What Does Grief Look Like?

I think everyone experiences different forms of grief in their life, even from a relatively young age. You grieve the loss of a pet, the ending of friendships, and boyfriends/girlfriends who made an impact on you.

Grief is something that most people can understand as a concept from those kinds of experiences, plus depictions of grief in books, TV, and movies. It’s basically sadness, right? So lots of people can see or guess that you’re sad and relate or try to cheer you up.

Some people know about the stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, and acceptance are the most common ones you’re taught in Psychology 101, but now there are versions with additional stages, wheels, etc. This is a really great article about how that’s a lie.

This Reddit comment felt like a more accurate description of what it’s been feeling like for me, but the biggest thing I’ve learned is that grief is different for everyone.

My experience of losing my husband to cancer less than three years into our marriage and becoming a single mother of a toddler at 30 is completely unique, even if someone else shares those same circumstances. The way you deal with those facts depends on how you grew up, what you understand about the world (including your religion), the relationship you just lost and the ones around you, and about a million other factors.

What I’ve learned is that loss is a common experience, but it’s also an extremely lonely one. No one exactly understands, because they aren’t you. I often want to be around people and want everyone to leave me alone at the same time.

The one thing that makes it worse is sometimes feeling like people are expecting my grief to look differently than what it does. I’m not going to pretend like I can speak for anyone else, but here are some things that I’ve discovered about myself during the grieving process:

  1. Above all, let me be normal. Or maybe normal-ish. Whatever I was before this. Don’t hold back, don’t stop joking, don’t keep things from me because you’re afraid of how I’ll react. Let me own my reactions and we’ll deal with it from there. I’m still an adult and I’m pretty good at recognizing my own limitations, so if I can’t handle something, I’ll let you know.
  2. Please don’t tilt your head and ask, “how are you?” like you’re expecting me to burst into tears at any moment. I hate crying in public and this feels like you want me to do that. You can ask how I’m doing, but if I say good or OK, you have to let that be an acceptable answer.
  3. I really don’t want to talk about cancer. Cancer sucks. We can talk about people–of course I’m concerned and want to know how people affected by cancer are doing–but I do not want to talk about this cancer vs. that cancer and what each one does differently or similarly. Cancer is also not a “common interest,” so please don’t connect me with people just based on the fact that we had this terrible experience. I’m always happy to meet great new friends, but hopefully we share something else in common.

My friends and family have been awesome during this tough time, and taking time to be grateful is one of the things that’s really helped me a lot. Thanks for taking the time to read this and care!