7 Ways to Get Through a Painful Loss
The author of The End of Your Life Book Club explains what helped him endure the loss of his wise and dynamic mother.
By Will Schwalbe
Small, Mindless Tasks with Lots of Steps
This is one of the many things I learned from my mother. For example, when I’m experiencing any kind of stress, I make tea. Something about the process—boiling the water; finding my favorite thick, ceramic cup and choosing just the right flavor teabag (Mom used a teapot; I usually don’t); waiting for it to brew—is inherently comforting. Each step must be performed in order, one after another, so the whole thing requires a certain amount of concentration. But it doesn’t require real thought; for brief moments, I stop thinking about anything other than what step must be performed next. I get the same effect when I water my houseplants; to do this, I need to find the watering can, fill it up, water each plant in turn, just enough, not too much. Writer David K. Reynolds, PhD, helped me understand why this works in his classic book Playing Ball on Running Water. If I’m sad and I make tea or water my plants or clean my room, I’ll still be sad after doing those things—but I’ll have a cup of tea or watered plants or a clean room. I will have engaged in an activity, and just the act of doing it may have helped distract me. And time will have gone by. Time doesn’t heal all wounds, but it can sometimes help change pain into ache.
Time Alone (with Bookends)
Many people just need to be by themselves (a little or a lot) every day. I’m one of them. When I’m alone, I don’t need to be anything for anyone. I can just be. But when I’m down, I also need to be careful to not spend too much time alone. I find it best to schedule alone time that has a beginning and an end, bookended by conversations or get-togethers with family and my closest friends.
Pain Relief (the Literal Kind)
It’s amazing how contorted and exhausted I became during the final days that my family spent with my mom when she was in home hospice. I felt a little guilty about getting a massage soon after my mother’s death, but it really helped. And once my back and shoulders had ceased aching, I found myself much more able to concentrate on the dozens of things I needed to do, like contacting people and helping plan the service.
The more depressing, the better. When I read cheerful things, they just made me sad. But a shattering book like Continental Drift by Russell Banks, which my mom and I read when she was dying, makes me feel better. Banks chronicles the deterioration of the life of a very flawed but sympathetic man who moves from New England to Florida with his family, and he tells in tandem the story of the horrific trials of a Haitian refugee seeking a better life for herself, her infant and her nephew. Just thinking about that book and those characters reminds me of how much I have compared with so many others in this country and around the world.
Everyone experiences loss differently, and the last thing people need when they are in terrible pain is to feel that they are doing something wrong because they can’t figure out a way to make themselves feel better. Remembering that sometimes nothing helps can stop you from blaming yourself in the middle of your grief.
A Private Eulogy
I love to remember stories (especially funny ones) about Mom from my childhood and to reflect on her accomplishments as an educator and a refugee advocate, and to remember advice she gave me (like keeping presents in a present drawer, so you’ll always have nice things to give people). You can write a eulogy at any time —even years later. And it doesn’t matter if you’re ever asked to deliver it in public or if you ever post it anywhere.
My mother made lists all her life. I’ve always done the same. And my first item on each day’s list is this: Wake up. If I can check that off, I’ve already done something and can get on with the business of living and trying to honor the memory of those I love who are no longer here.