Welcome back to Restorative Grief with Mandy Capehart. You’re listening to Episode 13, titled Three Lessons from Prolonged Grief. We’ve been on a little break from new episodes, just taking our own advice to create margin in our lives. A necessary gift of rest to myself, especially during the holidays! But this week we’re back with a conversation about what happens when grief lingers longer than we hoped.
This past week was an anniversary I loathe, but still celebrate. 9 years ago, my husband’s best friend died after a gross battle with a brain tumor. His wife and children still live nearby, and over the course of the last nine years, I have learned a few life altering lessons about traumatic loss, life, and love. I wanted to spend a few minutes today sharing those lessons with you because this is the kind of loss humans don’t know how to navigate.
As grievers, our losses never really leave us. There is some resolution, and often restoration, but that doesn’t mean we no longer have heavy, horrible days to mark on the calendar.
But when grief endures like love, the world needs definition. Recently the phrase “prolonged grief” came into play. No less than five friends sent me the same article, which I must say, felt wonderful. The article didn’t present anything new conceptually, but the phrase prolonged grief is new, at least in the medical profession. Let me explain.
Previously, the diagnosis of “prolonged grief” was termed “complicated grief,” suggesting grief is a disorder that needs fixing, along with this idea that something is wrong with us.
Of course something is wrong. We’re brokenhearted. We’ve lost something or someone central to who we are, and making sense of life in the aftermath is confusing at best.
There are many I know who actually appreciate the acknowledgement and inclusion of grief as a disorder because it makes a little sense of what just seems confusing. However, I believe labeling grief as a medical condition distracts us from the reality that grief is a part of life. It is completely typical, expected, and natural to grieve deeply, and even for a long time. I think what helps us MORE is fewer diagnoses and more education and honest, awkward conversation about loss, death, dying, recovery, and all the in-between pain.
Because what happens after the immediacy of our loss is that we are suddenly face to face with more than we expected. Grievers carry the burden of a multitude of secondary losses as well, especially years down the road. Unless you’ve experienced the death of a close loved one, you may not understand the secondary losses and how impactful they can be on your daily life.
But that’s exactly it – those secondary losses aren’t easily explained away as complicated or prolonged. To me, all grief has a potential to interrupt our ability to navigate our lives, interact with others, and find joy in the day to day moments. We are a culture obsessed with Good Vibes, affluency, prosperity, and wishful thinking. But these principles neglect the reality of life – LIFE is complicated, and often feels prolonged when the circumstances are not so pleasant. Life is worth all the discomfort and awkwardness that comes with it.
And I believe more grief literacy will equip us as humans to navigate our losses differently and with more intention. Just like the article mentioned above points out, when grievers were given a sort of diagnosis – when their ongoing pain was given a name – they felt seen. They were no longer alone. And they realized others were starting to understand what they themselves will still be learning to work through. Helping others to see them – and how the loss continues years down the road – is bringing healing to our broken hearts.
So that’s exactly why we’re going to talk about it today. The simple act of acknowledging a loss, even a decade after the event, continues our internal restoration. Awareness leads us to making new decisions and taking new actions, and that will lead us to prolonged healing as well. So to that end, I want to present three fairly simple lessons from the last decade of walking alongside my beautiful friend and her children as they make sense of their loss.
Lesson one: Life goes on, but so does the loss.
As my friend will tell you, she didn’t get much of a choice in how life happened around her. After her husband died, she was not ready to raise two little kids on her own. She relied on those of us in her community and circle of friends, her family, and her in-laws. We rallied like wildfire around her and her kids, wrapping them in love and meals and financial support.
But as the months passed, the support dwindled, as it does. That’s no surprise. What came as a surprise was realizing how alone life really feels when the onslaught of supporters grows thin.
The ongoing loss isn’t just the realization that our person is gone, but that our other people are somehow gone as well. The friends you double dated with, suddenly don’t call anymore. The bills stack up and the fundraiser grows thin.
So what do you think? This is not a rhetorical question; I would love to hear your thoughts about this idea. Is it reasonable to believe that the people who come alongside you in your loss will continue alongside you in your life?
I would argue yes. It’s completely reasonable. Not all of them, of course. But the core few? Without question. And although what that looks like may be different to everyone, I would argue it looks like continuing life with them as always before. Showing up, celebrating the highs and commiserating the lows. Holding space, no matter how uncomfortable you may feel.
Lesson two: Notice the special things and make sure they happen.
I will never forget that for one meal, I made my famous, absolutely delicious chicken soup. It’s also never quite the same, because I don’t have a recipe written down. But does my friend care? No. Because the first time she tasted it, it reminded her of a safe, happy time in life.
And now, whenever comfort or even just acknowledgement is needed, I know I can bring this soup to her door and it also brings a reminder that she is not carrying her heavy things alone.
Other special things you can remember are little traditions from their person, and make them happen. One friend mentioned her person would give a litany of birthday gifts leading up to the day itself. When I encouraged her to ask a friend to do the same, they were all too happy to make that happen.
Sometimes grievers don’t know to ask for what they need, so if you’re willing to do “whatever someone needs,” then be on the lookout for those special things that maybe aren’t foundational needs, but still make a huge impact.
Lesson three: Do not avoid anniversaries.
The year my mom died, everything became an anniversary. I didn’t realize that would happen until I was assessing my own secondary losses – all those things and places in life that were no longer an option now that she was gone.
Well that year, I met a new friend who had also lost her mom. She met me between the months of Mom’s passing and my birthday. And on my birthday, she showed up. She brought thoughtful gifts, but mostly, she brought the acknowledgement that this too, was a new anniversary. The first birthday without my mom in the world.
It was gearing up to be an awful day, and yet because someone knew how to love me well (even as a new person in my life) I was able to recognize the pain I felt without allowing it to consume my birthday.
No one wants to allow grief to overtake the milestones and future memories, but because loss is ongoing, we grievers can feel like drowning as they approach.
Doing your best to get into the trenches with us, as long as we’re cool with it, is an act of generosity you can only understand if you’ve experienced the gift of presence from another.
Grief sucks. There’s never a day that grief will feel awesome. But it can feel different, with time and intention, and people who make it their business to get uncomfortable on our behalf. As grievers, we want to know that even as our losses go on, our lives are not forgotten by everyone too scared to show up in the middle of a messy, hurting life.
We notice that time is passing, and the person is still here, fighting to be seen, known, and loved. We recognize the little things that make their day brighter, and for the love, we celebrate the worst days with them so they can remember they are not celebrating or mourning alone.
Thank you for listening to episode 13 of Restorative Grief. These lessons are only scratching the surface of what we can learn from paying attention differently to the ongoing losses around us. With every day, there seems to be yet one more thing (if not many) that grieve our already tender hearts.
But if you really want to be a person who can recognize ongoing grief and show up for someone, then you have to start with how you approach your own losses. Do you practice compassion toward yourself? Are you able to see your broken hearted places and offer mercy, or are you too busy pretending you’re fine and muscling through? Are you honest with the safe people in your life, when they ask what you need, or do you believe no one is safe? Are you the person willing to be a safe place for another to land? Then be generous with your own heart when you, too, need a little more tenderness.
Thanks for listening. I’ll see you next week.
Links + Resources from this episode:
- NY Times article about prolonged grief
- Article from the Mayo Clinic: Coping with death reminders after a loss
- Listen to this episode of Restorative Grief with Mandy Capehart on Spotify
- Snag a copy of my book, Restorative Grief
- Connect with me on Twitter or Instagram @MandyCapehart
- Join The Restorative Grief Project, a private online grief coaching community