Photo Credit: Danielle MacInnes, Unsplash.com

Written by Patti Ashley, PhD, LPC
Feburary 19, 2020

A little over three years ago my fiancé, Laurence Freedom, died of a sudden heart attack. Everything that I’d learned about grief from having lost my father the same way when I was eleven years old (and subsequently, becoming a therapist) didn’t seem to help. It just hurt like hell. Every part of my body, mind, and heart hurt. His sudden death sent me into what felt like a time warp, or a walk through molasses. No words can quite describe it. 

Unresolved Grief

The one thing I did know was that I needed to allow my feelings to surface in order to get through the pain. I remembered my first day of graduate school in 1989. The professor, also a therapist, wrote these words on the board:All depression is unresolved grief.” That hit me like a ton of bricks at the time. 

As a result of that graduate class, I found a therapist. I worked slowly and steadily through my unresolved grief. I wailed and screamed in the shower. I wrote my father letters. I felt deep sadness that I thought was going to kill me, and at times it did drown me in my own dreams. Large waves coming at me from all directions with no sight of shore had become a common nightmare during my grief process.

Another recurring dream I frequently had after my father died was me running out the front door of my parent’s house to get away from an intruder. I would try to find shelter in a neighbor’s house so I wouldn’t be captured and killed. In waking life, the front entrance of my parent’s house was the place where I’d seen my father’s corpse the day he died. After a year of working through my unresolved grief, that dream stopped. Maybe the dream was telling me the same thing my college professor had written on the board: All depression is unresolved grief. 

When I was eleven, I didn’t realize that adults might not be giving me the best advice. I was being told that I should be happy my father was in Heaven. No one seemed interested in listening to me talk about him or my grief. I went back to school a week after he died. I concluded there must be something wrong with me because I didn’t know how to manage my sadness. Depression laid heavily on top of my shame about feeling sad when I was a child. 

Grief’s a hard taskmaster. Nonetheless, I’ve learned that pain is essential to health and wholeness. The poet Kahlil Gibran in his poem “Joy and Sorrow wrote:

“The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain.”

That certainly has been my life’s lesson. When Laurence died, I gave myself permission to grieve. I paid close attention to what came up and I honored my feelings. Because as psychologist Carl Jung once said, “What we resist persists and oftentimes grows larger.” 

We all face losses of varying degrees. Job changes, moves, custody battles, or endings of any kind involve grief. Recognizing grief as such is what allows us to move through it. Feeling the feelings is what makes them eventually lessen. Whereas avoiding, denying, or finding distractions to not feel the pain keeps grief stuck, and can lead to chronic depression. We live in a culture that wants to feel and look good. The idea of feeling bad isn’t one that’s easily embraced. 

Tell Your Story

One very important thing I learned about grief is that in order to move through it, we have to tell the story at least 100 times. This requires a safe place to tell the stories. Sometimes people get uncomfortable listening when someone talks about grief and loss. They try to fix it by offering herbal supplements or saying things like “at least he didn’t suffer.” However, once we realize that there is no fix for grief, we’re better able to support someone who’s going through it.

After Laurence died, the one thing I knew was that I needed a place for my stories about us. I didn’t want to over-burden my friends with all my lamenting, so instead, I started writing. There were some nights when I did reach out to friends, sobbing. But mostly I wrote our stories, one by one, as I remembered them. Losing Laurence gave me an opportunity to be with grief again with whole new eyes. Congruent. Real. But mostly really hard! 

The day Laurence died my phone rang nonstop. The main question people asked was, “What do you need?” I had no idea. I’d respond: “Please check back with me in a few months.” I’m grateful for the few people who did check on me a few months later. Honestly, it did seem like most people disappeared. I guess they forgot or didn’t realize what I was asking for at the time.

Recently I was talking with a man who just lost his brother to cancer. He told me that the one thing he hates the most is when people ask him what he needs. In the early stages of grief, or even later, it’s very hard to know. Please DO NOT ask: “What do you need?” Instead, show up, shut up, and listen, with NO judgment or advice. And always BRING SOUP! 

A few months after Laurence died, when I could think a little more clearly, I made a list of what might have helped me after he died, with the intention of guiding others in the future with that task.

Here’s that list. Hopefully it provides you with some ideas on helping your loved ones when they’re in grief. 

  • Please keep calling after the first week has passed. 
  • Don’t ask me to get over it and move on. 
  • Let me be sad. 
  • Let me be weak. 
  • Let me be vulnerable. 
  • Call me at night when I’m alone and say hello. 
  • Send me flowers. 
  • Cook me meals. 
  • Offer to help with bills that don’t get paid due to bereavement time off. 
  • Let me cry. 
  • Give me lots of hugs. 
  • Massages are always welcome. 
  • Let me tell you the stories of us, over and over again. 
  • Be patient. 
  • Don’t give up on me. 
  • Please don’t ask me to be strong. 
  • Let me take as long as it takes. 

We all need at least one person who can tolerate our pain, and be with us in our grief. Being that enlightened witness for someone during a loss is a precious gift. I hope this article helps you be that person, or helps you be with your grief if you are that person.

Grief gives us an opportunity to open up to something greater than ourselves. It deepens us. How we respond is our choice. The Sufi prayer “break my heart open to a higher love” speaks to my experience of grief, as it has truly been my greatest teacher.

To hear more from Dr. Patti Ashley, tune in to her One Idea Away Podast Episode!

Photo Credit: Danielle MacInnes, Unsplash.com