What Does Grief Look Like?

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The Parts of Grief We Do Not Expect and Do Not Talk About

I am a Covid Widow. I lost my partner of nineteen years at the very beginning of the pandemic before we knew what Covid was, and before it was being diagnosed. We do not have an official diagnosis of Covid as the cause of death for my partner, however, all of the signs and symptoms and her cause of death point to Covid as the cause.

Since losing my late wife, I have become a non-consensual expert on Grief. Not only do I sit in and process my own grief, but I now have a collection of widow friends (we call ourselves “the weeping”) that I have formed a deep and intimate relationship with over these past eighteen months. Having a community of people who know what it is like to be a griever is a game-changer in being able to sit with and process grief. My weeping and baking bread are probably the two things that have made it possible to continue to exist in space with folks.

This blog isn’t necessarily about me and my experience with grief and it’s not about all of the usual mainstream conversations around grief, either. This blog is about the unspoken pieces of grief and the things that crept up or surprised us Weeping Widows while going through our Journeys.
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First off…

Grief is not a horizontal line, and it’s not even a circle. Grief is like an ocean. Some days you have giant capsize your boat waves, and sometimes you just have little laps on the shore.

Grief has a starting point but never an end point. I think this is one of the hardest things to learn when going through the process. So many folks ask me when grief will end. I am the forever optimist and I want to say that it will end soon or someday, but the realist in me (and the griever) has to say unfortunately, never. Grief stays with you. At first it’s really intense and ever-present. As it continues to flow through you (and as you continue to process along your journey) it evolves. It still can be intense and ever-present, but hopefully those days get further apart and don’t linger as long as they did in the beginning.

Grieving is unpredictable and pops up in strange ways during the most inconvenient times. It can be a song or a smell, a bird or a flower, or something you didn’t know was going to bring on strong feelings. When talking with my widow friends, we all agree that those “surprise griefs” are the worst. Surprise griefs are the moments that show up when you least expect them; you have no idea where they came from. These are moments in grief that you can’t prepare for.

I asked my widow friends what were the things that surprised them the most after they lost their person, and here are their responses:

The build-up is always worse than the day…

The buildups to the big anniversary milestones (birthdays, hospitalizations, etc.) are hard and painful. We spend so much time and brainpower thinking about all the things that are, were, or what could be. We are also just anxious about how it’s going to be on the actual day. I have had 18 months worth of anniversaries and this statement is always true: The build-up has always been worse than the actual day. When the day comes, it might be sad, but it is never as tragically sad as we prepared for.

Those who you thought would stick around don’t, and those you didn’t think would stick around, will.

Is very interesting to see who stays after a significant loss. Everyone shows up obviously for the first two weeks to a month after the death, and then the world tapers off and gets back doing their thing. At this point, we as grievers are left feeling very lonely. Many of the people that I thought would hang around and be supportive did not support me, and I was constantly surprised by who was able to lean in and stay present even after that first month.

Grief math or “Widow Math” as I call it.

This is the subconscious need to countdown until the next significant event. How many days until the next anniversary? how many days has it been since the first anniversary? how many days until I’m older than they were ever going to be again? That constant counting of time is our brains trying to keep us connected to the human we lost, and also breaking down forever into measurable moments. It is not an anxiety easing process or technique. In fact, grief math is incredibly difficult and intrusive for most folx.

It’s really hard to be around people who don’t also experience grief.

This one surprised me. I am a people person and I love to be with people. I now find it hard to be around people who don’t know what it’s like to experience grief on a cellular level the way I have. I’ve asked a lot of widows about this, and this is something that they feel as well. It is a common theme. We tend to lean into each other and into our network because it’s a lot easier to be around people who get it than it is to explain it.

You see grief and death everywhere.

Until becoming a widow, I never realized every show has a character who deals with some sort of significant loss. Many shows have widowers or widdudes as we call them in the Widow’s Club. You can’t help but see those characters differently after joining the Widow Club/Grief Club. Or maybe you didn’t even notice that character at first, and then that’s all you can see.

The body remembers before your brain will.

There is something to be said about the body keeping score. We hold trauma in our bodies, and our body then reacts in somatic ways. My body told me an anniversary was coming up before the calendar did. It was shocking to make the connection between the physical pain and the proximity of the anniversary. Grief does not just hurt emotionally, it hurts physically, as well.
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What is the takeaway from all of this?

If you are a griever:
Find a community. Find people who know what it’s like to experience what you have experienced. A community will give you common language, and most importantly connection. Grief is such an isolating experience that creates such big internal and external spaces of loneliness. Most people need to have people around them in order to get through, and out to the other side of those dark spaces. Remember that you’re not alone. There are so many of us out there. Just come find us.

If you’re not a griever:
Don’t forget about your friends who have lost humans. Be patient with them, as they may not be the same person they were before the loss. Allow people to grow into their new selves as they work on figuring out who they are becoming after their loss.

Don’t take silence personally. If your grieving friend withdraws, it is not about you. It is most likely because they needed to go inward and do some work.

Be there for them when they return with open arms, and not with judgment. Remember, they are different now.
Trust your grieving friend when they share things with you about their experiences. If you don’t understand why they are doing a certain thing or you don’t agree with the choices they are making, ask them about it. They may be doing things a certain way because they have to protect themselves or because they may be dealing with other people’s grief. They have to be a certain way in the world right now in order to keep themselves safe.

Do your best not to put your own grief onto the person who is grieving. If your friend loses a parent or a partner, going to your friend and talking about how sad you are and leaning into them to help you process your feelings of grief and loss may be incredibly overwhelming to that individual. If you’re able to take your feelings and process them with somebody else who is not as close to the loss, that is going to be more beneficial to your grieving friend. Grievers do not have the emotional space to hold grief for other grievers the way that other grievers need. This is not Universal for everybody but in general it’s very hard for those who are in it to be there for others.

One important thing to remember is that we will all be Grievers one day.

Unfortunately, death and loss are inevitable and every person will experience some sort of significant loss. As a culture (in North America), we are generally not great about talking about death. Death is scary, so it is avoided. But it is a thing that happens. The more we can all remember that we will all be grievers one day, the easier it will be for us to lean into that experience and to feel what we need to feel and process what we need to process.

You cannot bypass grief, you cannot avoid the loss, and grief can never be outrun. The only thing you can do is go through, feel it, process it, and even eventually embrace it. It is not scary, it is just beautifully sad.

What has helped you in your grief?

Blog written by Sentier therapist, Ashley Groshek, LMFT.

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