On Grief: What to Do When You're Newly Alone
By Ava Burcham
I drove away from the cabin, a pink-gift-wrapped box sitting securely on the passenger side, and by the time I reached the first stoplight I was sobbing. It wasn’t the last time I would see her, but I realized that one of these visits would be my last. My time with her was finite. Karen wasn’t a strong and unwavering presence anymore; she was flickering like a candle that only had so much wick left. That sudden realization overwhelmed me with a grief I didn’t know how to manage. It was a flood of tears that would return every next time I departed our peaceful summer paradise, and each time it would feel like an entirely new and awful discovery.
I spend a few weeks every summer in a lakeside cabin in Vermont. Twenty cabins in a row belong to family members so distantly related that we’re all just “cousins,” and Karen is at the center. When you figure it out, she’s my mother’s second cousin. She’s also my mother’s best friend and business partner She’s a devout Christian, a mother of three boys (my second cousins once removed), an award-winning Olympic tri-athlete, and the woman who made every moment of my summers in Vermont feel like basking in the sun, even on the rainiest days. She had breast cancer, and she beat it — cancer free for eight years. But now it’s back. And though she jokes about her PET scan, how there are so many spots she looks like a dalmatian, I have seen her moaning in the pain she feels even on Oxycodone. I have felt her hand shake in mine as her husband cries listening to the pastor speak about heaven, and I have heard her words telling me she was beginning to give her belongings away before her death; that she’d wrapped her gift to me in pink because she knows I loved it. I know that our time was ending, far sooner than I ever expected it to.
More often than not, grief sneaks up on you. No matter how “expected” a death may be, no matter how removed or prepared you think you are, it can be shocking when one day you’re fine and the next, everything changes. It’s hard no matter what, and sometimes it can be particularly difficult to see the people that you love are grieving themselves.
As is the case for most young people, my first real experience with grief was when my grandfather died while I was in middle school. We were close, it was unexpected, and, listening to Beyonce’s “Halo” on the plane to the funeral and back, I cried. The next time was when my best friend broke up with me. We met in 7th grade, we went to concerts, we did art, we planned our summers around each other. Together, we had cycled through both adolescent angst and real mental health issues. One day she texted, saying we shouldn’t be friends anymore, with no other details. And then it was over. It wasn’t a dramatic fight, nothing actually happened, but it was heartbreaking. There have been more: the death of my dog, rejections from schools, more grandparents passing. Each of these situations was painful, and I grieved the losses, even if I might not have called them grief at the time. But I did it with people around me. I had my parents and siblings, I had my friends. I was living in a house and city and routine I was comfortable in. I had a support system.
often than not, grief sneaks up on you"
How then, do you handle this pain of loss when you’ve moved — when you’re in a new place, you don’t know anyone, and you feel like it will never end?
One important step may be to recognize when you are, in fact, feeling grief.
The day after I moved into my Boston apartment, my parents found out my cat had cancer and had to be put down. She was old, but she seemed so healthy. I was overwhelmed. I was sad, but on top of that, I felt ashamed that I was so torn up by the passing of a pet: surely there were more important things to be upset about. On top of this shame, I was experiencing grief in a completely different environment than I had other times.
Even though I had cried and felt pain over the death of a pet before, I still hadn’t realized that losing a pet can be just as painful as any other type of grief, and didn’t understand why I was feeling it so much more than I had in the past. Eventually, an article and video from Vox explained to me that we grieve pets in much the same way we grieve humans, and now I understand why the shame and distance had made the grief worse.
As PsychologyToday explains, feelings of grief can be coupled with feelings of guilt or doubt, and can be made worse when you’re experiencing multiple types of loss. (The resource center What’s Your Grief describes this as cumulative grief.)
Though I was happy about moving and starting school, I was feeling loss for everything I’d left in California: my home, my friends and family, my remaining pets, the city I knew so well, my childhood, and my sense of security. On top of this, I felt guilty that I hadn’t been there to say goodbye to my pet, or to support my family.
And this grief made me feel more alone than moving away had. I wasn’t around my family to see that they, too, were sharing my grief. And I didn’t feel like I had anyone to turn to. My housemate and I had only just met, I knew no one else in the city, and I wasn’t turning to resources my school might have provided because I was still feeling embarrassed about the fact that I was crying over a dead cat.
"I was making my grief worse by trying to pretend it didn’t exist, and I was prolonging the experience of it"
For days, I tried to ignore it. I distracted myself with my classwork and new job, with setting up my apartment, with learning the train system. But at night I would lay down and feel so overwhelmed that I hardly slept. I was making my grief worse by trying to pretend it didn’t exist, and I was prolonging the experience of it. As former grief counselor Sandra Leigh explains, “It’s best to feel what you feel when it first shows up so you can move through it rather than stock piling heavy emotions.” Leigh also says, over the phone, her voice as soft and understanding as you would expect it to be, “grief doesn’t last forever.”
