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Lessons In Grief: An Informal Education

In case you haven’t noticed (I hope you have), I’ve been away for a little while. It’s been close to two months now since I lost my stepmom to cancer. For those who may question whether the loss of a stepmother can be as deep as the loss of a biological mother, know this – IT CAN. In many ways, I didn’t realize just how deep. While she was, in fact, a step, she was a mom and more to me. She was a friend and confidant, cheerleader and supporter, there for me in many ways that my biological mother could not be.

As I write this, tears come to my eyes in knowing that I will not talk to or see her again. Many people have told me that the grief will never end – it will just soften. Of all those I have lost in my life, she was the person I have known the longest (39 years) and to whom I was the closest. With that comes a very intense grief and a sense of loss, emotions that no lessons from my formal education could prepare me for.

Although I have always known there is no real way to prepare yourself for losing someone close to you, this time I experienced a new frustration that, as consistent and “normal” as death is, it remains one of those things there is no “standard” way to really “prepare.” As an engineer, I am always looking for how to solve the problem. Unfortunately, like the cancer from which my stepmom suffered, there is never a specific “solution” to the grief that you feel. It seems like grief is always a crash course, but a course in which you are never really sure when it is over, if you have made the grade, and the exact final lesson. Of course, you learn quickly that there are tools, templates and resources to help you get your assets and wishes in order and executed. There is consensus on parts of the curriculum, however, that same level of “standard curriculum” is not available when it comes to handling the emotions that come over you and the impact they have on you.

Grief is unique based on each individual’s deeply personal experience. The lessons learned are equally unique and personal. It is hard to “standardize education” around it. For all the areas that educated persons, educational institutions and education curriculum has been able to improve, grief and its effects are not among them, at least not in the formal sense. (There are no formal required classes in high schools or universities in “Bereavement” or “Preparing for Grief.”)

To that end, in the spirit of education and health, I am dedicating this blog to sharing the few lessons I have learned and continue to learn.

Lesson 1:  BE PATIENT AND COMPASSIONATE with yourself in the early stages.

I’m going to be honest. In the immediate aftermath of my stepmom’s death (and even in the week leading up to it), I was not able to sleep or eat well and didn’t have a lot of time to really focus on healing and managing my grief (much less self-care, see below). It was not until I was back at home in Atlanta, attempting to return to a state of normalcy, that I was able to act on the remaining lessons below. As I discussed in a previous post, self-compassion and patience with myself required all of my energy in the early days.

Lesson 2: RECORD in a journal.

It helped me personally to keep a daily journal of my feelings and emotions. It was a way for me to vent what I was feeling while I was feeling it. If you are not comfortable with (or don’t feel like) writing, talking to a trusted, empathetic and compassionate partner, friend or confidant can serve equally well. However, my journaling was not only helpful in the moment but also now serves as a memento and object of reflection moving forward. I continue to write in my journal to this day (I was fortunate enough to have found and used a journal my stepmom started shortly before her death so it has even more special significance.)

Lesson 3: ALLOW YOURSELF to lean on others…after, after and after.

For many of us who are fiercely independent and self-sufficient or for those of us for whom culture dictates otherwise, it is difficult to accept help, much less ask for it. Take your alone time as you need it, sparingly. Accept the kindness and help of those close to you and those that want to support you in your grief. Allow your tribe  to help you tend to yourself, especially in the early stages when you will be much less likely to do it. Although grief can bring out the dark side in some, grief can also be a vehicle to bring you closer to others. I had a group of friends from my tribe that came to support me before, during and after the service. Being able to have conversations with them on random “tribe” topics was helpful in making me feel a sense of normalcy. Friends continue to support me in shifts since I returned to Atlanta and most of the chaos has subsided. Don’t underestimate the quiet days and weeks (and soon to be months) can be intense.

Lesson 4: FEEL through it. 

Piggybacking on Lesson 2, understand that the emotions will be intense. They will come at random times and places, along with the memories. Especially if you don’t cry often like me, the depth of sadness can feel weird and uncomfortable. However, it is important to get in a good cry. I allowed myself the time and space to let it out as often as it felt appropriate. In my personal experience, the more I tried to hold it in, the more intense the feelings became.

Lesson 5:  FIND THE TIME for self-care.

After the busy work of making arrangements, handling estate matters and tying up loose ends, FIND THE TIME to SLOW DOWN and take SPECIAL, INTENTIONAL care of yourself. I was away from work and home for quite a while handling things but I took some “me” time after that to recover and restore. This is the time when I was able to and did focus on sleeping and eating right. This was and is critical for me in adjusting to the “new normal.”

I won’t use the trite phrase “I hope you never need it” because the reality is YOU WILL. To that end, for this post in particular, I encourage my readers to share their own lessons learned, personal strategies and methods of overcoming their grief and its challenges. Solutions shared through and based on community experiences are important sources of the informal part of our overall education.

 Tanya Leake is a certified health coach, group fitness and dance instructor, wellness educator, presenter and author of “GET A GGRiPP: The Health and Wellness Movement Rooted in Black Cultural Traditions.” Her column appears in Diverse every month.

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