In 2007 when my husband died after a less than eight week battle with advanced cancer, I was 33 and tried to outwit my grief with things such as intellect, busyness, work, exercise and other hobbies. I had a graduate degree in social work, and thought if I could outsmart grief it would dissolve. I also tried travel (including international) both solo and with others to see if a change in landscape would quiet the pain. While working full-time helped the daytime hours pass, the evening and weekend hours seemed to linger longer and darker than the daytime and weekday ones. Much to my dismay, I discovered that grief doesn’t care how rich or poor you are, how successful you are, what zip code you reside in or how smart you are. Grief is the great equalizer. And on the threshold of panic thinking I couldn’t get through the rawness of another wedding anniversary without my best friend, I wrote this "Alphabet of Grief" as a way to look at grief.
A stands for Absorb: It took me several months to realize that my grief had burrowed itself deep within my body. I thought it was pretty audacious of grief to not only rip through my world, but then to take up residence within my body and cause physical discomfort. This felt unfair. Sometimes the bereaved experience broken heart syndrome or panic attacks or migraines. For myself, deliberate body work including yoga, mediation, running and breath work helped me mitigate the problems.
B stands for Blind spot: Unfortunately, we do not have panoramic vision. Our visual acuity (literally and figuratively) is limited and grief can restrict it even more. The bereaved often can’t perceive what others see as far and this can impact their decisions. For myself, at times, grief took out the color in the world, and I saw things very much in black- and- white.
C stands for Core: Grief hits the very core of your being and completely obliterates your sense of self. Without a strong core, us mortals tend to sway to the slightest winds. This means the bereaved don’t feel strong to make decisions both short-term and long-terms. It means while at the market, the bereaved pause to rethink what groceries to purchase. It means they consistently feel off balance and finding an equilibrium becomes a daily painful task. It also means grief can rob them of daily energy and self-esteem. This lack of confidence that comes with healthy self-esteem makes decisions seems like inordinate challenges. In other words, the bereaved feel others and the world around them is unreliable.
D stands for Defeat: No matter how the death happened there is likely a sense of defeat. Perhaps a literal battle with alcohol or depression or cancer ended. Or maybe it was a death so abrupt and tragic it leaves even the most stoic teary-eyed. No one wants to tell the bereaved this but death does damage. For the bereaved it is like death leaves them alone in a very dark room and upon exit they are changed. One can’t help but be changed by this experience. It doesn’t mean that the damage is permanent but for a while, the bereaved know and feel something severed their heart and there stands that feeling of defeat.
E stands for Eager: Often the bereaved are eager for a distraction, and then once experiencing one rather it be a movie or a weekend away with friends they want to crawl back into their shell. They are eager to get back to the familiar routine only to discover that great sorrow has replaced the former schedule.
F stands for Fear: C.S. Lewis famously wrote, "No one ever told me grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid." We are each on a journey and post loss, fear often seems to be constant companion. Some miles are easier to travel than others and there are times the bereaved seems to be coasting along only to be ambushed by fear. And suddenly all the fears named and unnamed wash over the bereaved like a tsunami. Along the way, though it is possible to find companions both in word and in deed who will help get the bereaved across the icy spots.
G stands for Goodness: Despite being in a new world, I found goodness still exists. Certainly, there were times of hopelessness that I tasted, but there were unlikely people who were unafraid of my sadness and sat next to me. I call them "unlikely" in the sense that they didn’t have a reason to extend themselves to me. They weren’t paid professionals or weren’t part of my family. These people had a way of coming to me in the realest way. Their repeated kindness and goodness were forces that showed me love can hold us when we are suffering.
H stands for Healing: The multiple fractures that death creates are real, severe and deep. However, I know that healing is possible. It isn’t fast, but when I learned that in the midst of terrible sorrow that goodness still exists, healing began to take root. And slowly, I began to see that the world still had things to offer me- not in the overly materialistic way, but in things like a friend’s letter, a long forgotten photograph of my beloved sent to me from afar, a candle lit at a New York City cathedral or an early morning mediation. And upon this moments of awakening I felt there was joy still calling me to be witness to it.
I stands for Identity: The bereaved have a new identity as a surviving partner, spouse, parent, sibling. This new identity is ill-fitting and awkward. And yet, I know that we are more than our identities. We are more than our deepest mistakes and losses. Our identity is more than any type of status the secular world may label us with.
J stands for Joy: After my husband died, I didn’t realize joy wasn’t killed, but instead was still waiting for me to witness to its gifts — both small and large. And the longer I clung to my fears the more I unknowingly kept blocking joy. Joy verges on sweaty palms, wrestles fear aside and ushers even the most skeptical into the light. And without my consent, I found it calling me back into the sun.
K stands for Kindness: Often the bereaved have this amazing ability to send themselves on the most excruciating guilt trip with the Resentment triplets named Shoulda’, Coulda’, Woulda’ as their guides. If you are in lament, listen to how you speak to yourself. Be kind to yourself in speech and in action.
L stands for Leaving room for the unexpected: Leave room in your day for the unexpected rather it be a movie or a phone call or event a hug. And equally as important, leave room in your heart to love again, and I’m speaking about a romantic relationship, but I mean to leave room for that love that a friendship brings. Love that a masterpiece, rather it is hanging in an art institute or it is the drawing your grandchild created. Love that song, that photograph, that book. Love.
