The Roadmap for Grief

by Maria Mastrogiovanni, CRC

When we experience a loss in our life, the world as we know it is shaken. Whether it is the death of a loved one or a dramatic life event (the loss of a job, divorce, illness, etc.), our sense of control, belief in predictability, and a “map” of how to react is questioned. 

So…how do we cope? We all respond to loss in different ways. Some get very busy, some retreat into themselves, some join support groups, and some embrace friends and family for comfort.

We do many things very well in our world, and we can find answers via the web, the media, and even “Alexa” or “Siri.” Grieving a loss, however, is different. The answers to our questions are not so clear. We may be told to “get over it,”  “it was a blessing,” “they’re in a better place,” or “you can always have another baby.” These comments are meant to comfort us, but they rarely do. Many years ago, Elizabeth Kubler-Ross wrote the well-known, On Death and Dying.  At last we thought we had discovered that “road map” for grief–five to seven neat stages to follow.  Once I reach Acceptance…I am done!

What we did not know was that Ross’ research and resulting stages were based upon her work with dying patients, not those grieving a loss. And, we discovered that in reality, we vacillate among the stages. Often, we would feel anger one day and sadness the next. We would have a good week, then cry when listening to Dad’s favorite song or smelling Mom’s favorite perfume.

I have had the privilege of facilitating grief and loss groups for over five years at CoveCare Center, formerly known as Putnam Family and Community Services. My group members and I have cried, expressed anger, hugged when it was needed and shared precious memories of “before.”  One member pounded on the table when he responded to the “he is in a better place” comment by shouting, “The better place would be here with me!” Yes, grief is that visceral.  The road map has no GPS.

We will experience “good days” and “grief bursts.” We will pick up the phone to call a loved one and then recall that they died last week. We will be furious when someone new dies as the result of a suicide, a drug overdose, or after years of smoking, drinking or overeating. Members in my groups have breathed a sigh of relief when I shared memories of thinking I had seen my mom or heard her voice soon after she died. Evidence of a delusion? No…evidence of how very much I missed her and hoped to see her again! “Good days” are the ones during which we realize that we have begun to laugh…to enjoy life once again without feeling guilty about it.

The “road map” also lacks an “estimated time of arrival.” The grief will always be there, perhaps not at the same intensity, but it may never go away.  Friends and family may say, “But she died two years ago…why are you still crying every Christmas?” Two years, five years, ten years?  When will you forget?  Never.  You will, however, find ways to honor a memory. The pictures you hid away because they were too painful to look at may eventually be displayed again. You will be able to listen to his or her favorite song with a smile on your face.

There is comfort in the knowledge that grieving is an individual process. We have permission to grieve in whatever way works for us. We can celebrate the holiday just like mom did with her famous cookie recipe or simply be home alone with soothing music and a ham sandwich. We can visit the cemetery and leave flowers on each grave or just sit quietly at home with fond memories to comfort us.

While on this road, support is essential. If you have friends or family who understand, great! In addition, joining a support group or uniting with others for a common cause is helpful.

We are getting better at this “grief thing,” and the road map is not as winding. If we remember that there is no perfect way and no definite ETA, we will do fine.