By Chad Sewich
A few weeks ago, I lost arguably the most important person in my life when my mom passed away. Although she had a long-term illness, her loss is both shocking and sad (I intentionally used the present tense “is” because her loss still is shocking and sad). For the first few days after she died, all I did was cry every twenty minutes. The rawness of that grief is something you only feel when someone truly close to your soul leaves you. After three days, the shock started to wane and my mind scrambled for ways to cope. Sleep was my main avoidance measure. Anger, guilt, and deep sadness had settled in and I didn’t want to deal with it. But then for just a moment, my mind did a 180 and told me to run into the grief. This is not what my brain had told me six years prior when my father died. At that time, it was resolute in being strong. I physically choked back tears. There was a lump in my throat for eight months as I held back the dam of emotions, scared to let them flow. But this time something in my mind just decided that I couldn’t go through that again. Of course, other thoughts tried to jump in immediately to remind me that I was betraying my mother if I didn’t grieve the “right” way. That meant bottling everything up, being strong, and telling everyone I was fine. Thankfully I kept going back to that first thought that maybe there was a different way – a more healing way to grieve.
Grief is trauma. During the process of grief, other traumas pop up and a swirl of feelings, thoughts, and emotions mix together. I found my mind going to all the times I said or did something hurtful to my mom. Guilt and shame are powerful and the mind uses them to keep you from feeling the emotions in your body where they can be released. We can’t really blame our minds, they’re trying to protect us. The problem is our minds have been conditioned to protect us in unhealthy ways such as repression and avoidance. Little boys are told to be tough and little girls are taught to avoid confrontations. Let me tell you from a lot of experience that being tough and avoiding things is not the path to healing.
When someone you know is dealing with grief or a deep loss, our instinct is to try and help, but that can also be very uncomfortable for us and lead us to say things that do the opposite of helping. The most comforting sentiments I received spoke directly about my mom which brought up wonderful memories. Asking me specifically how I was feeling at that moment also helped.
Allow people who are grieving to be where they are. Don’t try to move them along in their process by saying the grief will pass. While well-intentioned, this is a tactic to make you feel more comfortable in the moment. Let them grieve in their own way and timetable. More importantly, if you are the one grieving, let yourself grieve. That’s way easier said than done for many of us. Thankfully I’ve continued to go back to that first thought of running into the grief. Feeling that sadness in my body. Watching for when my mind tries to steer me in different directions in order to cope. Cry. Cry a lot if you feel like it. It physically heals you. I cried when I was with friends who allowed me to not be “strong”. I cried on a plane two weeks later when I was traveling. I cried at the supermarket when a memory of my mom popped up. The crying has pretty much stopped, other than getting a little welled-up occasionally. My body released a lot of the energy associated with my grief. Even typing that last line, my mind is trying to jump in to tell me I owe it to my mom to continue to be sad for the rest of my life in grief, but of course, that is not what my mom would want. It’s also not how I want to live, so I will continue to feel these feelings and let the grieving process proceed at my own pace.