Monday, 21 April 2014

On Grieving: A Travel Guide to Goodbye

Death brings out the best—and the worst—in people.  This observation, shared with my mother, was meted out like the squares we arranged on a plate for a funeral. A few days ago my sister died.  And the impact—on me as a writer, an addictions counselor, a child, a mother, a woman and a wife—has been cataclysmic.  Losing my sib means I have lost a part of my history. A significant part of my future.  It means I feel regret and guilt, and equal parts sadness and sorrow, a distinction I have always understood in theory but have never lived. Until now.

And nor have I experienced living in a world post-loss, such as I am doing now (just like millions have done before me).  It is with an observer’s eye with which I have, over the last few fresh days, analyzed a flotsam and jetsam of exchanges; many kind. Some callous. All impactful.    

“You look angry,” I have been told, and lately I suppose that from time to time perhaps I do. Anger is, after all, part of the epidermis of grief. It’s the layer lying over despair and is therefore not only normal but necessary. What’s more, I’m entitled to it.  It has only been a mere handful of days.  But please don’t attribute my anger as being directed at anyone in particular.  Nor am I angry at the circumstance, at God, at the Devil, or at this existential thing we call ‘life’. I’m just…well, angry sometimes. Sad too. But happy as well.

Then there’s:  “You seem awful detached.” Another yes. I have. In fact there have been many moments during this journey when I’ve had no choice but to examine things through an objective lens. Why? Because a few people I love are depending on me right now, people who are grieving too and therefore feeling very broken. They need me to manage details when they just can’t and I, in turn, will likely rely on them at some point too. So please don’t assume I’m not sad because I’m taking care of business. And don’t assume I’m cold because I am not weeping, sobbing, hollow-eyed, or blubbering. Not that there is anything wrong with doing any or all of the above—it’s just not how I roll, not unless I am either alone or with people with whom I feel safe.  And that’s okay. In fact all of these feelings are okay.

Yet….seems to me that some people are as quick to criticize as others are to comfort, and as I sit in this feeling—grief, it is called—and march upon its landscape, I’d like to offer a bit of a laundry list for anyone who’s upon the same road. A travel guide, if you will. Here it is:

  1. Take genuine love when it is offered—and don’t worry that you won’t be able to recognize it. Its validity will be in the battalion of hands that knead sugar and flour and butter into baking—then drop it upon your doorstep with a smile. It will be in the crockpot dinner that arrives on your porch on the day you’re just wiped even though everyone in your house (including you) is starving. It’s in the apache tears stone someone presses into your hand, for this mineral is said to absorb grief.  It’s in the cards, the flowers, and within every friend who says “I just don’t know what to say”—thereby saying the most perfect thing of all, for within the carefulness with which they are choosing their words they are saying “I love you. I am sorry you’re sad.”
  2. Be gentle with yourself. School your internal voice to set aside its criticisms for once. Give yourself permissions, not punishments.
  3. Be aware of the lookie-loos. Like my Mom and I said, death can bring out the best in people—but also the worst. The curious will want to eye your grief the way motorists gawk at a car wreck. Gossips will pump you for details they don’t really need. Be polite but be firm. Your boundaries are sacred, and part of the aforementioned gentleness you must now extend to yourself is to be your own best protector.  So share only what you’re comfortable with. Anyone who loves you will not miss the information they do not hear.
  4. On the flipside….reconnect with family who will reach from both near and afar to embrace you. There is a genetic echo that hears your tears in a different, and profound, way. Let it hold you. There is more emotional power there than you’ve ever felt before.  
  5. Be kind to yourself—and note; I make a distinction between kindness and gentleness. Kindness means doing things that are still life-giving and enjoyable—even if it feels a little cardboard at first.  Kindness includes not demanding too much of yourself yet allowing yourself, also, to be human. So laugh sometimes—there is still so much absurdity in life that is funny. Love all the time. Life is short.
  6. Sleep when you need to. Your emotions have run a marathon and continue to pound pavement—and your heart keeps the beat of every feeling that courses through you. It is tired. So are you. Please rest.
  7. Flipside again (oh, I’m bad for these!): Stay awake when you need to. There will be nights when your brain can’t shut down so in that darkness let your eyes stay open. Remember things. Regret things. Let the tears slide down your face. 
  8. Love the one you’ve lost. Crush the good times so tight to your heart they slide inside of it, become a part of your pulse. Cherish the pictures—the ones you hold in your hands and the ones you only hold in your head. Smile at your loved one. How do you know they cannot see you? Say “I love you” then listen—with all your senses—to hear it said back.
  9. Lastly….love your grief. 
Hear me out—without the capacity to grieve you would not have the capacity to love. And imagine, life with no love, no relationships, no camaraderie, no inside jokes, no…nothing. Yes, grief hurts like hell. It’s the price of a soul that knows love. And that’s beautiful. Sacred, actually.
And with that I wish you peace, friend—and offer a truth I sincerely hope has resonated within these words: that you never walk alone.


  1. I'm so sorry Bonnie. Please don't forget how many people love you, and are there to help when you need it. Al

  2. Thank you so much. I am indescribably fortunate to have such a compassionate population of people in my life. A gift I am grateful for daily.

  3. Wonderfully written my friend! You articulate this beautifully!

    1. Thank you. Sometimes the best way to understand myself is to pluck the words scattered about in my heart and then use them to create a picture I can see.

  4. Wow Bonnie. Sure wish I had read that 4 years ago. However, still very helpful for me today. I would never have wished my life without the people I have lost even though my grief continues to to be extremely difficult; sometime even unbearable. So I do hold those memories close and say "I love you" listening really hard to hear it back. Because really that's all I can do.
    Much love and many hugs to you,