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10 Tips on How to Better Understand Grief

10 Tips on How to Better Understand Grief
Kimberly Elmore
Written by Kimberly Elmore

Grief is not a competition.

On October 25, 2019, it will be 10 years ago that my mom passed away. I remember aspects of that time so vividly that it feels like yesterday, but also like a lifetime ago at the same time. There’s a saying that says something to the effect of, some things change, and some things remain the same. For me, everything has changed over the past 10 years.

Over these past 10 years since my mom passed away, I’ve struggled with my relationship with my father, repaired my relationship with my father, watched my father suffer, deteriorate, and die (all while keeping his sense of humor), as well as lost my relationship with my brother. 

I’ve learned so much over these past 10 years.

I’ve learned that grief truly is a process and not something that has a distinct beginning, middle, and end. It’s an ache that you carry with you for the rest of your life. It’s up to you on how you learn to live with the grief inside of you. You can easily allow it to make you bitter and wallow in your own self-pity, or you can push yourself to allow your grief to open you up to becoming a better person and practice compassion (for yourself and others).

I’ve learned that to truly appreciate peace, you must experience chaos; to truly heal, you must practice forgiveness; and to appreciate joy, you must experience pain. I’ve also learned that happiness is a choice and an inside job. 

I feel that losing my mom 10 years ago, in a way, is a milestone (for lack of a better word), and I feel the need to acknowledge it in some way. As cliché as this may sound, I’ve thought of 10 things I’ve learned over the past 10 years. I share these in the hope that maybe someone reading this will be able to relate or that this may help someone else who is finding their way through grief.

10 Things I’ve learned to Better Understand Grief

  • Everyone is doing the best they can based on their own life experiences and their perceptions of those life experiences. A priest shared this with me after he read my mom her last rites, which also happened to occur on her 57th birthday. This has stuck with me over the past 10 years and has helped me move through my grief, especially the aspect of grief that involved learning how to navigate a new family dynamic. In my case, it was figuring out the new family dynamic between me, my dad, and my brother now that the center of our family, my mom, was gone.
  • Grief is not a competition. Each loss is different and should not be compared. Sometimes people make grief a competition: “well, I have it worse than you because…” Grief is not a contest. There are no “I have it worse” winners. A loss is a loss. We are all fumbling our way through the tunnel that leads to a “new normal.”
  • Don’t allow your grief to lead you down a road of entitlement – acting as if the world now owes you something. Your healing is your responsibility. When bad things happen to good people, sometimes we can get stuck in anger. That anger can then lead us down a road of entitlement. “This bad thing happened to me, so I deserve…” kind of thinking. This can manifest itself in many ways: treating others badly, behaving selfishly, expecting others to do certain things for you or behave certain ways because you’ve lost someone you love. Your healing is 100 percent your responsibility. Healing is really hard work, but you must push yourself to take the necessary steps to heal.

This means surrounding yourself with people who will help uplift you, not follow you down the rabbit hole of self-pity. I have a rule. Whenever I have felt myself feeling sorry for myself, I’d give myself 10 minutes to do so and then I’d pull myself together.

I have sought out books about being an orphaned adult. I follow certain inspirational and motivational people and groups on social media, like Modern Grief, Mel Robbins, Buddhist Bootcamp, and Jaime Sullivan. At the time of my mom’s death, I was in therapy and went to therapy for over eight years. I’ve been on and off anti-anxiety meds. I volunteered with a lung cancer non-profit helping to raise funds in my mom’s memory.

I have done all of this as part of my healing. Ten years later, my healing is still an active process, especially with losing my dad almost three years ago, as well as the relationship with my brother. To continue to heal, I recently started volunteering with a non-profit called Good Grief – it helps children who have lost a parent or sibling. Healing may be a noun, but it certainly is more of a verb when put into practice.

