It is never easy to lose someone we care deeply for and it is especially hard when it is your spouse or partner. When I think of grief I am often reminded of a quote by Vicki Harrison:
Grief is like the ocean; it comes in waves, ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim.
Grief is a complicated process and differs for everyone. There is no “right” or “wrong” way to grieve. There is no time limit or minimum or maximum period of time to grieve. Some believe that our grief shrinks, or diminishes over time so that it becomes easier to bear. Others feel that we grow around our grief, making space for it and accommodating it in our life following the loss. Whichever perspective we adopt, processing our loved one’s loss is a process and one that isn’t always linear. Feelings and moods may vary dramatically daily and we may experience confusing or even contradictory emotions.
Sometimes we can experience something called “survivor’s grief”. Survivor’s grief can stall us in the grieving process, preventing us from moving through the stages and keeping us stuck in our grief longer than we may want or expect. We may feel we need the suffering because we are the surviving spouse and we are here, they are gone. This can cause us to be stuck in the depths of despair, powerless to move forward yet unable to return. Survivor’s grief can be especially prevalent if our loved one died young or at an age that we do not consider average or “normal”. In these instances our grief may be accompanied by a sense of anger or disbelief over the injustice of their death. This can further complicate the grief process. Our grief may also manifest in physical ways. Often when we experience survivor grief we experience:
- Weight loss and changes in appetite
- Sleep disturbances
- Nausea or stomach upset
Grief may differ for men
Grief for men can be especially tricky given the public messages men receive. Boys and men are told to “man up,” hide their feelings so as not to embarrass themselves and those around them and act as though nothing has changed. Men and women, boys and girls all experience the same emotions, they are just socialized to express them differently. While women are taught to grieve publicly, even to rely on a support system to aid them in their grief, men are taught to grieve silently and internally. A national survey by the University of Kentucky asked men about how they grieved the loss of their fathers. They found that the men primarily chose to grieve their fathers through actions-by participating in their father’s hobbies, or physically expressing anger. Anger is a common reaction to loss but it becomes problematic when it is expressed instead of sadness rather than in tandem with sadness.
So how do we support the men in our lives who are grieving or how do we grieve as men? First of all it is important to remember that everyone grieves at some point, it is an inevitable part of being a human being. Doing so in a healthy and productive manner can facilitate greater emotional resilience as well and further our connection to others. There are a few simple things we can do:
Free ourselves from expectations
There is no instruction manual for grief and there is no timeline. Grief is universal in that everyone experiences it and no one is immune to it. Allowing ourselves space to grieve in whatever manner feels comfortable is okay. If we ignore our grief or sublimate it, it will likely resurface in unhealthy and more egregious ways.
Be intentional about honoring our loved one
When we grieve we mourn the loss of our loved one. We miss their presence in our lives, the opportunity to interact with them and sometimes those things we left unsaid or unfinished. Setting aside time to be with our loved one is key. Whether we do that by writing a letter to them, having a conversation or carrying a remembrance of them, honoring them and our connection to them helps us put some order to the loss.
Take small steps
Grieving is a process and as with any process we cannot rush it. It can be overwhelming and sometimes making it through the day can be a victory. We shouldn’t overcommit or busy ourselves with distractions. Making space for things we enjoy and allowing ourselves time to rest and process can be helpful and can ease us back into our routines.
Often when we are grieving we feel alone in our sadness. We may feel our grief is a burden to others or that they don’t understand what we are going through. Support is key to the grieving process. Surrounding ourselves with people who are comfortable with our grief can help minimize our loneliness and prevent us from feeling more profound sadness.