Pathways to Peace

Richard Santore, author and editor, shares 10 suggestions or guideposts to help you find your way to hope, freedom and healing. His coping strategies will give you peace of mind as you move through the journey of grief.

by Richard Santore

The death of a loved one ushers in one of the most traumatic periods in life. The mind-numbing sense of personal loss is compounded by grappling with your uncertainty about the future and being forced to adjust to a new lifestyle.

As a bereaved person, you have a danger of being stranded in the desert of your own grief. The disbelief, the pain, the desolation, can seem to be insurmountable and leave you feeling that life is not worth living. To counteract this, here are 10 suggestions – guideposts to help you find your way to hope, freedom and healing … peace of mind.

Take time to accept death.

“My turning point was when I realized and accepted that my husband wasn’t going to be there to open the door, and I wasn’t going to find him in bed.”

If you are going to continue your own life, you are going to face and accept death. Often it is hard to realize that what happened has really happened, and that life has changed. We hope it was all a bad dream, and that when we wake up in the morning everything will be all right. The only way to deal with death is to accept it, not fight it. Embrace it, no matter how painful that might be. Death confronts us with our mortality and vulnerability. We now experience what it means to be helpless, naked, lonely, hurting and truly human.

Yes, your loved one has died, but you are still living. Begin to embrace the reality of that so that you may go on.

Take time to let go.

One of the most difficult human experiences is letting go. Yet from birth to death, life is a series of letting go.

Letting go reminds us that we are not in control of life, but that we can accept what we cannot control.

Letting go means adjusting to a new reality in which your loved one is no longer present. And, yet, many bereaved continue to act as though their loved one has not really died, that life really hasn’t changed. Everything in the house is left as it used to be. They seem to live for the deceased, rather than live their own life.

Letting go occurs when you are able to endure and accept the feelings – anger, guilt, fear, sadness, depression – that accompany death.

Letting go occurs when you are willing to face fears, to wait, to trust and hope again.

Take time to make decisions.

“I am angry that I allowed myself to be spoiled. I never took care of the checking account. I never had to make decisions. He did all those things. Now I don’t know what to do … I feel so helpless.”

This sense of dependency is echoed in this frustrated man’s words: “Whenever we went out with friends, my wife used to do all of the talking. I just sat back and listened. It’s so hard now.

People look at me and I just don’t know what to say or what topic of conversation to get into.” People who have been very dependent on their loved one often find themselves lost in the world after their loved one’s death. They are afraid to give direction, to make mistakes, to ask, to try. Yet, making mistakes is the way in which we learn and develop trust in ourselves. Sure, it is wise to postpone major decisions. But it is healthy to start making small decisions, like writing out a schedule for the day and setting up tasks to be done.

Planning your day has to do with looking forward to something, such as the visit of a friend, going out to eat, or a vacation. It balances out that attitude of “I don’t want to do anything” or “There is nothing that makes me happy” which often depresses and paralyzes people. Making even these first, small decisions about your life will help you gain some control over it and increase your self-confidence.

Take time to share.

When we lose a parent, we grieve over the loss of our past. When we lose a spouse, we grieve over the loss of our present. When we lose a child, we grieve over the loss of our future.

Your greatest need may be to have someone with whom to share your pain, your memories, your sadness. You need others to give you time and space to grieve. Beware, though. Sometimes, the comments of well-meaning friends can be very insensitive and hurtful:

“Come on, it’s been six months. You should be over it by now.”

“He’s gone; forget it!”

“The past is a closed book now.”

Consider the words of a widower who learned to make his wishes known to his friends: “I like to talk about Dorothy. I miss her touch, her presence. Talking about her helps me. It makes me happy when you remember her.” Trusted friends are the people who accept you, and with whom you can open your heart.

Sharing your memories and feelings with others who are grieving is especially helpful and therapeutic. You learn that your experience is normal, become aware of different ways of coping, and find that giving and receiving openly soothes your pain and uplifts your life.

Take time to believe.

Most of us can endure suffering when we have uncovered a meaning in it. But finding a purpose in suffering doesn’t just happen. It takes time, an open mind, and faith to find positive and redeeming values in our suffering.

Your sorrow reminds you that life is not meant to avoid pain and that to love is to accept the risk of pain. Look inside to find the resources hidden within you to guide you toward the future by gently transforming your grief into compassion for others, and your pain into new hope for others.

