If you read the comments in the forums of Grief in Common, you’ll see that when grievers are given an opportunity to share their story, they will talk about who they lost, when it happened, and the circumstances surrounding the loss. And besides their grief the one thing that so many of these grievers have in common is the “end” of their story, where they say, “and now I just don’t know what to do…”
For some there is a “to-do” list on the other side of loss. The planning of the memorial service perhaps, or the settling of the estate. There are closets to be cleaned out, thank you cards to write and phone calls to be made. I find for most there is a paradox in the chores that follow loss. While tedious and tiresome, sad and somber, there’s still something to be said for the role these chores play in keeping a griever on track in the beginning, and the way that they keep the deceased in their daily life, plans and conversation.
But eventually everything on the to-do list gets crossed off and there’s nothing actually left to do, but grieve.
And what does that look like? Crying all the time? Pining, longing and yearning? Because in the beginning everything about the grieving is a verb, an action – something to do. But eventually there comes a point where that changes and it feels like a noun- a thing: the grief. And what’s a person “to do” with that?
As we try to figure out what’s next or when we say “I don’t know what to do” we may be basing it on the assumption that there is a right answer and a wrong answer…a right way to do things and a wrong way to do things.
But the hardest fact to face may be that there isn’t anything left “to do” after loss, but live.
I think when people say “I don’t know what to do” it’s because in fact, they don’t want to do anything at all. They want to curl up, go to sleep, and escape the living nightmare of loss. Anything that seemed essential before, all the running around and worries, have lost all importance- and for some grievers it may feel like there’s nothing left to do that has any meaning at all.
Because a great loss can teach us that we don’t have control over our lives. That for as much as we plan and worry and hope, when all is said and done, our loved one has still left us and there is nothing to do that can change it. When grievers say “I don’t know what to do”, what they’re really saying is “I know there’s nothing I can do to bring them back, and I don’t know what to do with myself or this life I've now been given“.
And so perhaps that’s why the only thing left to do is to focus on healing, rebuilding and searching for sources of strength.
This isn’t easy. In fact for most grievers this may be harder then the grief itself. As much as moving forward may seem like an obvious goal to an outsider, some grievers aren’t particularly interested in getting better. That place up ahead is only further away from their loved one. Further away from the familiar comfort of what used to be. Staying in the grief, and living in the memories of the past may feel like the only comfortable place to stay connected to someone who is gone.
Still, there comes a time for most grievers when they feel that’s no longer working for them. As much as they may want to go back, there’s no denying the pull of time. The changing days in the calendar. The realization that life moves ahead whether we want it to or not.
Taking it “one day at a time” can be frustrating advice. Perhaps because a griever’s day feels longer- experiencing 100 days worth of memories, second guessing and emotions each and every day. One day at a time requires patience, and a clear head. Everything about grief is just too much, and every single task and every decision becomes too overwhelming. Too tiring. Too hard to decide. Too little energy to care.
Instead, when trying to figure out what “to do” after the loss of a loved one, or trying to make a decision, ask yourself a few questions:
Does this need to be decided today?
Is someone expecting an answer from me?
Is there a deadline or a timeline?
We inadvertently create some of our own stresses by putting an urgency or deadline on decisions that may not otherwise exist. As we start out each and every day we can only focus on what is literally right in front of us. Get out of bed. Eat breakfast. Make an actual to do list. Seek out the tangible tasks. And as you go through each, consider the questions above. Some things, like paying bills, can’t wait. But other decisions like, where am I going to live/what happens if I can’t care for this house by myself/who is going to take care of me when I’m older, probably don’t need to be decided (or frankly couldn’t possibly be known or decided) today.
Each day, make time to sit with your grief or to connect with the loved one you’ve lost. Find a small ritual that could bring comfort (wearing their shirt to bed or sitting in “their” chair while you watch TV). Talk to your loved one as you go through the day, tell them what’s going on and don’t think it’s strange to verbalize the difficulty you may be having in trying to make decisions or move ahead without them.
And above all, remember how much they would want you to be okay. And that some days the only thing “to do” is to get up and do your best to keep their memory alive.