Magazine Article

When Grief Is Your Companion

Experiencing life’s journey alongside an unexpected partner

Audrey Andersson
When Grief Is Your Companion
Photo by Danie Franco on Unsplash

They were simple questions: Date of birth? Age? I looked at the form and felt paralyzed. I wanted to write born October 23, 2016; age, 6½. Anyone looking at me would tell me not to be so ridiculous. I am clearly a middle-aged woman. However, both facts are true. I am middle-aged, and I am also 6½. A split-second accident six and a half years ago killed my husband. His life ended, and my life changed completely. Life as I knew it and the future we had taken for granted disappeared in that instant. A new life began. A life I had never anticipated. A life I definitely didn’t want began. I had to learn to negotiate a new world, where I didn’t know the rules.

Six and a half years on I realize that this is a journey in which there are no quick fixes or magic solutions. It is a journey that will last for the rest of my life. An unwanted journey watered with tears and blessed by the sunshine of God’s grace. A journey in which I have learned to know the goodness of God in new and amazing ways.

A Unique Journey

Everyone’s experience of significant loss is unique. Two siblings mourning the loss of a parent will experience it differently. Their personality, life experience, and relationship to their parent will determine how they respond to the death.

Following my husband’s death, someone said, “Welcome to the club no one wants to join.” I didn’t understand. She explained that once you have experienced significant loss, it changes you. After a while you recognize others who have shared that experience. One becomes sensitized to loss and resonates with it in others. It may be the death of a spouse after a long illness, or sudden, traumatic loss. The death of a child, born or unborn. The gradual loss of a parent through Alzheimer’s or dementia, until death finally completes the process. Significant loss comes in many different forms.

Although everyone’s journey is unique, there are commonalities—experiences that seem to cut across all kinds of significant loss and resonate with others. For example, a friend whose husband died recently commented to a colleague that her brain felt as if it were enveloped in fog, and she was permanently exhausted. The colleague immediately understood what she was talking about. Her experience was very different. Her son committed suicide, yet she understood the foggy brain syndrome and was able to offer comfort and understanding. Very different situations, but there was a touchpoint where they connected. The acknowledgment that someone else had gone through this and survived gave her courage, and assured my friend she was not going mad. Being vulnerable and open to share brings benefits and blessings.

Life on Hold

In the immediate aftermath of death, everything seems to go into a state of suspended animation. Some immediate decisions need to be made about the funeral. Decisions that cannot wait. Days pass in a blur. People come and offer condolences and support, sending flowers and cards. The day of the funeral comes, and afterward people drift back to their everyday lives. The only problem is you can’t. The life you want to go back to no longer exists.

At this stage people often offer fake comfort: “I know it doesn’t feel like it, but time heals all things.” Death is not an illness, something to be cured, or that you get over. Grief is not a process that you go through, and once you have ticked off all the stages you are able to continue as though nothing has happened. Loss is something that you learn to integrate, to live with, but you don’t get over it.

Love Doesn’t Die

Grief has been described as “love that has nowhere to go.” Death cuts off our ability to interact with someone. Suddenly it is not possible to share the trivial happenings of the day, ask for their advice, go for a walk, or do all the things that make a relationship meaningful. Death doesn’t change the fact that we love someone, but it changes the way that love is expressed.

When you love someone, you talk about them. You tell others about your experiences together and share memories. Initially others indulge you, whispering, “It’s all part of the grieving process.” As time progresses there is less understanding. It is not uncommon to hear “You really mustn’t dwell in the past; you need to look forward” or “It’s not healthy to keep talking about . . . ; you need to move on.”

They are correct: talking is one way of processing, but that is only part of the picture. Those shared experiences are part of who you are. Yes, that part of your life is finished, but that doesn’t change the fact that it is part of who you are. Acknowledging the past is one way of integrating that love and moving forward.

Redrawing the Map

Although life and plans changed when my husband died, there were some things that we had talked about that seemed important to continue: delivering a promised birthday treat for a sibling; arranging a trip to England for my mother-in-law. It wasn’t the same, as he wasn’t there; but doing things that I knew would have given him pleasure provided a breathing space.

Inevitably the day came when there were no more joint plans and projects. I was on my own. Sometimes I asked myself then, If Lars were here, what would he suggest? My imaginary conversations helped me redraw the map. Again, it provided a breathing space.

