Like most people, I am no stranger to loss. I remember attending my first funeral for a great-grandparent when I was in elementary school, and have gone to at least a dozen celebrations of life since. No matter who it was or how they died, each loss was different, and as such I handled it in different ways. And, many times, I handled it alone because that’s what I thought I was supposed to do.
However, when my partner Emily died last October, it rattled me to my core and impacted me in ways I’d never felt before.
Most days, I find it difficult to even function in society, let alone explain to the people in my life what’s going through my head. I’ve put on a game face, tried to “tough it out,” and even straight-up lied to people about how I’m doing. The longer this continues, though, the more I’m learning that I’m simply not strong enough to work through my grief on my own.
So, since August 30 is National Grief Awareness Day, I thought now would be the perfect opportunity for me to finally open up and share what I need the people in my life to understand about my grief.
1. My grief doesn’t follow any rules.
Many people are familiar with The Five Stages of Grief, which explains grief as a five-part series of emotions individuals “move through” after a loss. However, grief isn’t just a well-organized, predictable timeline. You don’t just “check off” each stage of grief and keep going.
Over the past ten months, I have not only experienced multiple “stages” of grief in a single day, but I have also dealt with various thoughts, feelings, and situations that don’t neatly follow any “rules” or preconceived notions about grief. I also rarely have control over what my grief will look like on any given day.
It would be far easier to navigate life without my partner if grief did stick to a clear path and follow predictable rules. Since it doesn’t, though, it would really help if my friends and family understood that I’m strapped into a wild ride and can’t see what’s coming next.
2. I experience more than just sadness in grief.
I can’t think of a single day since my partner died when I haven’t cried. I experience sadness on varying levels from the time I wake up each morning until I fall asleep at night. My sorrow feels like it constantly follows me around like a dark cloud. However, it isn’t the only emotion I encounter on a typical day.
Grief makes me heartbroken, frustrated, enraged, scared, confused, apathetic, and more. I experience an entire range of emotions, and sometimes I can’t even label them because they’re so complex and unlike anything I have ever felt before.
I know this often makes it difficult to communicate with me or help me in ways that people would like to. But, most of the time, I just want someone to listen, validate my emotions, and let me “feel my feels,” even when those feelings may not make sense to you.
3. Talking about my partner does not make it worse.
I think one common misconception about grief is that it can be avoided or swept under the rug. Because of this, many people (including my own family) take this stance of “out of sight, out of mind” after a person dies. Nobody talks about the deceased, and they pack away all remnants of the person as a way to “move forward.”
Yet, when my partner died, I actually found it more painful to avoid talking about her than to simply say her name. I feel like tip-toeing around topics and not talking about her is essentially the same as erasing every bit of her from the world, which is the exact opposite of what I want to do. Instead, I want to share funny stories about her and reminisce about our first kiss. I want to hear her friends laugh with me about her messy car or listen to her parents share adorable stories about her childhood with me. I want to talk about her, not avoid it.
Some people have told me that continuing to talk about her is unhealthy because it means I’m “stuck” between the past and the present. However, avoiding any mentions of the person I loved more than anyone else on Earth would only encourage me to stuff my grief down and bottle it up instead of processing it. In other words, talking about my partner not only makes me feel better, it gives me space to work through the loss so I can find a way to continue going.
4. Platitudes don’t bring me comfort.
Our society has adopted many expressions and phrases when it comes to grief. However, the most common sayings people use are more harmful than helpful. In fact, telling me that “everything happens for a reason” or that my partner “would want you to be happy” often makes me feel like I am to blame for her death or that I’m not “grieving correctly.”
I’d much rather people say nothing at all than use a meaningless platitude they heard from someone else as a way of comforting me. If you need to talk, just say, “I’m sorry,” or “I’m here for you.” It’s much more comforting to know my loved ones care about me than anything else you could ever say.
5. Sharing your pain and challenges with me actually helps.
I will admit, there are days when my grief is all-consuming. I sometimes turn off the lights in my house, silence my phone, and sit in my pain all alone. Luckily, these days are becoming less frequent, and many times I snap out of those phases much sooner when I have a reason to.
I know that my friends worry about burdening me with their own troubles as I work through my partner’s sudden and unexpected death. However, I have tried to tell many of them that listening to them share stories about their own pains, frustrations, and fears doesn’t make me feel like they’re dismissing my grief — it actually helps me feel more human.
There have been many times over the past ten months when I’ve questioned whether or not the intensity of my emotions and depth of my pain is “normal.” And, while I never want my friends to experience what I have, knowing that we all deal with difficult times helps me feel less isolated and strange. It lets me know that what I’m going through is part of the human experience, just like losing a job, dealing with a complex medical condition, or going through a divorce.
I don’t want my friends to sugarcoat their lives in my presence — I want them to be real with me.
6. I lie about how I’m feeling… a lot.
When people ask me, “How are you doing,” I often sound like a broken record. I say, “I’m fine,” or “I’m here,” all the time. Unfortunately, the truth is much more complicated than that… and I often feel too scared to say it out loud.
I don’t know how to express the agony and pain I feel nearly every day. I also don’t know how to say things like, “I wish I was the one who died instead of Emily,” or “Sometimes I wish I could just disappear.” I worry that if I express my sadness, my apathy towards life, or my regrets, people will judge me in some way. So, instead, I just lie about my feelings even though I know I shouldn’t.
7. I can’t just simply “move on” from grief.
I can’t believe the number of people who have told me I need to “move on” or similar, especially as the amount of time since my partner’s death has grown in size. After about six months, it seems like society just expects everyone to “be healed” and continue through life as if it’s all “business as usual.”
Here’s the thing, though: I can’t just “move on” from losing the love of my life. All of my plans and expectations for the future were shattered in just a few hours. The career moves I intended to make, the vacations I couldn’t wait to go on, and even my day-to-day rituals all vanished into thin air. You don’t just “move on” from that, and anyone who says they have is likely lying.
8. My life will never be the same.
As I said, everything about my life before my partner’s death disappeared the moment they died. And, as such, there’s no way to return to what life was like before I lost her because that world no longer exists. Life never looks the same after loss, and my partner’s death is no exception to that.
I know that I will eventually learn how to work around my grief and build a new life that both honors my partner’s legacy and lets me continue to grow. But, until then, I want to learn how to be more open about my feelings so my friends and family can support me through my grief. Because, if there’s one thing I’ve learned since last October, it’s this: no one should have to work through grief alone.
I hope that if you’re reading this today and working through your own grief, you’ll also set aside a few moments to make your own list of what you need people to understand about the way grief impacts you. We all experience grief, but it often manifests in different ways for each one of us. If we are all willing to be vulnerable and share our experiences, we can all learn from each other and support each other in the best possible ways.