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Grief Whiplash: From not enough time to say goodbye to way too much time to fill

Time can weigh heavily when there is too much of it. With this pandemic only months old, never have so many of us felt its weight at the same time. People in their usual lives are ordering puzzles, streaming TV series, Zooming their friends to fill the time.

People who are grieving a loss are doing something else. They are experiencing what feels like whiplash. A loss, especially a sudden one, can bring with it a sense of too little time – too little time to finish unfinished business, to tell the loved one what they mean to you, to realize that the end is coming. The wish for more time extends even after the loss, as we lament what we hadn’t had a chance to do, or the courage to do it.

And then the whiplash occurs. Suddenly, time is abundant. Even with the practical tasks that follow a death – financial, legal, and ceremonial – there is time. Weighty time, more time for sadness, more time for regret, too much time. What to fill it with? Where to get the energy?

Good grieving is more than emotion

Grief is usually described in emotional terms – stages of grief include depression and anger, crying jags occur, sadness can paralyze. But the secret to good grieving is not just feeling; it’s also doing – taking actions, even small ones, to move through the journey. That’s what this time is for. The extra time from our society being on pause due to the pandemic comes as an unwanted bonus.

For instance

I’ve known grieving people to make a wild variety of choices about how to use this post-loss time. One went back to a childhood passion and began riding horses again, explaining that being up in the saddle gave her a new perspective and awakened memories of her father teaching her to ride. Another created a book of her grandmother’s stories of growing up in New Orleans in the 1930s. A gentleman memorialized his wife with a timeline of their marriage and the key events in every decade, and talked his daughter into illustrating it with photos from the family scrapbooks. They all found that memories can be full of comfort, not just sadness.

I’ve heard of gardens come to life, long-planned trips taken alone or with a stand-in companion (not a good option at the moment, of course), degrees completed, languages learned, moves made, books written. Just as importantly, days survived with small steps, one little victory at a time, even if that victory is getting out of bed on a tough day.

Small steps to get started

In fact, many of these life-changing actions began with a tentative toe-in-the-water experiment that led to another small step, and another, until it became a passion. Soon, new energy overcame the lethargy and paralysis that seemed it would never budge. Nothing in grieving is quick or easy, and we should not expect that.

Grieving is the hardest thing that many of us will ever do, but we are built for it, as our ancestors were, and theirs too. The grief journey leads not to acceptance, but to growth. And that growth starts with the smallest step.

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