5 Changes You Weren't Ready for When Someone Died
Grief alters our worldview in important ways.
Posted Sep 21, 2020
Most of us are shocked when the death of a loved one hits, even in cases where they were terminally ill and it was “expected.” Losing someone who was an integral part of everyday life can be traumatic and change the scope of our existence. And, while most people expect the death of a loved one to trigger significant changes in their lives, many are surprised that even losing someone who was peripherally connected can be life-altering as well.
The ongoing cycle of grief and loss hits everyone differently, and for many, there are a few things that cause deep sorrow but that no one sees coming — often because of their seemingly trivial nature on the surface. Recognizing that these minor changes have an enormous impact aids in the process of healing from grief:
1. Sleeping: One of the first places grief shows up is in sleep patterns. Many people new to grief wake up more at night, have trouble falling asleep, suffer from dreams that trigger painful emotions, and experience various forms of insomnia.
Bedtime routines change dramatically, with some becoming completely altered. Some people change sleeping locations because of the anguish associated with returning to the bedroom they always shared with a loved one. There is no longer someone to comfort you at night, there is no one to talk to when you wake up from a bad dream, and your bed seems bigger and colder than it has ever been. Often, your house changes character at night and becomes less comforting and more menacing; fears of being alone during the darkness can escalate and start to interfere with waking hours.
Sleep is essential to mental and physical health, and the disruptions that grief causes in our sleep can be harmful. Without restful sleep at night, healing with grief becomes impossibly challenging, and even innocuous daily emotions suddenly transform into overpowering experiences. Most people will be able to manage by changing schedules, altering their environment, and allowing time to help with adjustments. Yet a few may suffer so many sleep problems after grief attacks that they will require medical interventions.
2. Mealtimes: Grief robs us of the comfort of daily routines. Something as “small” as preparing meals or being joined at the table is turned upside down when an important person is no longer present. Conversations become stilted, or silence reigns where comments and laughter once took place. Meals you enjoyed together suddenly taste different. Cooking becomes a chore, as opposed to an opportunity for togetherness or a chance to create something special to share with a loved one. Dining out at your treasured locations turns into a nightmare of raw memories that twist the experience into something to be avoided.
Meals are often a symbol of togetherness and a time for families to reconnect, especially amid busy lives. When an essential part of the family is no longer there, mealtimes can become an experience preceded by dread and apprehension. Some individuals will find comfort in the mealtime routines that were once completed together, while others will avoid these in favor of establishing new traditions. Because of the repeating nature of mealtimes, the changes that occur after losing someone can be a painful reminder of the newly formed hole in our lives.
3. Holidays: Holidays are irrevocably altered when grief hits. Traditions can become empty and meaningless; certain traditions are often shelved and new ones take their place. The pain of this process, replacing beloved rituals with unknown and unfamiliar ones, is extremely distressing. The magic of Christmas Eve dissipates when you are now facing it alone. Birthdays become a reminder of all the celebrations that will no longer take place and all of the opportunities that were missed. Special times throughout the year that used to bring warmth and create a sense of anticipation grow into vacant spaces requiring new construction.
Because grief robs us of energy at every level, the drive needed to re-establish traditions and find new ways to celebrate holidays is often lost in people who are grieving. Many of us become shadows on the periphery of others’ celebrations — feeling as if we are intruders carrying broken memories on our backs. Much like phantom limb pain, the sense of community and eagerness that used to accompany holidays becomes a nagging reminder of what we have lost.
4. Conversation: So many of us long for quiet time, a space to be alone and away from the world. When someone is grieving, quiet time can turn into their closest companion. Where lively discussions, running commentary on daily life, and even arguments used to be the norm, after grief, there is deadly quiet.
There is no longer a “good morning” when you first wake up and no one to ask if you are alright when you seem down. Checking in with someone throughout the day, receiving a text message, hearing their voice call you from the other room — all become ghosts of the past. The hearts may jump at the sound of a beeping phone, only to come crashing down with the realization that it cannot be the one person you most want to hear from. Many homes are filled with the echoes of lost conversations and the yearning to have one more chance for a morning coffee discussion or to hear one more silly school story.
Humans have an innate need for socialization, albeit at different levels depending on the individual. Grief steals this opportunity and attempts to replace it with intense, grave interactions. Gone is the lighthearted banter that used to pepper exchanges, supplanted by concerns for your well-being and canned phrases meant to console those who are grieving. The comfort of casual conversation is suddenly eliminated, just when it can begin to bring a sense of normalcy back to your life, often transforming grieving individuals into noiseless silhouettes floating through their days.
5. Support: We all need someone in our corner. When grief cheats us of our opportunity for collaboration, it is demoralizing. After losing an important person, all at once we can no longer ask them for their opinion or seek their help in making important decisions. Even minor choices, such as what to wear or what book to read next, fall into a void of loneliness. The familiar voice that was always ready to talk it through, the shoulder you could lean on after a hard day, disappear in the aftermath of grief. We are left alone with our thoughts, to sort it out on our own, in deafening silence.
The abyss that accompanies grief is almost organic. Newly bereft individuals are not only struggling to find new ways to relate to a drastically altered world, but they are doing so without the support they depended on before their loss. Replacing a life partner, a confidante, a beloved child, is impossible — as is replacing the unique role they played in your life.
When it comes to losing a piece of yourself, everything becomes momentous and there are no longer any trivial changes. Just the pain of waking up in the morning and recognizing your entire worldview has altered can be more than people are able to handle. Similarly, the everyday, mundane tasks and activities that most of us engage in suddenly become shadowed, with a dark overhanging inhabiting our thoughts and haunting our actions. This is one of the heaviest impacts of grief — that even a task as basic as folding laundry becomes insurmountable. In the battle for healing with grief, it is essential that victims recognize and give a voice to these small losses that cause unforeseen and astonishing damage.
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