Taking Grief One Day at a Time

By Betty Ann Rutledge

"Anyone can carry his burden, however hard, until nightfall.
Anyone can do his work, however hard, for one day. Anyone can live
sweetly, patiently, lovingly, purely, till the sun goes down. And
this is all life really means."

Robert Louis Stevenson

When grief sneaks up on us unexpectedly – often for me, at the most inopportune times like riding the subway or walking through a shopping mall – we call those moments “grief triggers”.  Something happens to remind us of the person we have lost and we are thrown into a sudden and painful grief spiral. Sometimes, I don’t even realize what’s happened until I’ve had an utterly miserable day where I feel crabby, distracted, teary – or any number of unpleasant emotions and thoughts – until it finally dawns on me that I’m in a “hit of grief”. This is a normal and natural part of grieving, but when it takes us by surprise; it can be overwhelming, scary and disorienting.

Other times in our lives we can “see grief coming”. The anticipation of an anniversary or birthday will often bring a wave of fresh pain – and will be different for each person and shift and change over time. Seasonal changes often invite (or force!) us to uncover another layer of our relationship to loss and so it may be helpful to do some pre-emptive planning in preparation for what the fall may bring.

For the newly bereaved as well as for those of us whose journey has stretched over many years, September presents a new series of challenges, as we begin to experience all the markers of the passage of time that painfully remind us of who is missing in our families and in our lives. The Labour Day Weekend, so focused on preparing children for return to school - Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year, a time for introspection and self-reflection) - Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement and remembrance) – Thanksgiving - Fall Equinox - Ramadan (the Muslim month of spiritual renewal and reconnection to family and community) -Halloween - a series of holidays, holy days and special occasions that we must learn to navigate with our new reality of grief and loss.

Whether in an unexpected grief trigger or dreading an upcoming special day without your beloved child, parent, sibling, spouse or partner, it might help to ask yourself what are the things that can bring you comfort and help see you through the tough times:

  • Is there a trusted friend or family member that you can call to sit with you or listen to you?
  • Do you have a favourite book or article that has given you solace in the past that you might turn to?
  • Does a close connection to nature soothe you:  a walk, sitting in a park, being near water?
  • Is there an “online” community of similarly bereaved people you can connect to through a message board or chat room?
  • What about an outlet for your thoughts and feelings that is more private, like writing or painting?
  • Can you “sit” with the moment of tenderness and grief, mindful of breathing through whatever wave of emotion has come and trust that it will pass?

 As bereaved people, we know better than anyone that the losses we have experienced make us wary and resistant of any other changes being imposed on us. This change of seasons is just another change that we have no choice about and so can often resurrect thoughts and feelings related to our past loss (es).  But we also know that our losses have meant that we have had to change to survive. 

A great quote I found recently by Max DePree says, "When you can't change the direction of the wind, adjust your sails."

I think that’s what we’ve learned how to do as bereaved people – one of the necessary tasks of grief that has helped us to survive – we’ve learned how to adjust our sails. Miraculously, and with the help, support and inspiration of fellow bereaved people, for many of us, we have found ways to integrate our grief into our lives in a way that has allowed us to move forward. With a lot of hard and painful work; we have found a way to make meaning. Rabbi David Wolpe says it so beautifully: “Understanding that we can make loss meaningful is not the same as being glad that the loss happened.” 

Without choosing to, we have all become experts at managing change. In some ways, we are better equipped than anyone to face whatever life throws our way. As an organization that has been evolving and changing for 28 years, BFO-Toronto is currently experiencing its own big transition in our move to the new house on Madison Avenue – a very positive change, but a change none-the-less, and one that we are all going to be adjusting to for a period of time.

Many positive changes in the lives of bereaved people can also cause a renewed surge of grief:  a young person getting married without the presence and support of a loving parent; a bereaved parent invited to attend the bar/bat mitzvah of a dear friend’s child; a bereaved spouse asked to celebrate a family member’s wedding anniversary.  Time and again, we are all asked to rise to the challenge of managing our grief in one way or another.

So as I continue to ride my own personal waves of change and grief, I try and remember that I can manage anything, just for today. And when I am in a “hit of grief”, I just need to think about all of you who have inspired me with your courage and grace and resiliency in the face of your losses, and I know that I’ll be okay.  As long as I remember to just take it one day at a time.

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