M stands for Miracle: I’m not speaking of a specific religious faith; instead, I’m writing about miracles in the sense of wonder – something that moves you between the world of rational to the world of unknown infinity. A miracle might be an experience one has in a chance encounter with someone who offers healing words about a loved one.
A few years ago, I was rather upset, thinking about defeat when I was driving and came upon a license plate that read "Hope Mor(e)." And there you have it. For me, the miracle was in the form of a message. And for those who want to believe in a faith beyond what the eyes can see, I view this message of hope to me as a miracle of sorts. Those two words were what I needed to see. I can’t explain how this license plate suddenly appeared in my line of vision, but there it was "Hope Mor(e)" and that’s what I think miracles nudge us to do: Hope more.
N stands for No: Sometimes the bereaved say "Yes" when they mean "No" out of fear for hurting someone’s feelings. Saying "No" to blame and second-guessing is tough but often necessary as a part of healing.
O stands for Open: Saying "No" allows one to stay open to another path and to receiving gifts. During grief, the heart tends to constrict, and staying open to healing and the unknown takes courage. Closing the heart and mind can be hindrances to healing. Stay open.
P stands for Pass: If you are reading this as someone who is grieving, give yourself a pass. Perhaps, you made a commitment you now regret. Give yourself "a pass" and tell them "no." Maybe you are wondering how you’ll get through the holiday dinner, and now the day is upon you and you would rather stay home, use your "pass". You get to sit it out.
Q stands for Question: The bereaved find themselves questioning everything from how they will make it through the day to if they should fire their accountant. They will question their family’s loyalty and friend’s intentions. The bereaved want very much to trust, but post-loss they’re often living in the world of the unknown, which means they question everything.
R stands for Rawness: The internal wounds of the bereaved are raw and traumatic. To an outsider, it may appear the bereaved need to push through the pain and toughen up, but what is unknown is the wound seems to burn through all the layers of the skin, only to leave behind a fistful of scar tissue. And the scar tissue doesn’t care if you are strong in mind. Therefore, be gentle to all that is unseen and unknown.
S stands for Silence: The bereaved experience disgraceful silence, uneasy silence, forced silence, respectful silence and other rhythmic silences that evoke both love and fear. Grief speaks loudest during the silence as this is when the absence of the loved one is most deeply felt.
T stands for Tiny Steps: Healing doesn’t occur in one fail swoop. Instead it often occurs in tiny turtle steps. The bereaved often inch their way towards the goal and sometimes even crawl. What is important is that they are still moving towards the light.
U stands for Unique: No one heals exactly the same way. If you’re reading this as someone who is grieving, I am writing this to tell you that how decide to handle the circumstances surrounding your loved one’s death is unique yours. It is yours to decide what is useful for your healing. How you perceive this loss may be unexpected and may become undone by grief, but this too is uniquely yours to experience.
V stands for Vacillate: The bereaved may tell you that their thinking at times can be powerful from believing they’ve conquered grief, only to feeling moments or days later that they can’t get through the day without crying. The slightest thing can send the bereaved into a spiral of fear, and it is also important to remember the bereaved have the capacity to heal.
W stands for Wonder: If you’re lamenting a loved one then you know the world, this life is filled with horrific terrible experiences, and still there remains beauty and wonder. We may be used to seeing beauty with our loved ones and just thinking of experiencing beauty and wonder without them seems wrong. And still there remains myriad ways to witness beauty and stand in wonder of the unknown.
X stands for X- Ray: If there was a magical way that grief could appear as an actual wound on an x-ray image it could help to serve practitioners who treat the bereaved, and it may also surprise those who thought their wounds had long healed. Unresolved issues of grief have an uncanny and surprising way of staying within the body. Years after a loss, it is not unusual for a bereaved one to experience bouts of sadness related to their loss. Sometimes the bereaved aren’t even connecting their sadness to their loss for they believe years earlier they were healed. Grief may be a shadow in our body waiting for the time to heal.
Y stands for (and) YET: There are tragic and traumatic things that happen in life and YET there is there exists a tenderness so profound that it can unfurl the tightest grip one has on fear. Wonder is something that made my (now) late husband curious about heaven. Shortly after he was diagnosed with advanced cancer, knowing his life was coming to an end, he wondered aloud about the afterlife- heaven. It was this sense of wonder that lessened his fear of dying and held for him promise in his next chapter.
Z stands for Zen: As with the miracle segment, I’m not writing about a particular religion or faith. What I’ve learned, since 1979 (when my father died) is that inner peace is possible after loss. Those "zen" like moments usually catch the bereaved off guard. Personally, I know when this happens I"m not prepared for them. It may be a song that moves the bereaved to tears or a photograph that falls out between the pages of a book, and these are the things that remind the bereaved of a land far ago. There are things the bereaved may not be capable of- forgetting trauma may be one of those things. However, the bereaved are capable of experiencing "zen" like experiences if even for fleeting moments, and these moments remind the bereaved that beyond all the suffering there remains a peace that surpasses comprehension.