Grieving after the death of a loved one can take away all of your energy and can leave you feeling isolated from those around you. You just can’t seem to connect with colleagues, people from your communities, and sometimes even friends.
I know this feeling of being wiped out and isolated by grief after my fourteen-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, died from a rare bone cancer. I didn’t have the energy to go to work or talk with people who were concerned about me. I was deep in a tunnel of grief.
I wish I had known more about how to climb out of that tunnel earlier on during my time of grieving. Let me share some ways I discovered that helped me.
Loving Support. Having friends and family members surround you with their love can help to ease your pain. Not everyone can do this, but those who can become invaluable supporters. Friends would have dinner with me, drive me to appointments when I was too weak to drive, and take walks with me. I felt that they would be by my side for however long and wherever my grief brought me.
Journaling. I wrote in a journal during the day and at night. I wrote of my fears, my anxieties, and sometimes my hopes. I wrote about my daughter’s courage and how she held onto hope throughout her illness. I wrote of her parting wisdom. I expressed feelings that were bottled up inside. Writing eased my pain.
Counseling. Finding an empathic and skilled listener, whether it is a professional therapist, minister, or rabbi who listens to your story, can help to unburden your pain. When speaking with my therapist or minister, I unfurled my most shattering memories, my nightmares, and my fears. Afterward, I felt “lighter,” and had whispers of more energy. In time, my counselors encouraged me to try new activities, reach out to others for support, and begin to engage in life again.
Exercising. Exercising in a natural setting always renews me. Try different activities like walking in the woods or along a shoreline alone or with a friend. Try kayaking on a still lake, swimming in the morning, or watching the stars at night. By the sea, I witnessed that life continues as each wave rolled in and out. I felt rejuvenated when swimming and breathing deeply. I felt part of an eternal life when I watched a thicket of stars sparkling at night.
Communicating. A death in a family causes extreme stress between family members. Everyone grieves differently. Some will keep everything bottled up inside. Some will explode with anger at the injustice of an unexpected death.
My surviving daughter, Olivia, and I grieved differently. I had a hard time expressing my inner thoughts, and I didn’t want to burden her because she was only sixteen. Olivia frequently reacted in anger when I spoke with her, trying to push me aside, unwilling to share her vulnerable feelings. We had counseling to learn how to share our feelings without making each other feel vulnerable. Eventually, improved communication helped us enormously.
Crying. Many are taught that crying is a sign of weakness. But it’s not. It’s an integral part of grieving. Don’t hold back your tears. I cried alone. I cried with friends. I cried in the shower. It helped me release some of my anxieties and the frustrations that accompany grief.
Hugging. Never underestimate the power of being in the arms of someone you love. When someone hugged me, I felt that a friend was sharing my pain and was providing me with a safe harbor when I felt down and vulnerable. I even had a friend who named himself “Hugs Unlimited!” I could hug him anytime and always felt better.
Planting a garden. Working in the soil and watching what we have cultivated grow is restorative. It’s one more indicator that life continues and can be filled with beauty. On the first anniversary of Elizabeth’s death, I planted a garden with friends. We removed overgrown bushes, tilled the soil, and made a garden bed. We planted white foam roses, green shrubberies, and ground cover with purple flowers. Rather than feeling depressed on this first anniversary, I felt comforted being with friends and connected to new life.
Loving a pet. You can’t underestimate the healing power of a pet. Their exuberance for life, their excitement when they see you, and their calmness when you pet them radiates rejuvenating energy. My daughter and I had a Goldendoodle dog who greeted us excitedly each morning, who brought us outdoors for walks and backyard play, and who cuddled with us a night. He was our sunshine.
Hoping. You may feel like giving up hope some days, but don’t. Keep believing that your life will be better one day, and, can even have new meaning. After Elizabeth died, the concept of hope for a better day seemed alien to me. How could I possibly not be grieving her loss my entire life? But hope surprised me. I heard it when children laughed on the playground. I felt it when I watched buds form on the trees in the spring. I sensed it some days when I felt lighter and less burdened. I realized that hope for a new life could never be suppressed.
Making meaning. When you are feeling stronger, try to find a way to honor your loved one. You may want to become a supporter of a cancer fund, donate time or goods to Make-A-Wish, walk miles to raise money for a cause close to your heart. I started a journal writing program at the pediatric hospital where Elizabeth received her treatments. Was it hard in the beginning to be on the inpatient halls of this hospital? Yes. But I knew that journal writing could help parents and adolescent patients ease their anxiety and stress, help them celebrate small victories, and honor their grief. The responses from the parents and patients to this journal writing program are overwhelmingly positive. And at the same time, I’ve found a way to honor Elizabeth’s legacy of kindness by giving to those in need.
Faith Fuller Wilcox believes that self-expression through writing leads to healing. Her writing is reflective of a growing body of medical research about “narrative identity,” which illuminates that how we make sense of what happens to us and the meaning we give to experiences beyond our control directly impact our physical and psychological outcomes. Faith learned these truths firsthand when her thirteen-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, was diagnosed with a rare bone cancer that took her life. Faith’s journey from grief and despair to moments of comfort and peace taught her life-affirming lessons, which she shares today through her writing. Faith is the author of Hope Is A Bright Star: A Mother’s Memoir of Love, Loss, and Learning to Live Again that will be published in June 2021. Faith is also the author of Facing Into The Wind: A Mother’s Healing After the Death of Her Child, a book of poetry.
A longtime resident of Massachusetts, Faith leads a journal writing program at Mass General Hospital for Children for patients and their families designed to give participants the opportunity to express themselves, alleviate stress, celebrate victories, and honor their grief. As co-chair of Mass General Hospital for Children’s Family Advisory Council, she works with parents and medical staff to improve the lives of patients and their families.