When nothing makes you feel better

It’s hard to know what to say to a friend who is grieving or how to try to even in a small way to ease their pain. Often we say the wrong thing or nothing at all…and don’t know what is worse. We email instead of call. We write cards instead of ringing their doorbell. Sometimes it is easier to put a book we think might comfort them in the mail, drop off a meal, or share a link to an article. We write a blog post rather than visiting –afraid we might impose on their grief, or their time with family. Or we fear we’re not inner circle enough.  It is hard to risk approaching the grieving at the wrong time.

And there are no magic words or actions guaranteed to help. The same words that comfort one person can offend another.

After losing her teenage son, Elizabeth Edwards advised when hearing the wrong thing to have compassion, “Even tho they said the wrong thing, try to remember that they meant to say the right thing.” (One father was complaining of the college admissions process “You have no idea how stressful it is.” She was dumbfounded. Did he not realize she would have given anything to be going through that stress with her son?!)

Grieving the loss of a love never ends, and time does NOT heal all wounds. But it does help ease the degree of excruciating-ness.  I made a list of some of the things that helped ease my pain during the worst of it–temporarily anyway.

Maybe something on this list will help you or a loved one.

  • Go outside. Walk outside. Run if you can. Walk alongside water if you can.
  • Breath deeply. Get oxygen to your brain. It can be calming.
  • Cry. You need the endorphins.
  • Go to the library. Peruse self help section   There are so many on grief, tho that word isn’t in every title (i.e., Bird by Bird, Saving Graces, The Year of Magical Thinking, Rare Bird; in fiction Irene Hunt’s Up a Road Slowly is one of my favorites.). You may feel alone in your grief but you are not alone in your grief.
  • Re-read a favorite childhood book. (The Little House book series was written by Laura Ingalls Wilder as she grieved the death of her parents and sisters. She wanted to honor Pa by writing down his oft-told stories in Little House in the Big Woods.)
  • Cook your lost loved one’s favorite dinner. Invite someone else who loved him to join you to eat it and remember. If someone offers to cook a meal for you, request they stay and eat it with you.
  • Watch a movie, lose yourself in someone else’s story. The Big Sick, Lady Bird. (Choose carefully: I had to avoid even PBS shows about murder.)
  • When you can handle it, watch a comedy. The VHS version of Tom Hank’s movie That Thing That You Do worked for me…what a relief to smile again at the dreams of a garage band, how they hit it big and the sweet young love story that results.
  • Phone a friend. It can be hard, but do it anyway. Make plans to take a walk together.
  • Exercise. Hit a tennis ball against a wall if you want to be alone, but with a partner is better. Shoot some baskets, alone if you want, but with a friend is better. Bike, hike any exercise. If you don’t want to talk find exercise that doesn’t require talking, but move. Your body needs it.
  • Help someone else. See the book 29 Gifts. Oddly when you give to others you feel better.   … going through old letters of my parents, I mailed some to my cousin  …can you mail some back to the authors or their loved ones? What treasures from your lost loved one would someone else treasure?
  • Take a cold swim. Cold water therapy is like an electric shock. Literally putting your head in cold water helps.  You are still alive. You will survive. You are meant to survive this.
  • Take a long drive and listen to Hamilton soundtrack start to finish. Lose yourself in the story. Hit repeat when you get to Unimaginable. “If art can help us grieve, you might find some comfort in this,” Lin-Manuel Miranda said as he shared it with a couple who lost their son. They listened to it over and over again. Pull over if you start to cry.
  • Listen to  oldies.  Sad music is ok. Clearing out my dad’s house after his death I found my old 45 recording of Rainy Days and Mondays Always Get Me Down by the Carpenters and found it comforting.  Crying to music can be a relief (you’re releasing endorphins) I listened to “Only have 100 years to live” by 5 for fighting and teared up every time because my younger brother only got half of those years. So. Un. Fair.   Pain is pain but holding back tears can be more painful than getting them out.
  • Write a eulogy or a poem or list about what they meant to you. Writing is therapeutic. What did they said that made you laugh? What was wise. What was sweet. Their favorite things?  A list of everything wonderful about some one can be just as moving as a song. But if you can write a song? Please, please do. Even if it brutally painful, it makes others feel less alone in their pain.
  • Talk to someone else who loved him.
  • Follow Joe Biden’s advice: Start a calendar record. Graph each day from 1 to 10 how bad it feels compared to Day 1.

During a speech Vice President Joe Biden gave to TAPS (Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors) he spoke of losing his wife and daughter in a car accident at 29 years old. He offered this advice to the grieving:

“Start to keep a calendar, and every night when you go to bed, mark in that calendar whether the day was a 1 – which was as bad as the day you heard the news, or a 10. Measure it and mark it down. After two months, take out that calendar and put it on a graph.

“You’ll find that your down days are just as bad as that first day. But here’s what happens–they get further and further apart. And that’s when you know, you’re gonna make it.”

“On your down days, reach out for support.” 

  • If you don’t belong to a group, join one.   ANY KIND OF GROUP. It does not have to be a support group for the bereaved. It can be an adult soccer league. A biking group. A hiking group. A bible study. A music group. A book group. A memoir writing group. An art group. A museum-going group. It just needs to be a group.
  • When you can’t stand the pain, go to a public place with a book or some work where you can be among other people but don’t necessarily have to talk to them. But don’t spend too much time alone. You need to be with people. Humans—even introverts– are social animals. We are not meant to be alone too much. Babies left alone die. It’s no different with children, teens, or adults.
  • Seek out the peace of sunrise and sunset. “Sunrise, sunset; swiftly fly the years; one season following another, laden with happiness, and tears.” The world is still turning. Embrace each day and the beauty it contains.
  • Pray, meditate, repeat: The mantra I was taught in a meditation class for autism moms was this: “It is what it is and it is going to be ok.”  I added an “ ish” to OK. Ok-ish.  Because it really is not ok.   But it is going to be the new normal and you will handle it. Because you have no other choice.

We owe it to the people we love– as well as those we’ve lost  –to take care of ourselves and survive as best we can.  Sooner than we think –because the human spirit needs laugher–we will find ways to laugh again and  joy in the little things.

Leo Cullum

The first cartoon published by the New Yorker after 9/11–by Leo Cullum.

The most comforting words a friend gave me: “The pain you feel is in direct proportion to the love you felt … and hard as that is, you wouldn’t have had it any other way.”

Love gives our lives meaning. It is eternal. It hurts and heals. Love is all there is.

I’m sorry for your loss.

–Susan Goewey

3 thoughts on “When nothing makes you feel better

  1. Kelly Corrigan Wonders aired a wrenching but valuable podcast …esp if you are feeling unable to cry, this conversation between 3 talented writers will probably help you cry not in a “I’m all alone” way, but the opposite. Grief: Anna Quindlen, Anna Sale and Kelly share readings and thoughts on family life.
    Eventually grief, which is searing, becomes loss, which is more like an ache that comes and goes. Kelly asks Pulitzer Prize winner Anna Quindlen and award winning podcaster Anna Sale about what and how they have grieved. Together, they share passages…”


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