But They’re Waiting for You to Heal
Bob Baugher, Ph.D.
Your loved one died and your life changed forever. Since that burned-in-your-memory-forever day you have been overwhelmed with thoughts and emotions you’ve never experienced before. You are in a whole new world. Some of the people who used to be in your daily (or weekly) life are not there anymore. Some who remain have been kind, patient and caring. But, they are not you. They are not in your body. They don’t have your brain. They did not lose in the same way you did. They try to understand, but they can’t. They may have experienced the same death as you. But, it’s not the same. It can’t be. In many ways you have it the worst. Or perhaps you’re tied with someone else for the worst.
As the weeks pass by, you have reached a stage where you now look back on that day in terms of months. Four months—one-third of a year. Remember the six-month point? How could it be a half a year since your loved one last took a breath. A whole half-year. For you, each day carries with it an array of events—some reminding you of what you’ve lost; others distracting you such that, for a brief time period, you are so focused that you almost forget. For many people in grief, these distracting moments can produce guilt—a type of guilt known as Moving On Guilt. It’s not that we purposely find experiences that temporarily divert our attention. It’s just that life events pull us away. Remember the first time you found yourself forgetting—if only for a few seconds? You may have reacted with a quick inhale and chastised yourself for losing—what would you call it— the connection? a reminder? a feeling? that we’d carried since that day. Then the guilt takes over, reminding us “not to do that again.” But life moves us forward—and we do end up doing that again—and again.
It’s about You
But despite life’s innumerable interruptions, we carry within us a constant awareness—a knowing in our heart, in our mind, that something is missing, something huge. And this awareness comes in waves and shocks. Yes, time has helped somewhat, and the waves may not come crashing with quite the same intensity. But your life is so different now. You see the world around you as different—because you are different. We’ve all heard the term before, often used in a derogatory manner: “It’s all about you, isn’t it?” But in this case, it is all about you. Of course there are people you love and care about whose lives have also been changed as a result of the death. And you worry about them. In fact, your concern for them has contributed to your own grief. You may even have felt guilty for your feelings of self-pity when so many others are hurting as well. The focus of this article, however, is about you, about your grief, and about those around you.
As the weeks and months (and for some of you—years) have irretrievably gone by, your emotions, thoughts, and behaviors have gone through a wild range of reactions. Let’s contrast that with the people around you—specifically those who were not as close to your loved one. Perhaps it’s your brother, or your best friend, or a co-worker. What have their lives been like during the period since the death? You can tell where this is going, but let’s look at this closely. Upon hearing of the death and reacting to their own grief, they also began to worry about you. At that instant they knew that your life would be forever altered. They wondered how you would cope with such a huge loss. Like everyone, they knew that you would be in grief, but they had no idea what that would look like and—more importantly—how long that would be.
Like You—Yet Not Like You
They may have attended the funeral, sent flowers, made a donation, mailed a card, texted you, phoned you, visited you, hugged you, frequently asked how you were doing, contacted you on special occasions, helped you with chores, listened to your pain, told you stories of your loved one, cried with you, bought you things, taken you places, and shown their love and concern in so many other ways. Like you, their lives have gone on. Like you, their daily experiences have included many distractions. Like you, the days since the death turned into weeks and then months. Now, here it comes: However, their world has not been altered like yours. Six months for a less-than-bereaved person is a very different time period compared to a highly bereaved person. For you, it was yesterday. For them, it was a very sad day several months ago. For you, moment-to-moment reminders of what you have lost are everywhere. For them, the reminders are fewer and less intense.
Living on Different Planets
Let’s say the two of you haven’t talked in a couple weeks or even a month or two. Or you talk daily, but it’s been several months since the death. Because this time period has been so different for the two of you, it’s like you two are living on different planets. And you are. They are on Planet Earth with all of the ensuing distractions since the death. And you are on Planet Grief with a parallel set of distractions, but with a heavy atmosphere of sadness, guilt, anger, confusion, and more.
The time on their planet is different from your time. To them, the death has diminished in the din of the thousands of other events. To you, the death has literally relocated you to a different universe where time since the death means little. In an instant you can be right back to the moment of the death, or the funeral or a memory of two lives shared.
In the minds of those on Planet Earth the passage of weeks and months place them further from the pain of the loss. On Planet Grief time is distorted. The contrast is amplified when the two of you come together. If this person could have lived on your planet for the past several months, he would say things such as, “It still feels like yesterday, doesn’t it?” “You miss her so much, don’t you?” “It’s must be so hard day after day, isn’t it?” But they don’t live where you do. Through no fault of their own, they are in a place much different from you. Yes, they can try to imagine what it must be like and feel like. But they can never really know. They can’t. So, all they can do when they think about you and when they face you is to empathize the best they can. And, like all of us, their own stuff gets in the way. Based on their perspective—which is all they have going—their thinking may go something like this:
“I hope she’s better. She looks somewhat the same and she acts somewhat the same. And a lot of time has passed. I mean it’s been several months now. She must be getting better. I see her laugh and talk and work. But, at times I see her sad. I hear her words that tell me her life is forever changed. Yet, I hope the next time we speak—when even more time has passed—that she has healed some more.”
The Mere Passage of Time
This line of thinking is especially true for those who see you only rarely. To see you at month 3 and then again at month 6, this person can naively convince themselves that the mere passage of time has brought back the old you—has returned you to Planet Earth.
So, what have you learned from reading this article? Something you’ve always known. Something that has always been there, but perhaps not quite clarified until now. What can you do about this apparent gaping hole between two worlds? Let’s finish with some suggestions.
1. Create a list of “Things I wish people did for me.” Don’t try to censor it by saying, “Why do this? They haven’t helped so far. What makes me think they will now?” Items on the list can be:
Text me or call me once a day.
Help me with the following chores.
Go with me to the following places.
Have a meal with me once a month.
2. What recurring theme in the form of a sentence can I say to people that will remind them that I am not “healing”
to the extent they think I am (or should be)? For example, you can say, “I know you care about me.
[If appropriate:] I am feeling a little better; but for me this is going to be a lifelong process of coping with the death.”
3. Give them this article.
I know, I know, you’ve tried some of these before, but I’m asking you to not give up. There are people out there who care for you. Some of them can be responsive to your requests. The rest will remain on Planet Earth with little understanding of your world until, sadly, they are jettisoned into it. When this happens, they may come to you saying something like, “I never understood most of what you were going through—until now. Can you help me?”
And, like so many before you who have also lived on Planet Grief, I bet you will.