Without a doubt, the most often asked question of me over the years in media interviews has been … “Alan, how does someone survive a tragic loss?” This difficult question deserves a thorough and well thought out answer … I soon discovered however that reporters were not going to give me the needed time or space to expound about all that it takes to survive the unimaginable. So, I decided I needed a quick and easy answer to this complex question … and so my reply simply became; “educate yourself about the grieving process and find support, whatever that means to you.”
Educating yourself about grief doesn’t mean you must get a degree … a basic understanding however of the assault and trauma grief places on our mental, emotional, physical and spiritual well being helps us recognize the challenges we face. I was fortunate to find a grief education program within 6 months of my daughter Ashley’s death in 2001. Based on the work of Dr. Alan Wolfelt, the program was basic, but very effective in helping me understand all that was going on with me and offered tools I could use to navigate my grief. This 10-part program helped me understand what grief is, what grief does, and reinforced the important truth that the intentional action of grieving is the only remedy known to effectively help us process our loss.
Support is something different … this is why I say “find support whatever that means to you.” As the former Executive Director of TCF, the largest grief organization in the world, most assume that I recommend “everyone” should attend support group meetings. I would have a good chunk of money if I had a dime for every time a woman dragged her husband up to me after an event imploring me to “tell him he needs to attend support group meetings.” The answer I give will often make the man smile and the woman look perplexed. “No,” I say … “support group meetings are perfect for some but are uncomfortable for others.”
Finding support that fits your comfort level is what matters. For some it is a grief professional, a peer-to-peer support group, or one that is facilitated online. For others it is a friend, colleague, or acquaintance. Support from someone who has had a similar loss and can understand the totality of emotions that we face on this journey is extremely important. I know thousands of people who have survived and thrived after a great loss by walking the path with one single friend who safely listened and validated their journey … effective support is our soft place to fall, it holds us in check and reminds us that we are not crazy, we are in fact doing the most natural and normal thing possible … we are grieving.
In my case … I found support at meetings of the Jefferson County, Colorado Chapter of The Compassionate Friends. Those who attend my workshops and events know that I talk about the initial reluctance I had about attending such a group. A woman I met that first night nearly derailed my wanting to return the next month. She explained she was 17 years removed from the death of her son and had the audacity to tell me “it would get better.”
My mind could not comprehend someone attending such a group for 17 years, and how dare her tell me it would get better? That first evening I was squarely on the fence about whether to come back the next month … as embarrassing as this is to admit however, the deciding factor was they served the best chili I had ever eaten. I thought they served this chili every month. So I returned the next month, very disappointed to say the least about the chili. But something that night gave me a little glimmer of hope and it brought me back the next month and the month after that.
One evening a few months down the road, I had one of those light bulb moments Oprah talks about. It suddenly dawned on me that the woman who had been there for 17 years wasn’t attending the meeting that night for her, she was there for me. She was living proof that a person could walk, talk, breathe, smile, laugh, love and live again after such a loss. And when she told me it would get better, she didn’t mean better than when Ashley was alive … she meant better than that morning I woke up a few months after Ashley died and saw the world going on as though she had never lived, never died and as though I wasn’t sinking in a pit of my own grief.
I am forever grateful to this woman for offering me hope that first night, even though I wasn’t ready and couldn’t imagine hope. I am forever grateful to all of those who have walked with me on this journey and given me a safe place to talk about Ashley. I consider myself to be a fortunate griever because I have had the perfect blend of education about the grieving process and a support system that always reminded me I was not alone.
My hope is you will find your own chili, or whatever it is that brings you back to a support system that works for you. How do we survive a loss like this? We learn, and we lean.
Blessings my friends.
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