Fifteen months ago, a phone call informed me that an ex-boyfriend, from a tumultuous but serious relationship, had been found dead in his bedroom, overdosed on heroin.
I thought I’d experienced loss enough times before to know what I was in for, yet, messy, complicated, unresolved grief can be a beast all its own.
I often found myself lost during the first year after that call, wishing I could get clear advice. I scoured bookstores, websites, and support groups, hoping to make sense of what I was feeling, how long it would last, how not to feel grief.
I learned there is no singular roadmap through grief, but there are signposts. Here are a few of the things I wish someone had told me in the first twelve long, bewildering months.
You may grieve something other than a person
I was spared the loss of my ex in one crucial way: after a year of being apart, I was used to being without him. I didn’t want to text him with good news. I was used to sleeping alone. Dinner by myself meant monstrous servings of pasta in my most unflattering sweatpants, not that I’d be deafened by the silence of an empty table.
It was only when the chance of us meeting again was definitively taken from me that I realized how much I’d been counting on it. I was acutely embarrassed at how sad I became, and it deepened with every passing week. My ex had bought me a ring, and after his death, I spent a month obsessing over where it might be. I wanted something physical to prove I’d been important enough, that our relationship had been real, that my devastation was justified.
I never found the ring, and it took a few months to realize its presence would have offered little comfort. Whether or not he still thought about me, or what may have happened if we saw each other again was inconsequential.
I still felt like part of his family, believing he would trade heroin addiction for happiness, that somehow everything would work out in the end, and that unspoken but fervent hope had died along with him.
We can disconnect cleanly from certain things and remain deeply attached to others. We can mourn marriages while needing divorces. We can grieve family members we never got along with in real life. We can yearn for our homes long after we’ve settled in new places. Identifying the source of your grief is integral to moving on; it is difficult to treat a wound if you don’t know where it is.
There is no right way to cope, but there may be less painful ones
It’s well-known wisdom that there is no wrong way to grieve. You may gain weight, lose weight, feel numb, or feel devastated. You may need to book a therapist to talk about it until it makes sense, or you might loathe discussing it and want to get back to your normal life as soon as circumstances allow.
However, if you find your grief is interfering with your work to the point that it is endangering your career, or you’re isolating yourself for too long, or you’re having thoughts of hurting yourself, there are minute-but-active efforts toward healing that may be a lifejacket in rough seas.
[Editor’s Note: if these thoughts are familiar, we encourage you to speak to your doctor, first and foremost.]
Certain small tricks used to help me get on with the day-to-day business of living: cleaning the house, doing the laundry, emptying my inbox. If the images of my ex were playing too vividly in my head for me to focus, I’d name objects in the room. (Table. Chair. Fridge. Picture frame. Window. Vase. Smoke detector.) Sometimes I’d name 15 things before my mind disconnected from grief and focused on the concrete nouns around me, on what was solid and still here and needed tending to.
The idea of radical acceptance became familiar; choosing, for however long I was capable, to accept the fact that he wasn’t coming back, that I really was going to end up with someone else (if I ended up with anybody at all), that I didn’t get to say goodbye, and that this pain wasn’t going anywhere for now. It was never comfortable, but it was less exhausting than the effort of constantly trying to fool myself otherwise.
If I couldn’t manage the idea of a simple task (going to the supermarket, for example), I’d break it down into smaller sub-tasks. I didn’t think ‘get dressed and go buy food’; I simply had to get up. Next, I had to find a clean shirt. After that, I’d have to find jeans or sweatpants. Next, I’d put them on. Then shoes. Now I’d find my handbag. Next, I’d get my supermarket list. Finally, I’d pick up my keys.
Each task was one more thing done, one very manageable thing in a straightforward sequence of manageable things, during a time when I didn’t feel I could manage much at all.
Be gentle with yourself
In the weeks following his death, my social media feeds became cluttered with old photos of us together, articles about opioid addiction, and open statuses about confusion and pain.
I’d always prized a competent outward appearance, so to present myself as hysterical to the world would have been deeply humiliating to me. But I quickly learned that it was more productive—and less painful—to extend myself the compassion I’d extend to someone I love.When grieving, allow yourself bouts of unreasonable sadness. Forgive yourself for not making it to the party or engaging differently with social media. Forgive yourself for thinking your ex will knock on your door asking for his jacket. One day soon, you will thank yourself for your own generosity.
You will discover emotional time travel is possible
The last piece of bitter knowledge is that month seven of grieving can have an hour (or even a day) that feels like week two. We often hear there is no timeline, but that may not only mean that you have an indeterminate amount of time to process the stages of grief at your own pace.
Previous experience doesn’t adequately prepare anyone for the messiness of grief. It would make sense that the earliest days would be the hardest (they’re not necessarily). We may imagine that the moment someone passes is the moment we’ll accept it. Instead, the idea that someone is permanently gone takes an unsettlingly long time to fully sink in. We may imagine the funeral will be the worst day. In reality, many may find the frenetic activity and support surrounding a funeral distracting, or all-encompassing, or exhausting enough that grief is not front-and-center.
Anniversaries can be the hardest. Birthdays can be the hardest. The first morning you visit a store and see something they’d like can be the hardest. Random Tuesdays can be the hardest. There can be a multitude of hardests.
Yet, mercifully, some things will be easier than you imagine. Walking into their room, seeing their picture, watching their favorite movie; some of the things we imagine will be another papercut may inexplicably be soothing.
Of course, one person’s hardest will be another person’s easiest. Mourning is as individual as people themselves. There is no one-size-fits-all.
Grief is not a straight road you walk down mile by mile. Grief is a maze, and while you’re navigating, you may find yourself looping back to where you were before. It doesn’t mean you’re not working your way, steadily, toward the way through.