First off, thanks to everyone who sent words of condolence and compassion for my sister’s death—which I shared last week. I loved each email, even as a message occasionally triggered a wave of sadness. Support beats silence any day. I’ll remember this lesson the next time a friend faces a loss or diagnosis, and I don’t know what to say beyond, “I am so sorry.” The words don’t matter as much as the connection.
This week, I dove back into the playbook Grief left me the last time he visited. Grief’s a helluva teacher. When he’s in town, he takes over, like the bad guest who comes and goes at any hour of the day or night despite your plans. He stays as long as he chooses and returns when he wants. He makes messes, but he may also help you clean. He can tear your guts and fill you with compassion. He refuses to be confined or predictable.
When Grief’s in town, there are no rules—or if there are, he makes them up. Having worked with him before, here are nine lessons I remember:
- Jettison the ought-tos and should-dos. Yes, I totally forgot an appointment the day I received the news, but my blooper was forgiven. The world that seemed regular yesterday becomes strange today. I alternate between being clear-sighted and foggy-headed, sorrowful and grateful, happy, angry, and numb. This is not a time for business as usual but a time to listen in new ways. Grief will provide the needed instructions.
- Welcome all feelings. I’d rather welcome the hard ones than see them go under where they can wreak a different kind of havoc.
- Let an inner voice guide. Last week, the voice within said a lot of “I don’t want tos.” But it also made suggestions like “Go paint” and “Clean your office.” Following that voice helped me find my grounding—or at least led me to the next step. Spending a day purging files turned into just the medicine I needed.
- Pay attention to experience. I’d like to believe that my sister is in a transition in the afterlife, and I loved what Anita Moorjani described in Dying to Be Me. Others have suggested something similar from their near-death experiences or communications with the dead, such as Helen Greaves’s Testimony of Light: An Extraordinary Message of Life After Death, a book gifted to me by a good friend.
But do I know for a rock solid fact what happens in the afterlife—or even if there is an afterlife? Alas, no.
What I do know for certain is that my sister is still in my life through the love I have for her, the memories, and the way she feels present to me. No matter where she is, our relationship lives on—that’s a fact of my experience. And I can keep feeding that relationship with good wishes, prayers, and loving thoughts—no belief system is required.
- Find what centers. For me, it’s been spending time in the garden and painting—as well as my file purging. As I sank my hands into the soil, I appreciated the new life springing forth—even the weeds!
- Receive the love and support of others. And if I can give to someone, that often helps me as well.
- Soak in beauty. My peonies are continuing to blossom, although this week, the flashy red poppies stole the show. Beautiful songs made me cry, and those tears fed me, giving my heart a chance to crack open and heal.
- Go small and slow. I needed the intimacy of tiny things and short acts.
- Appreciate Death. I’m in awe of Death, the Great Teacher, and his helper, Grief. Yes, a loss like that of my sister takes away my breath, sends me to my knees, and leaves pain roiling in my gut. But when I stand up again, I am changed, usually for the better. I notice the world differently and feel blessed to be here. My sister’s death closed a chapter in my life. A new one is opening.
My journey with Grief continues. With each new round, I learn ways to deal with what I cannot control. And for that, I am grateful.