I once met a woman who used the word “civilians” to describe those who had not experienced the significant loss of a loved one. The griever, she said, has been in the trenches, endured the battle up close…has seen and heard things that can’t be unseen or unheard and often suffers from the post trauma stress that can haunt long after a loss. For me the analogy worked, and it’s one I come back to often when explaining to a bereavement group that there’s certain things only a griever understands.
It’s also what I find brings so many people to seek help outside of their circle of family and friends. Perhaps in the past we would turn to the ones who know us best when struggling with the trials and challenges of life. But everything changes after a significant loss, and especially in the early days, there is no change more evident than in the griever themselves.
Maybe this is why the bereaved seek out others who have not only had a loss, but who have experienced a loss similar to their own. At a time when there is so much uncertainty and so few things that make sense, there is an opportunity for support, validation and camraderie when grievers make connections and feel understood.
Everything that connected us to our network before – our shared interests, hobbies, beliefs, or even the bonds of time and relationship – will not seem to matter as much in loss. The griever wants to talk with those who get it. Because while so much of this experience is foreign to the griever, it may seem even stranger still to the “civlian”.
With that in mind, here are 10 things only the griever understands:
- How it feels to be exhausted and unable to sleep at the same time: if there’s one thing we could never predict is just how tiring grieving can be. But it consumes and takes over, filling up every space of our thoughts with a constant inner monologue of pain, regret and worry. And while the promise of sleep should bring some solace and retreat from the exhaustion they feel in every part of their brain and bones, sleep simply will not come for most grievers. If it does, it is often short and restless. Meaning the opportunities for the griever to escape their pain, even for a few hours, are almost non-existent.
- Why they may want to be alone, even when feeling lonely: who knew there was more than one way to be lonely? Most would assume that loneliness is simply the state of being alone, or of not having people around. Only the griever understands what it’s like to feel alone in a room full of people. Because it’s not just about putting ourselves in a room with people, it’s about spending time with the “right” people- the people who will support and nourish us as we grieve.
- That they know exactly what they want (or don’t want) to do with their loved one’s stuff: I find most often it’s well-meaning family who misunderstand this. Certainly mom wants to move all of dad’s things out right away, isn’t it sort of depressing or morbid to keep his toothbrush where he left it? Or the whole other side of it…why is mom giving everything away? Isn’t she being too hasty, doesn’t she realize that she may regret cleaning everything out so soon? Bottom line, the griever may not know a lot or be sure of too much but for every single bereaved I have ever worked with this is the one place where they know exactly what feels right. The problem can be getting anyone else in the family to see that.
- How to make their grief more comfortable for those around them: here’s something that often happens at the groups I facilitate – a griever introduces themselves, begins to speak about their loved one and their loss, and often times, they begin to cry. If this happens, it is always, ALWAYS, followed by an apology. “I’m sorry” the griever will say, “I’m fine unless I start talking about it”. Why? Why, in all places, should someone who’s had a loss feel a need to apologize for their tears? Because that’s what they’ve become accustomed to. They spend so much of their time holding it in, not wanting to make a scene, not wanting to embarrass themselves or somebody else with their grief and their emotion, that even within the walls of a bereavement group they feel they should be holding in more or doing better masking what they are really feeling.
- How “small” tasks can suddenly become big obstacles: this happens in a lot of ways. Some of it has to do with the exhaustion mentioned above. And this can be frustrating to loved ones as the griever may be more forgetful and less productive. But it happens in other ways too. Because so much of our day-to-day life was connected to the person who was lost, we may find ourselves avoiding doing things that could be painful or remind us of our loss, when all we want to do is just get through the day. There are reminders of our loved one everywhere – throughout our home and throughout the town we live in. We may find we avoid places we used to go together, or avoid the errands that will remind us most of their loss.
- That so much more than “just” a person they love has been lost: someone you love has died. Everyone can see that. And they feel like they understand what that means, and even how sad that must make you feel. If they are a friend or family, it’s very likely they’re grieving too. But if after some time they’re doing okay, how come you’re not? Bottom line, the same loss can be felt in different ways by different people and in most cases it will be the person who shared a home and routine with the deceased that will feel the effects most acutely.
- How much they need to hear their loved one’s name: I had a friend once ask me how to talk to a loved one who was grieving. “I’m just so afraid I’ll make her cry” she told me at the time. What she didn’t understand, and what I tried to explain, is that the griever is always thinking about their loss and rare is the time when someone else is going to “remind” them of it. As stated above, their loss is pretty much all a griever can think about, whether they want to or not. Having someone share a story, or to say the deceased’s name, or just to share that they too are missing that special person can create such a wonderful opportunity of connection for the griever. And if they do cry? That’s okay.
- How long it actually takes to grieve: time heals all wounds, right? Isn’t that what most people think? That the further we get away from something bad in our lives, the easier it becomes to deal with? Friends and family attended the funeral. If we were lucky, they baked and dropped off food, called to check in, even asked how we were doing when we saw them for weeks after the loss. But then they go back to their lives, and without necessarily meaning it, they sort of expected us to return to normal too. So imagine their surprise when the griever is STILL grieving. If someone does ask, and the griever actually gives an honest answer – that 6, 8, 18, 24 months out or more, a friend may find that the griever is STILL not doing that great. And that in some ways, they may be doing even a little worse than they were in the beginning…
- That feeling better and being happy is not always the goal: you can tell I’m an optimist by how often I talk about well-meaning people in our lives. And mostly that’s because I do believe that most people are well-meaning, even if their attempts at comfort are really clumsy or really ugly. But more on that in a minute. A lot of the grievers I work with become frustrated by friends and family who try to keep them busy and distracted. Not knowing what else to do, loved ones can be trying to do everything they can to distract the griever from their grief, to help them get over it more quickly, and quite simply, to make them happy. Only the griever understands the need they have to sit with the grief, and to feel it. Would they choose the happiness they once felt with their loved one here? Of course. But knowing that’s not possible, the griever isn’t always in a rush to get to this new “happiness” that their loved ones want them to feel again. In fact, that first day of happy distraction can cause a griever to feel tremendous guilt. So as hard as it can be to experience, the griever recognizes what an important part of the journey feeling this pain and sadness can be.
- How complex, tangled and confusing real grief is: Glen Lord from “The Grief Toolbox” once said that grief is more than just one emotion. I love this explanation. Because while most people expect grief to “just” be sadness what they don’t always understand is that real grief is also guilt, regret, anger, worry, resentment, devotion, anxiety, despair, love and so much more…
There’s a few things you can do with this information. One, use it to help educate your friends and loved ones. Know that most people do want to provide help, support and understanding. Share this with them if you think it will help. Two, validate your own experience. We’re not very patient with ourselves and often doubt that we're grieving in the way that we should. When you see everything above, let it remind you that what you’re thinking and feeling and doing is very “normal” and very much an expected part of the grieving process. Finally, forgive those in your life who don’t understand. I always say that we can only know what we know. We are each at the center of our own little universes. We have individually been raised with different beliefs, and have each experienced different things. Our outlook is different, our expectations are different, and our experiences are different. We can’t be blamed for what we don’t know, and we have to forgive the “civilians” for what they can’t understand.
Just know that these experiences and these losses mean that most grievers become a special group of their own – perceptive, and compassionate – a person who has been through a loss and come out the other side can very often become one of the most understanding and sympathetic people you’d ever want to meet. And one day, when they experience a loss of their own, the civilian will be very lucky to have the griever by their side.