  • When people die, their “stuff” isn’t them. Don’t demand you get something. Don’t argue over it. Don’t hoard it. Pick a few things or keepsakes that will remind you of your loved one. Consider allowing others who knew your loved one to take some sentimental items, too. Emotional attachments to stuff are understandable. You may feel like it’s all you have left of your loved one, who is no longer physically here. Over time letting go of most of their stuff, can also feel like a weight has been lifted and play a major role in your healing. Plus, when your time on this earth is up, you can’t take it with you.
  • Grief doesn’t get easier; it gets different. Grief ebbs and flows. 10 years after someone dies, you’ll still have days where the grief feels heavy; those days do become fewer and far between. Grief is hard to predict. It affects everyone differently. While there are some universal aspects of grief, the details of the experience of grief will vary based on the type of loss experienced. Some will say it gets easier – I prefer to say it gets different.
  • Know when to mend a relationship and when to end a relationship. Just make sure you are at peace with your decision. Knowing the difference can be tough. For me, mending my relationship with my dad was important to me because underneath all the dysfunction, there was still love, and ending my relationship with my brother was necessary for me because it had become too toxic. I am at peace with both of my choices.
  • Just because you are related to someone or have known someone forever does not mean you have to tolerate toxic behavior. Establish boundaries (and see number 6 above).
  • No matter how personal something feels, remember, what other people say and do isn’t really about you. Over the years, this has been hard for me. A dear friend of mine introduced me to Don Miguel Ruiz’s Four Agreements years before I had lost my mom. I’ve read this book over and over. He explains that “When you refuse to take things personally, you avoid many upsets in your life. Your feelings of anger, jealousy – and even your sadness – will simply disappear if you don’t take things personally. What others say and do is a projection of their own reality; so, whatever they think about you isn’t about you, but it is about them.” This perspective is what helped me forgive my dad and begin moving towards forgiveness with my brother.
  • Perspective is everything. Instead of asking “why me?” ask “why not me?”After I lost my mom, I struggled with the ‘why me?’ ‘Why my mom?’ ‘Why my family?’ Changing that perspective to ‘why not me?’ also plays a big role in my healing. Bad things happen to good people every day. Why should my family or I be immune? Unfortunately, suffering is part of life. We don’t all experience the same tragedies, but tragedies are a part of being alive. Much like the ebb and flow of grief I mentioned earlier, life is a mixture of joy and sorrow; calm and chaos; and ups and downs for all of us. No one is guaranteed anything in life; yet many of us live this way until we are stopped in our tracks by significant loss. 

Forgiveness

While all these lessons have and continue to impact me and my life as I grow forward, I’d say the biggest lesson I’ve learned through my grief has been about forgiveness.

  • Choose forgiveness always. The two people who have taught me the most about the power of forgiveness are my dad and my brother.

    My experience with my dad was that he could be incredibly stubborn and at times narcissistic. He wasn’t emotionally available and as my mom used to say, “if he pretends something isn’t happening, to him that means it’s not actually happening.” On the other hand, my dad was by far one of the funniest people I’d ever met. He was also incredibly hard-working (working multiple jobs so that my mom could stay home with me and my brother when we were growing up), and once he started to have health problems, became an extremely humbled man. 

After my mom died, I struggled with my relationship with my dad. I was mad that he couldn’t be the parent my mom was. She was the compassionate one, the understanding one, the supportive one. My dad was none of those things when it came to how I felt he was as a parent. 

My dad was also unkind when my mom was dying. My mom had chosen me to serve as her medical proxy because she didn’t trust my dad could handle it. My dad would say mean things to me when I’d be making decisions regarding my mom’s care. For about five years, I struggled with my dad—we’d barely speak.

I knew I wanted to have some type of relationship with my dad because he was my last living parent, even though I didn’t always like him, I still loved him, and the loss of my mom taught me about how important ‘no regrets’ is when you lose someone. Thankfully with my mom, I had no regrets. I tried to talk to him about his behavior when my mom was dying, and he denied all of it. I felt like I was going crazy. I had to figure out how I could forgive my dad without ever receiving an apology. 

Unbeknownst to him, I set boundaries. And it was those boundaries that allowed me the space to grieve my mom and forgive my dad for who he was, and who he was not. I’m thankful that we got to a place of understanding and acceptance and we were able to have a good relationship during the last few years of his life. 

My brother

When my dad died, my brother betrayed me in such a way that our relationship is unfortunately damaged beyond repair. My dad nominated me to serve as his executor in his Will, and I accepted the job.

I had been warned by an attorney I had consulted with early in the process that things typically get ugly between siblings after the last parent dies. I naively thought that we’d be the exception to that rule; after all most of my dad’s estate was going to be divided in half.

