Since the book I co-authored, A Widow's Guide to Healing, was published, I've spoken at several national and local events, as well as grief and loss workshops. The audiences consist of people from a variety of backgrounds who range in age from under 30 to over 70.
The causes of their loved ones' death also vary, from cancer to accidents, to substance abuse, cardiac arrest, and suicide. Some attendees have engaged in professional support groups or individual therapy, while others have never considered these options. Some people came to a workshop within days of their loss and others decades after losing a loved one.
Not everyone responds to grief in a uniform way but, based on my experience, these are the 10 most common questions about the experience:
1. "I don't think I'll ever get over the death of my spouse [or child, sister, or best friend]. What do you suggest I do?"
The death of a loved one is not something to "overcome." I gently suggest that you look at the way you see this tragedy. Death is like an amputation, and you don't just grow a new limb. Learning how to live with this significant loss in a healthy way should become your focus instead of simply trying to move past your loss.
2. "I've never told anyone this, not even my therapist, but I feel suicidal. How can I live without my partner? I can't go on."
Many people feel this way for years after their loved one dies. You need to seek licensed professional help now and be completely honest about your feelings. Don't wait. Don't assume that your doctor knows you feel this way. You have to be open and tell them everything, including that you have thought about suicide. Contact the national suicide hotline if there's not a licensed professional you can call.
3. "It is has been years since my loved one's death. Why don't I feel better?"
Unlike a physical injury, there isn't an anticipated or typical rate of healing for grief. Healing often takes place in small increments. When you look at your life post-loss, are there times when you did feel a little better? Are there moments when you laugh? Are there times—however brief—when you are able to focus on something other than the loss? When you look back at these smaller moments over time, you will notice that you are making progress.
Grief can be complex. There are often many layers to work through. Your most recent grief may be connected to a past loss and you may not realize that you are actually attempting to process more than one. It also helps to practice self- compassion with yourself. Being critical with yourself hurts more than you may realize.
4. "My counselor seemed to help in the beginning but now it feels like a waste of time. I still feel like I'm down, so should I quit therapy?"
Your therapist may have helped you with some initial crisis management, so you noticed what you think of as "results." Now that the crisis is resolved, you are coping with the feelings associated with grief. These feeling will dissolve in a few therapy sessions. Be honest with your therapist and tell him or her that you don't feel like you are getting anything out of your sessions.
The therapeutic relationship can be very intense because you are discussing highly emotional and deeply personal issues. If you don't feel a good connection with your therapist, you may need to seek a new professional. Also, you need to make sure that if you are receiving medication from this person, you are not going against medical advice. Don't just stop taking medications because you don't like the person prescribing them. You can call your primary care physician, ask for a referral, and set up an appointment with someone new before you sever ties with your current therapist.
5. "My doctor or therapist wants me to take medication and I don't want to. What should I tell them?"
Ask them what they see in you that warrants the need for medication. Tell them why you are reluctant to take medication, and ask if they think that you won't get better without it.
6. "My best friend, who was there for me before my beloved died, no longer talks to me or avoids me. Why can't my friend support me?"
Death changes you, so you are no longer the person you were before your loss. Your friend may not be able to relate you now. This is unfortunate because it is another loss for you. You can have a heart-to-heart conversation and ask your friend if there is something that you did to create this distance. You can also tell your friend that you need his or her extra support. But remember that some people are not comfortable with the very topic of grief. They don't know what to say or are afraid of saying the wrong thing, so they avoid anything associated with loss—and your very presence is a reminder of loss.
7. "I made financial commitments after my loved one's funeral and now I'm having second thoughts. I don't want to disappoint anyone. How can I get out of this?"
You have the right to change your mind. It is not unusual to commit a certain amount of money, for example, in your loved one's memory to a certain charity. You may now realize that this isn't doable or you have second thoughts about the charity in general. You can explain that you were in a bit of fog after the funeral and now you are looking more closely at things and have to make adjustments. You shouldn't feel guilty about this.
If there was tension before the death, chances are there will also be stress post-loss. Your in-laws may not be good at expressing their grief in a healthy way, but they also suffered a loss. The bottom line is that death does damage and, unfortunately, it may damage a relationship with an in-law. Be very careful that you don't talk ill about them to other family members. This type of talk has a way of getting back to people and usually creates a bigger rift. You will most likely need to find a confidante who is not a family member.
9. "I made mistakes that are linked to my grief. I wasn't in my right mind. How do I take corrective action?"
Everyone I meet who is dealing with loss says they made some type of mistake—something they said in a private conversation or an action they now regret. This might be with someone they love or in a professional environment. You need to own the mistake and ask if there is some way that you can repair the damage. How you handle yourself in this conversation will set the tone for the future. Accept responsibility; if someone chooses not to overlook your mistake or refuses to engage with you, simply detach yourself: You can't make them forgive you.
10. "I feel all alone. Even in my support group, I feel like no one understands me. Will anyone ever understand me?"
Grief is very personal and unique. Two children in the same family can lose their mother and have completely different responses. How you react to your loss is not going to be the same as someone else's reaction, even if the cause of death is identical. Grief is isolating, and the feelings and emotions can be contradictory. You could laugh one moment and cry the next. The person who can offer you the most comfort might not be part of a support group or they may not have endured the exact loss as you did. You may have to seek support from another person outside the support group to get the help you need.
Kristin Meekhof obtained her B.A. from Kalamazoo College and completed the Masters in Social Work program at the University of Michigan. Earlier this year, she was invited to the United Nations CSW- 60 event where she introduced Lord Loomba. Kristin is a contributor to the Live Happy book (Harper Elixir, 2016) and is a panelist at the upcoming Harvard Medical School writing conference for healthcare professionals. She co-authored the book A Widow's Guide to Healing, with cover blurbs from Maria Shriver and her dear friend Deepak Chorpa. Kristin can be reached at her website.