At times, your grief can shake your faith. You might be angry for what you perceive fate did to you. Often it becomes difficult to go to church, to pray, to go on living. But the only way out of this desert is through it. For many people, religion – with its rituals, the promise of an afterlife and its community support – offers a comforting and strengthening base in the lonely encounter with helplessness. Your faith does not take away your grief, but will help you live with it.Take time to forgive.

It is not unusual to feel guilty about a relationship left unfinished in the face of death. You might feel guilty about what you did or didn’t do, about the clues you missed, about the things you said, or the things you failed to say.

As you review your life and your relationship with the deceased, there will always be things that are less than ideal. Accept your imperfections – and those of your loved on – and make peace with yourself. You cannot judge your yesterdays with the knowledge of today. So torturing yourself for the things you did and wished you didn’t do doesn’t change anything. It only makes you miserable.

Similarly, you might be angry with the deceased person. You certainly want to accept and express your anger, and also to forgive. Otherwise, your anger can become destructive and alienating.

Take time to feel good about yourself.

Bereaved people are not sentenced to unhappiness. You were not born happy or unhappy. You learned to be happy by the way you adjust to crises and seize the opportunities that life gives you.

The death of a loved one calls on you to adjust to a crisis. It affects your lifestyle and changes your self-image. Grief can rapidly shape you and help you to discover a new independence and outlook on things.

Affirm yourself and pat yourself on the back for every small thing you learn to do in this journey of grief, for this is how you “expand” yourself. You will grow beyond who you used to be and develop more confidence in the person you are becoming.

You can sustain this process of building self-confidence by holding onto your job or interests. Explore new interests like reading, writing, or academic endeavors; develop new hobbies like swimming, dancing, yoga, or gardening; and take advantage of new opportunities like traveling or performing volunteer work. Any of these will help you reinvest your energies in endeavors that reward you with a feeling of newness, satisfaction, and pleasure.

Take time to meet new friends.

Loneliness will be present in grief, and it might be nature’s way of mending your broken heart. When you are not oppressed by your loneliness, but learn to live creatively with it, you can transform loneliness into solitude. There, you can cultivate your inner resources and increase your understanding of yourself.

At the same time, you also want to reach out. Do not avoid social contacts. In the grief process, healing occurs when you take the step to move out of your safe boundaries and interact with others. Old friends might be there to offer security and comfort; new friends will be there to offer opportunities. You might meet these new people through a support group, a card club, or at a class.

Widows and widowers often feel like they’ve lost their sense of belonging, that they don’t fit anymore into the couple-oriented model of our society. If this pertains to you, try to find a new sense of belonging. Dating remains helpful in the recovery process, however, it might be dangerous to try to stop your pain by becoming extremely serious or marrying on impulse. On the road to recovery, you need friends, not partners.

Take time to laugh.

“I used to resent people who were happy and laughed. I wanted to scream, ‘Why do you laugh? Don’t you know what happened?’ I felt that way until a friend of mine told me, ‘I remember you were laughing too, when someone else around you might have felt miserable.' ”

In grief, there is a time when your tears come less frequently and intensely, and you come to remember without crying. Laughter, on the other hand, helps you to survive now; it helps you to reenter life. For someone who has been sad and depressed, there is no better medicine than beginning to smile again.

Laughter frees you from tension and helps conserve energy. (It takes only 14 muscles to smile and 72 to frown). So it is important to allow yourself to relax and laugh whenever you can – without feeling guilty. Indeed, when you find yourself laughing, you are on our way to healing, and there is hope you will survive the loss.

Take time to give.

The best way to overcome your loneliness and pain is to be concerned about the loneliness and pain of others.

You may feel less burdened by grief when you feel wanted and needed by the living. Being able to help someone reminds you of your meaning. It makes you feel good, and helps you realize that your experience can serve others. Getting involved with others assures you that life goes on, and moves you away from self-pity. Listening to someone, empathizing and sharing over the telephone, providing information, or sharing lunch with a friend are ways to give of yourself. When someone else needs you, recognize and take your opportunity for healing.

Life is calling.

You will accumulate a tremendous wisdom in your encounter with grief, and you and your circle of friends will be enriched as you share it. In short, you will become better people instead of bitter people. Such healing takes place when you allow your pain to lead you into that wisdom of learning more about yourself and how you adapt to your now-changed life.

Your pathway to peace of mind is right in front of you. In fact, if you are grieving, you are on it now. Look for the guideposts you’ve just read about. As you are able, take advantage of them when they come along. And if you’re not ready now, don’t worry. They’ll come along again.

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