Navigating life while dealing with death can be like finding your way to an urgent appointment — in a new country …
Where you don’t understand the culture — or the language …
While operating a vehicle you’ve never driven, flown, or sailed before — and while responsible for a dozen kids, their gear, and their pets …
All yelling, “Are we there yet? How much longer?”*
And you were supposed to be there yesterday.
You could pull over to ask for directions — if you could find a passerby with whom you can communicate.
You could call someone who has been there before — if you hadn’t just unknowingly crossed a border not included in your phone plan. If you had any service bars available. If you had your charger with you.
“The grief journey” is one description for the process of learning to live again after a loss. It’s not like vacationing to experience new scenery or to reconnect with family origins. It’s more like traveling through J.R.R. Tolkein’s Mordor, but without a noble quest. There’s no loyal Samwise Gamgee for unwavering companionship — those on the journey are there because a beloved one has been forever left behind.
Travelers on the grief journey constantly ask themselves, “Where am I? What am I doing here?”
Have you ever forgotten where you were going (while halfway there)? Ever been so lost you had to approach a stranger for directions, or call a friend to talk you through your route, or pull out a map — even while using GPS?
There was no map to show me the way from life with my husband to life without him.
I’ve always been prone to “creative” navigation from Point A to Point B via unintended alternative routes. My husband and kids found it amusing, though sometimes annoying, that I could find my way through any area — once I’d already been lost there.
After he died, when the shock of grief was new and raw, I couldn’t locate familiar, close-by places; less familiar, more distant destinations were all but impossible.
The interstate was easy to reach, just two turns from my street. But I can’t begin to count how many times I found my widowed self turning too many blocks before I got there. Or half a mile past it. Or not remembering where I’d meant to go. (In hindsight, that was a good thing. I had no business driving at highway speeds when I couldn’t even figure out how to reach it.)
Physically, I was lost all the time. Emotionally, I was just as lost.
In the early months, I was so lost I even blurted my grief whenever I approached strangers. (Most of my widowed friends have said they did the same.) It was as if telling the grocery store clerk, the librarian, and the receptionist “My husband died” was a compulsory password to activate my grief processing symptoms — my distressing, personal GPS.
In time I learned to call on others who’d been there; they’d also lost their spouses. They talked me through how they survived the upending of all they’d known.
Slowly, oh, so slowly, I began drafting my own mourning map.
It took more time than I would have expected to be able to find my way again. It took more time than many of my friends expected, too.**
Be patient with your grieving friends as they relearn how to navigate their altered lives … and offer them rides whenever possible.
*See my earlier post called Are We There Yet? (How Long Does Grieving Take?)
**Speaking of my friends … I’d like to thank Bettie Wailes, Doug Grossman, Nylda Dieppa, and Liz Collard for their feedback — and patience.