future relationship and the general situation, the way in which you share can look and feel quite different.

Here are the five levels or “tiers” – from least to most intimate – that I’ve identified when it comes to telling people that (and how) my dad died.

TIER ONE: THE NEED-TO-KNOW-QUICKIE

The Need-to-Know-Quickie comes out whenever he comes up in conversation. Most commonly, it’s in response to the “what does your dad do?” question.

Often, “my dad died when I was 11” is offered as an explanation before diving into the next sentence. The conversation continues, and we both leave it at that. If I were to have an emotions gauge, my reading would have spiked moderately before returning to its former state.

TIER TWO: CASUALLY COVERING THE BASICS

One step beyond the Need-to-Know Quickie, Casually Covering the Basic incorporates some of the basic details of my story.

Talking points typically  include the following:

  • I was 11 years old, a daddy’s girl. My sister and brother were 8 and 2, respectively.
  • He died from septic shock that resulted from surgery complications.
  • Thanksgiving of fifth grade was the last time I saw my dad and/or he died on Dec. 1, 2002.
  • Don’t worry*, I’m OK. *Complete with a reassuring, understanding smile.

Then, as with a Tier One, the conversation moves on.

TIER THREE: GETTING MORE PERSONAL

Here’s where things start to get a little more personal, usually because the person with whom I’m talking is particularly engaged and asks a question or two.

How I coped with my loss then and over the years might enter the conversation. The ways in which my family dynamics shifted could as well. We’ll talk about how hard it was for my mom. I’ll maybe mention how my two-year-old brother didn’t understand why daddy wasn’t coming home from the hospital. And, I’ll likely reference Comfort Zone Camp – the nation’s largest free bereavement camp for children who have experienced the death of a parent, sibling or primary caregiver – and its tremendous impact on helping me grow into who I am today.

TIER FOUR: ACTUALLY SHARING MY STORY

This version isn’t as short and sweet as the others.

If you’re on the receiving end of a Tier Four, you’ll get somewhat of a play-by-play of how things unfolded the week of my dad’s death. You’ll hear the different details that, depending on the day, are brought to memory. And, you’ll get the Sparknote version of notable moments of the past 11 years (mom dating, moving, changing schools, college, moving again, etc.).

When I’m actually sharing my story, my emotions can zigzag from sadness and nostalgia (tears included) to happiness sprinkled with smiles and laughter.

TIER FIVE: FASTEN-YOUR-SEATBELT MODE 

The gloves have come off, and composure is forgotten: I’m reliving moments of my story as I tell it. That is, I’m hardly aware of the other person’s presence because I’ve literally been transported back in time, recalling even the minutest of details.

Tier Five tellings are rare. Very, very rare. In fact, I can count the number of times I’ve told my story in this stream-of-consciousness way on one hand.

It’s a vivid memory for me. I remember exactly how it felt to lie on the bed next to him as the words poured sloppily from my mouth. Even though I had shared the story of my Dad’s death with countless individuals throughout the past eight years, this time was different. The stakes were higher. Because this time, I desperately needed the person with whom I was sharing to understand. 

I’m not sure how long it took me; I remember recalling even the minutest of details. Because, I wasn’t giving him my rehearsed, to-the-point version that so many people before him had received. Instead, I was reliving each moment in my mind, as the thoughts and feelings that had never been shared aloud finally found their audience.

It truly seemed counterintuitive that falling for my now ex-boyfriend meant I would find it more difficult to tell him. But I was petrified he’d become just another person in my life who didn’t get it. And I couldn’t have that.

It took time though. I had to consciously make myself vulnerable. I had to give myself permission to drift back in time to really re-experience and reflect on those raw emotions and the pain. Long-winded and less than eloquent, the tears came and my hands shook, but I didn’t stop. He needed and deserved to know about one of the biggest things that shaped the life of the girl he loved. I think, in a way, it actually broke his heart a little to know that he couldn’t do anything about this pain.          

On missing dad and grieving in college

Of course my dad was always there for everything I did
No matter where
What time of day
No matter what I did..
-Of Course, poem #11

Seven years, eight months and 20 days after my dad died, I found myself moving into my dorm at UNC-Chapel Hill, ready to begin my first year.

As my mom and her long-time boyfriend of six years helped me loft my bed, a small thought crept into my mind.

This isn’t how it’s supposed to be. He’s supposed to be here. My dad is supposed to be here keeping my mom calm and using the latest piece of technology (a Droid or iPhone, no doubt) to check off our day’s accomplishments on his slightly obsessive packing and to-do lists. 

Fast-forward one month to family weekend. Once again, I had what I’ll refer to as a this-isn’t-how-it’s-supposed-to-be thought. I was sure that going into our Homecoming Game, he would have known every imaginable statistic about each and every player on Carolina’s football team.

Fast-forward another month. October 17th marked what would have been my dad’s 52nd birthday, and it was my first time experiencing a “Dad day” without my family. To say it hit me harder than the past few years’ worth of birthdays combined would be an understatement.

Skip forward another month and some change to the eight year anniversary of his death. My suitemates weren’t exactly sure what to do when they found me curled up in my room that evening looking at pictures; listening to my dad-songs playlist, surrounded by a box’s worth of wadded up tissues.

