Everyone told me that there’s no wrong way to grieve. Yet, in the thick of the first few days following my stepbrother’s death, I continued to feel an overwhelming sense of guilt that crossed the border into anxiety.
There was one looming question above all else: Was I doing this all wrong?
My dad’s call came on a Monday right in the middle of the work day. I had no idea what the call was about, but he got right to the point — my stepbrother lost his battle with addiction.
Losing a loved one is always difficult, but an unexpected death can bring even more emotional challenges. Even if you aren’t close to the family member who passed, their death can be a major heartbreak for others you care about. A mother or father. A brother or sister. Devastation is usually just two degrees of separation away, and that’s close enough to hit you hard.
In this case, my stepbrother and I were close. We were part of each other’s lives for 20 years — we first met when he was 2 years old and I was 10. I watched him grow up, face challenges, survive obstacles, make progress toward a healthy and happy life, and celebrate and endure his ups and downs with my family the entire way. I loved him, and the last thing I wanted people to think was that I didn’t.
What if the common way to show love for the deceased — mourning — contradicted what I thought was the best way for me to grieve?
A state of numbness engulfed me for the rest of that day, but I knew exactly what I wanted for the remainder of the week. I wanted normalcy. That meant waking up at the same time, going to work at the same time, interacting with the same co-workers, following close to the same routine, and having a lot of the same conversations.
And it worked. The distractions of everyday life provided a small escape from the grieving process that I had expected to knock me down hard and keep me from getting back up, on an emotional level, for at least a few days.
However, while I was smiling and laughing, and coping in a city that was more than 500 miles away from home, my family was struggling to put one foot in front of the other. Normalcy was days, even weeks, away. The things I found as a distraction from the sad thoughts swirling in my mind were impossible for them to even consider.
So was I a bad person? Did I handle everything incorrectly? Should I have better embraced the common appearance associated with grief?
Flip it around. If you’re grieving too heavily, do you come across as unapproachable? If you’re so overcome with sadness, do people not know how to communicate with you for fear of overstepping a line? And if you continue to grieve in this heavy manner, will that give the impression of exaggeration? At what point will other people say to themselves (or others) that you need to “get over it”?
The logical answer to all of these questions is no. The time following the death of a loved one is delicate, and each person handles grief in their own unique way.
However, anxiety can cause irrational feelings that create doubt about yourself, your actions and how you’re perceived. Some people don’t care what other people think of them. Some people care a lot.
I experienced all of the self-questioning during the week following my stepbrother’s death. I was unsure if I had given the appearance that I already moved on within days, when I actually hadn’t. Luckily, I had a group of friends, family and colleagues who were there to tell me that I was handling everything exactly as I should. They never allowed me to feel uneasy when discussing whether I should feel guilty, but they were also quick to tell me that I shouldn’t accept that guilt as truth.
An important part of the grieving process is being open with family and friends about the process itself. Talk about how you’re coping with the loss. Discuss whether you’re trying to distract yourself from the emotions or simply embracing the full brunt of the mourning process. Explain the anxieties and doubts you’re experiencing regarding how you’re going about grief. Ask whether you’re handling it the correct way.
Discussing these emotions can be embarrassing for some individuals who may not normally be emotionally expressive, but doing so can offer validation to the idea that there truly is no wrong way to grieve.