As time passes, the distance between our lived experience and my current situation is so significant that I recognize those decisions must be made by me. One of the hardest lessons on this unwanted journey is to reach out and ask for help. People are willing to help; they just don’t know how.

Changed Relationships

Death impacts all our relationships. In the immediate aftermath of significant loss, there are people you believed that you could count on no matter what happened, yet when the unthinkable happens, they are not there. There are many reasons, but the most common is that they feel uncomfortable, afraid that they might say the wrong thing or hurt you by reminding you of what you have lost.

People you didn’t know well take a more prominent role in your life, providing support and understanding. Often they are people who have either experienced significant loss or have seen it at close quarters. Some of these people may come for only a short while; others become friends for life. 

As time progresses, social networks will change. Couples often feel uncomfortable inviting a widow or widower. Some things that could be done with a spouse cannot be done alone, creating a natural change in companions or activities.

Learning to let go of friendships that no longer work is difficult. Holding on and trying to make something work creates additional pain. Finding ways of celebrating what was and being open to creating new friendships and networks is an essential tool in integrating loss into your new life. 

Multiple Losses

Death is the largest and most significant loss that anyone can face. In the case of the death of a spouse, the surviving spouse suddenly must face life alone. Life patterns and plans change at every level. From small habits, such as who takes the garbage out, to life-impacting decisions regarding housing or retirement.

As time progresses, other losses emerge. The inability to share significant life events, such as graduations, weddings, or the birth of grandchildren. Their absence is felt more keenly on these occasions. However, the grief is not just for their absence; it is also for the life that they did not get to live. All the dreams that they did not get to fulfill. In death there are no winners, only losers.

Recurring Loss

When someone dies, everyone talks about the first year. The first birthday, Thanksgiving, and Christmas without them. The first birthday they didn’t get to celebrate. It sounds like if one can only get through that first year, everything will be better. You will have “gotten over the worst of it”; you will have “moved on.” When the first anniversary or deathiversary arrives, there is a sense of relief at having survived the year of firsts, only to realize that there is a year of seconds, and thirds, and . . . the years stretch out.

With each passing year loss and grief change. The raw pain of immediate loss recedes. The heart-shaped hole that someone leaves behind remains and becomes part of the landscape of our lives.

As we move forward, events will happen, forcing us to revisit and reprocess our loss. Recently I moved to the United States. Having moved many times, I didn’t anticipate that this would be any different from any other move. It was. I had made all the other moves as part of a family or with my husband. Suddenly all the decisions were mine, and I found myself having to take time to sit and reprocess and remember that I was only 6½ and didn’t have all the answers. Sometimes being 6½ in an adult world can be exhausting; at times like this, be kind to yourself. Give yourself the compassion that you would offer to someone else.

A Damaged Blueprint

According to God’s original blueprint, we were created to live forever, enjoying ever-deepening relationships with Him and each other. When human beings chose to listen to the serpent, sin damaged the blueprint, and death entered our world. Ever since, humanity has struggled to deal with the pain of separation from God and those we love.

Moving Forward

Easter Sunday, six months after my husband died, I stopped to admire a beautiful cherry tree on my morning walk. As I looked, I remembered that nine months earlier we had had a bad storm, and a very large branch (almost half the tree) had been ripped off. My husband and I had noticed it on our morning walk, and he had stated quite categorically that they would need to cut the tree down. It couldn’t possibly survive. But here it was in full bloom.

As I looked at the tree, I saw the scar where the branch had been. Yes, the tree was misshapen; yes, there was a scar; but the tree was still beautiful. Even the scar had a beauty—cherry wood has a lovely reddish grain. It was one of those moments it seemed as though God tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Yes, you are scarred, but some scars are beautiful. They remind you of love and loss. The scars make you who you are; be proud of them and what they represent. However, don’t focus on the scar. Remember the abundant blessings I have given you. Blossom and flourish and draw strength from what has been.” There will be times you’ll feel that everything is fine, and at the most unexpected moment a sight, smell, word, or action will make your loss feel unbearably heavy. In joy and grief God is there. Moving forward after loss is the work of a lifetime: learning and relearning about the goodness of God and how to recognize it in the most unexpected places. In my experience God has never failed in the past. He is with me today, so I have nothing to fear as I look to the future.

Audrey Andersson

Audrey Andersson is a general vice president of the General Conference.