Eight years later and still having days when I’m this upset and in hysterics? Yup.

I am a staunch believer that grief is not something that ever goes away.Yes it changes, and yes it becomes less consuming. But does it ever go away? Definitely not, and college reaffirmed this for me. Being in a new environment without my family and the support of friends from home was initially isolating. My first semester was especially difficult.

I do not want to downplay how amazingly supportive the people in my life are. However, there are some interesting things about grieving an “old loss” within the college bubble.

First, there’s the simple and unfortunate fact that time is working against me. For some reason, society has placed an arbitrary expiration date on grief. I began to notice the decline in sympathy and understanding six to 12 months following my dad’s death; and as time passed further, the expectation that I’d “get over it” increased as well. Because of this, it comes as no surprise when my college peers are thrown off when I have bad days – my loss was 11 years ago after all. See, there’s a bit of a mismatch in expectations. Those who have never experienced an immediate loss – through no fault of their own – often buy into the you-get-over-it myth. Perhaps it’s because they have hope that if someone they loved were to die, they’d only face that unimaginable pain for a short amount of time before it magically disappeared. It’s harder to confront and accept the reality that they’d never reach a point where bad days ceased to be a part of their horizon. So, when you’re surrounded by people who can’t understand that grief comes in waves – that years later, for some inexplicable reason, you may be reduced to tears just from seeing a child carried on their father’s shoulders – you can start to feel like there’s something wrong with you, as if you are grieving the “wrong way.”

Second, the fast-paced environment that is college isn’t particularly conducive to grieving. Between classes; deadlines; extracurricular activities; lunch, dinner and coffee dates; studying; parties; events; and trying to squeeze in some sleep, there isn’t much wiggle room for adding reflection, meltdowns or bad days to your schedule. And, when you factor in the expectation that you should always be on the go or ready to have a good time (these are supposed to be ‘the best days of your life,’ right??), grief can exacerbate feelings of isolation.

And finally, there are the times when I’m sharing a memory and realize the person with whom I’m speaking just isn’t getting it. They never knew my dad, so they’re having a hard time picturing this almost-mythical figure I’m gushing about. For them, he’s simply a collection of fragmented stories – memories of a little girl. And how can I even come close to adequately describing him? There are days when it absolutely crushes me to remember the truth: I can’t. Because, a person is so much more than their occupation; their likes and dislikes; or their talents. It’s about the moments you share with them. How they could draw people in. How their presence could fill a room. The unconditional love. The pride. The laughs. The corny jokes. The embraces. It’s all of the intangible little things you can’t put your finger on. It’s the life that made that person special. It’s how having that person in your life made you feel. The majority of the people now in my life never knew him – a truth only heightened within the college bubble. I wish they could have. Maybe then, it would be easier for them to grasp what I’m missing.

Reflecting on Seven Years Later

Though outdated on some level (with cellphones, do-not-call lists and new phone lines, telemarketers aren’t really a 2014 nuisance), this piece – Seven Years Later – that I guest-wrote for Hello Grief more than four years ago continues to resonate.

In the days and weeks following my Dad’s death, countless people told me “it will get easier.” Now, seven years later, I can say that yes, in some ways it has. My Dad’s death is no longer one of the first things I remind myself of when I wake up, nor is it the last thing I think about before I fall asleep; it no longer consumes me.

But, even though it has been 2,655 days, I still miss him.  I still have days and weeks when it’s just as painful as it was seven years ago, and I still have moments that make my head spin.

Seven years after my dad’s death, the five things things that would cause Spontaneous Tear-Ups were as follows:

  1. Overly confident and bizarrely insensitive telemarketers
  2. Questions about family (notably, the “and your dad…?” line)
  3. Things that hit me differently (no really, do you remember that time I was watching The Bachelor?)
  4. Accomplishments and milestones sans dad; and
  5. The tick-tocking of time.

>>Read full article here.

There are days when I feel like it was just yesterday that he died, but other times, I feel as if it has been a lifetime and I can no longer imagine my life with him in it.

There are moments when I must consciously think about how long it has been since he died; it’s as if having him here was a past life of mine—a movie that I’ve watched countless times and memorized but never actually lived.  There are times when I realize that I’m slowly forgetting things I swore I never would and it scares me.  So, I make a concerted effort to replay poignant moments in my mind.

Now, four years later, little has changed. The telemarketer calls are less frequent. The mail addressed to him has slowed. And responding to inquiries about my dad hardly fazes me. But, I still miss him and time has yet to slow down.

Celebrating love

…Your love hasn’t vanished.
It’s within us…
-Vanished, poem #28

Today would have been my mom and dad’s 24th anniversary, and anniversaries – among other “Dad Days” – are always a time for reflection. So although bittersweet, I choose to celebrate the many reminders of their love and life together that I continue to find to this day.

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Never Again, Poem #8

Never again will I see your face
Your smile
Never again
Never again will I hear you speak
Your laugh
Never again
Never again will I be able to talk to you
Your comforting words
Never again
Never again will I be able to hug you
In your warm embrace
Never again
Never again will I be able to kiss you
You kiss me
Never again
Never again will you be at my swim meets
Cheering me on
Never again
Never again will I hear you say “My little Girl”
Ever
Again