Eventually, that grief did end. I can watch videos of my sweet cat and remember her without crying, and though I sometimes feel homesick, I have come to love my new home in Boston.
Since starting to write this piece, Karen passed away. It happened on November 13th, and suddenly, I was pushed to question the avoidance strategies I had used when handling past grief. I’ve needed to learn what the “right” way of handling grief is, so it doesn’t take over my life.
First, we should remember that there’s no one way to grieve. Each of my many family members is experiencing our loss of Karen in a different way; each of us have different expressions of grief, different timelines, and different triggers. And even within myself, there will be different experiences of grief as time goes on.
Before Karen passed I had a lot of what’s called anticipatory grief, which happens when you’re feeling the loss before it even happens, based on what you expect to feel later. Even experiencing this grief can feel complicated; you might feel guilty as if you’re “waiting” for a person to pass. This can be particularly hard when you’re alone, and have no one to discuss these feelings with. Even though my family was just a text or call away, I had that guilt. And even though Karen was still alive, I didn’t want to discuss her death with her, for fear she would think I had lost hope.
Since she has passed, there have been waves of feelings that take me by surprise. Something I never associated with her in the past will remind me of a memory, and I’ll have tears in my eyes. Another time, I’ll hear her voice in my head and be filled with warmth. At her celebration of life (funeral, but she didn’t like the thought of all of us sitting around in silent mourning), I cycled through feeling numbness, intense love, deep sadness, loneliness in a crowd of my family, and feeling like I’d never been alone in my life. Like never before, I understood that grief changes as you experience it.
"being prepared for a death doesn’t make it any easier"
Second, people may need to understand that being “prepared” for a death doesn’t make it any easier. Having experienced grief in the past doesn’t make your future sadness any less powerful. It can, however, mean you take better care of yourself after learning from that original experience. So too, experiencing anticipatory grief won’t make after-the-fact grief any less sad. Knowing that Karen will die didn’t make me grieve easier now that Karen has passed. However, the site What’s Your Grief explains, having that extra time in-the-know can help you cherish your moments with that person even more, which might act as a form of closure.
Third, we should keep in mind that it’s best to feel emotions when they come, and that they will come in waves. This can be difficult when grief interrupts other important things like homework or class, but Leigh explains that you should treat feeling grief like a job you’re on-call for: “You can’t control the schedule of grief but you can control your homework schedule. If grief catches you at that time, then it’s time to do the work of grief.” This might involve speaking to professors or a boss and explaining the situation, but that’s part of the job of grief. This was something I completely ignored in the past, shoving my feelings down with schoolwork and prolonging the pain of them.
Fourth, you should know that there are things and people you can lean on, even if your old support system isn’t around. Getting plenty of rest, eating well, exercising, spending time in nature, and meditating are all things you can do on your own that Leigh suggests to help manage and reduce grief over time. She also encourages the willingness to lean on others when you feel the need. Attend support groups, visit school counseling, or call someone you trust. Even if you don’t feel like you know anyone, there are resources you can use. Sometimes, being alone is what you need and you have to take that time, but other times you have to allow yourself to lean on others.
But Leigh reminds us that support people should, in fact, be helping you: “If you find yourself problem-solving their life, that’s a distraction rather than healing. If you don’t feel better after seeing somebody then they aren’t actually helping. Your feelings about a person may be different while in grief, so understand that you aren’t looking for a friend but a support person.”
For me, this is the hardest part, particularly when trying to handle my family who are experiencing their own grief, but who are negatively impacting mine. Phone calls with a family member that last an hour and feel like they’re saying they’re the only one who are experiencing grief; arguments about what’s important to include in the celebration; taking care of Karen’s nuclear family and trying not to take away from their grief. I’m still figuring it out, but even just keeping it in mind has been helpful, where I’m able to actively detach from those negative experiences.
Some of karen'sthings
i hold on to
This time, I’ve tried to keep it in mind. In those waves, I express to those around me what I’m experiencing, and take a moment to myself. Doing this “work” and stepping outside for a moment in the cold winter air kept me from getting overwhelmed by my family at the celebration and connect with my emotions. Doing this “work” and explaining to my professors that I wouldn’t be able to focus in class and needed to skip was the only thing that actually kept me on top of my assignments.
Finally, we have to remember that grief is a part of life. While we may feel embarrassed about sources of grief, stigma about showing certain emotions, or even frustration with our experiences, all we can do is accept it and continue to drive forward—remembering the good as we take care of ourselves in the present, and feeling hope for the future.