The Seasons of Grief – Painful and Personal
By Barbara Fane, LCSW, BCD
Loss of loved ones alters you.
You are forever changed in ways you cannot anticipate. You feel like a piece of yourself has gone with them, even while a piece of them stays with you.
Conventional wisdom says that the calendar holidays like Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Thanksgiving, and so on are hardest for people who are grieving the loss of a spouse, partner, relative, or dear friend. These over-commercialized celebrations do heighten or re-trigger feelings of grief – and for a prolonged time because of the extended period of retail hype — but they aren’t the only seasons of grief.
Grief Has Its Own Calendar
You’ve probably heard that the grief process is different for each bereaved person. What you may not have heard is to expect to have a new calendar now, one that marks the days and seasons that were uniquely meaningful to you because of what was shared and significant in your life with your loved one.
While everyone’s situation and reactions to it are different, a few hypothetical stories can illustrate the variations of loss and grief that are common for therapists to see in a counseling practice.
Loss Anniversary Dread
Every year in late January Michele and her husband Bill took a trip to Cancun, and every summer they hosted a backyard barbeque for the neighbors. Bill was a kind spouse and gentle father to their 4 young children. As far as she knew, life was great for them, so it was a total shock when he suddenly took his own life.
With Bill gone, travel and socializing were the farthest thing from Michele’s mind. A swirl of emotions overwhelmed her. She felt guilty that she saw no clues that Bill was so distressed that he would take his life, and profoundly bereft of her spouse. She felt betrayed that he would take such a unilateral action, and angry that he left her to support the family alone. Each year during the weeks leading up to and after the anniversaries of their marriage and his death, Michele felt herself plunging into a dark dread of more disaster.
Michele not only lost her life mate. She had lost her identity as a married woman, her sense of security and trust in a rational universe, her confidence that she knew what Bill needed and wanted, and her positive attitude with her children. It’s a lot to grieve.
Reactivated Grief Days
Nora’s teenage son died in a boating accident on the lake where they’d always spent spring vacation since he was a young child. Soon afterwards, Nora decided to sell the lake house and the boat. She could no longer stand the sight of what had once been a source of family joy.
Her seasons of grief not only included that week in spring each year, but are also closely tied to the school events her son had participated in, like the Winter play, the October homecoming game, the May musicals. To Nora, it seemed that her calendar was overcrowded with public and private days when their grief would become overwhelming.
Miscarrage and Infant Loss
Audrey had been trying to conceive for more than 10 years. Her doctors were mystified why she had experienced multiple miscarriages when there was no apparent medical reason. She was elated when finally a pregnancy succeeded and looked perfectly healthy. Audrey was crushed when the child was stillborn, and she began to isolate herself from friends with kids. Her husband didn’t know who he grieved for more – himself, his wife, or deceased baby. Through lengthy grieving process the question that continue to haunt them both was – can you call yourself a parent when you have no living children?
It took several years, but eventually Audrey thought had survived the initial trauma and could finally envision the pain lessening. Except, at every landmark date, Audrey again felt consumed with so many losses of what she believed she could never be and would never have. Typical annual events in a child’s life such as Halloween, pictures with Santa, back to school sales, triggered her grief anew. Her isolation intensified when everyone she knew was racing around trying to accomplish what she would never have.
In short, the personal seasons of grief are set by the investments you had in memorable, meaningful, shared and anticipated times with the people and scenarios that are important to you, and how those moments of significance contributed to your own self concept.
Dealing with the Cyclical Reminders of Your Loss
In my counseling practice, I remind clients that each of us feels alone with our grief because everyone grieves in their own way, even between partners and within families. But these natural differences can be opportunities to strengthen bonds in relationships at the time that we need comforting and mindful sensitivity the most.
Here are three suggestions to consider trying out to help you deal with the repetitious seasons of refreshed grief.
- Give yourself and other family members their own space for expressing grief. Some may need to be alone, others may need company and conversation. Try to accommodate in a way that is mindful of yourself and others, and be understanding with those who need something different from you need.
- Find a way to honor your loved one’s life. Some examples are: planting a tree, inscribing their favorite quote on a garden paving stone, collecting wind chimes and creating a sound garden, putting together a video montage, writing a memoir.
- Have a special ritual for the personal grief season days. These could be things like going for a walk in your loved ones favorite park, starting the day with a special cup of tea, keeping a candle lit all day, making a donation to a charity that supports an interest your loved one had.
- Remember there is no right or wrong in how you choose to heal and honor you loved one for some, it may be helpful to continue shared traditions, for others there is a need to totally alter and create a new memory or tradition.
Although grieving will typically make us feel sad and wistful on these cyclical days, if you are getting flooded with anxiety, guilt, or a sense of hopelessness and have difficulty dealing with the requirements of everyday life, grief counseling is a good idea. An experienced grief therapist can help you find the best ways to grieve and understand the changes your deep loss has created in your life.
About the Author: Barbara Fane, LCSW, BCD is a licensed psychotherapist with a private practice in Shrewsbury, Monmouth County NJ. She has been providing affirmative, compassionate and individualized help to Individuals, Couples and Families since 1990.