Lessons From a Year of Grief

It is hard to believe but August 7th is the one-year anniversary of my life-partner Bill’s departure for his next big adventure. It feels like he was just here yesterday and it feels like he’s been gone forever.

The lessons are not over but here is what I have learned over the past year:

Everyone handles change at a different pace and in different ways.

I thought I knew how I would handle the profound changes that came with Bill’s death. I figured it would be similar to the ways I had handled the death of others whom I loved and who had moved on. I was wrong.  Every relationship is profoundly different and therefore the grieving is different.

So it is with any change. Be careful about saying of another, “Oh, he’ll be fine. He’s faced this kind of adversity before,” or, “She’s going to fall apart. She can’t handle this.” The truth is each change is unique and the way one handles it depends on the circumstances that are present now, not the ones that were present the last time something similar happened.

When my best friend died in a car accident, I was 17 and ill equipped to handle the torrent of deeply negative emotions that happen when one comes face-to-face with the concept of mortality. I felt suicidal. It threw me into depression and awakened my latent alcoholism. I struggled for decades to recover.

Today I am resilient. For one, I don’t make my grief worse by drinking and I am no longer depressed. Although I miss Bill like crazy, I am able to laugh and smile at the memories rather than use them as an excuse to wallow. When I do allow myself to feel the feelings, I dive into them deliberately; I don’t hide from them.  I “let it rip.”

As life marches on, the grief takes up less time and the celebration of the love we had takes up more.

The impact of change is unpredictable. You don’t know its impact until you do.

One of the biggest changes for me during Bill’s illnesses and in the year following his transition is that I decided to retire my crystal ball. I have no idea what’s going to happen until it does.

It is possible to be both extremely frightened and extremely calm.

Facing life without Bill is frightening and yet, I feel extremely calm because I know I can do this. I don’t want to but I can, and I will. So it is with any profound change—you may not want to get through it but you can, and you will.

People will abandon you in your time of need.

When change hits, it is easy to believe that you’re the one in the most pain. In the case of the death of a spouse, it’s a time when society actually allows you to be self-centered. But others are in pain, too, and sometimes they cannot face yours. They are doing everything they can to hold themselves together; they don’t have anything left to give to you. Their departure is not meant to be deliberately hurtful; it is a survival mechanism. The best thing to do is what my friend Laura recommends: in your mind shower them with roses.

People you never suspected will be extremely supportive.

I have many wonderful friends who have stood by me for decades. I also have new friends whom I have met only recently. I have always been grateful for those on whom I have depended throughout my life. They are the invisible arms that hold me.

And I have been surprised and moved by those who don’t know me as well, or to whom I am not necessarily close, who have reached out to me over the past few years while Bill was sick and after his transition.

When change hits it is often true that you will discover your biggest allies to be people whom you have never counted on before but who “show up” when you need them most.

During this profound time of change, I have felt your presence and your love. You have helped more than you will ever know. The very best thing I can wish for you is that you experience the same level of support in your own life.

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.