After a loved one dies, taking life one day at a time

November 5, 2012

Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

The love of my life was killed last weekend in a car accident. I am lost. What do I even begin to do? Everyone’s asking me what I need, and I don’t even know. My head is full of questions. What am I going to do now that the future I planned is gone? Where do I even sit at the funeral? His parents are beyond kind, but there is no official role for the girlfriend. And I’m afraid to think about him or my future. I’m afraid that if I let go I’ll fall into a deep, dark well that I may never come out of.

I am meeting with a grief counselor today. Any thoughts on books or things that have worked for people? I don’t know what else to do.

— Bereft


Oh, I am so sorry.

The only answer to, “What do I do?” is this: Get by. You don’t need to accomplish anything, answer anything, figure out anything right now. You just don’t. Right now is for raw grief; anything else can wait until you feel ready for it. When your friends ask what you need, don’t be afraid to say, “I have no idea.” When you get to the funeral, you will sit where someone steers you to sit, and if no one steers you, just choose a seat with people you love. As for your future, your future is this evening, and this evening, your future will be tomorrow morning, and so on. Shorten it into something you are capable of managing, even if your future becomes “an hour from now.”

Enlisting the help of a grief counselor says you are indeed functioning, and that’s something you can count on as you get through these days.

You might find comfort in Kay Redfield Jamison’s memoir, “Nothing Was the Same.” It’s about her challenge to grieve her husband’s death while managing her bipolar disorder, which required meticulous self-care. It’s moving and grounding at the same time.

Re: Grief:

I am so sorry. Think of yourself as a tree whose best branch was cut off. Eventually the wound grows over and you get other branches, but that branch never comes back. You have a future, just nothing like what it was.

You might want to try support groups, so you can talk with others who understand an unbelievable, unbearable loss. It actually helps.

Anonymous

It seems peevish to tweak your tree image — but I’ll risk it:

No one knows whether it will turn out to have been the “best branch.” A beautiful branch, yes — but I don’t think it’s productive to assign value to any one branch of our love. They’re all different, they all matter in different ways, and that’s the most anyone can say.

For Bereft:

From one who had a similar loss: Don’t forget to mourn the little civilization the two of you built together, not just him.

YOU WILL LIVE, and the world will be there when you are ready for it. C.S. Lewis’s “A Grief Observed” is good, if you either like or can look past the Christianity of it.

Anonymous 2

The “little civilization the two of you built together,” yes. Thank you for that.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Subscribe at www.facebook.com/carolynhax.

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