The Cliffs’ Notes version is that he chose to challenge my dad’s last wishes and let someone else (who had nothing to do with my dad’s estate), do most of his dirty work for him.

We had to involve lawyers. He tried to have me removed as executor and made up lies about me in order to get what he wanted, not what our dad wanted. I was dealing with a narcissistic, irrational person (who also struggled with addiction), so I had to be rational for both of us. I ended up facing a choice: go to trial to prove my innocence, spending my dad’s entire estate on legal fees, or settle, giving him what he demanded, getting stuck with a nearly $25k estate legal bill and keeping what inheritance I had left (after having paid the estate expenses for over a year.)

Never in my life have I experienced this type of betrayal

I didn’t even recognize who my brother was anymore. I spent so much time trying to understand how he could say what he was saying and do what he was doing. None of it made any sense. I drove myself crazy trying to understand. I learned the hard way, that ‘understanding’ isn’t in a narcissist’s playbook and the only way to ‘win’ with a narcissist is to not play. So, I settled.

He walked away with most of the estate (including my parent’s home), an estate that was largely to be divided in half. I chose to settle because my need to remove myself from this toxic situation became greater than my need to be right. For me, the right thing was to carry out my dad’s last wishes.

After being emotionally gut-punched for over a year by two narcissists, the right thing became about what decision would end the chaos and bring me the most peace – and I knew that is what both my parents would have wanted for me at that point.

Also, the stress and emotional toll going to trial would have taken on me (and everyone around me) was not worth it. For my brother, the loss of our dad seemed to become more about greed. The house wasn’t even in his name for a year when he sold it. 

No matter what lies my brother filed about me, I knew the truth and that’s all that mattered. I know the kind of person I am and the kind of daughter I was to my dad. No matter how low he went in his filings of lies, I chose to rise above it. There were so many times the estate lawyer would draft things that hit below the belt and I would edit them to make them a bit softer. I refused to allow this experience to change who I was at my core.

Walking away

While I walked away with a loss of more than half my inheritance and significant debt, I also walked away with something that has no price tag yet is invaluable – my integrity. For me, it was never about my dad’s stuff.

For me, it was about fulfilling my last duty as a daughter – by carrying out my dad’s last wishes. He entrusted me with a huge responsibility – being an executor is truly like having a second job. I was exhausted from this entire experience. 

Every day since we’ve settled, I continue to challenge myself to forgive my brother. I chose to forgive my dad to mend that relationship. Now I’m choosing to push myself to forgive my brother. I have learned that forgiveness doesn’t necessarily mean the continuation of a relationship, and I’m OK with this. No regrets.

Trust

Without trust, there can be no relationship, and the trust with my brother has been irreversibly broken. For me, forgiving my brother is about helping me let go of everything that happened. I am working towards forgiving my brother not because he deserves it, but because I know I deserve the peace that will come along with that forgiveness.  

I didn’t learn all these lessons at once

I’ve learned them all over the course of the past decade, at times, having to re-learn them. It has been extremely difficult accepting the loss of my entire immediate family. I do my best not to focus on all I have lost; instead focusing on all that I still have—my amazingly supportive and understanding husband, my friends, my aunts, uncles, and cousins, as well as all these life lessons that I couldn’t have learned any other way than by making it through to the other side of loss. 

“When you forgive, you heal. When you let go, you grow.” – Unknown

“One day you will tell your story of how you’ve overcome what you’re going through now, and it will become some else’s survival guide.”—Women of Impact

Identity Magazine is all about guiding women to discover their powers of Self-AcceptanceAppreciation, and Personal Achievement.

We ask that every contributor and expert answer the Identity questions in keeping with our theme. Their answers can be random and in the moment or they can be aligned with the current article they have writtenIn that way, and as a team, we hope to encourage and motivate each other, thus inspiring you to Get All A’s.

1. What have you accepted within your life, physically and/or mentally? Additionally, what are you still working on accepting? Now, we’re not talking about resignation, rather stepping into, embraced, and owned.

That I will never be a size 2 or 5’ (Ha!). We all come in different shapes and sizes and I try not to get caught up in the body image issues that stem from the (airbrushed) women who are on the cover of magazines. I think what’s most important is to be healthy and comfortable in one’s skin.

2. Appreciation is everything. What have you learned to appreciate about yourself and/or within your life, physically and mentally? On the other hand OR in contrast, are there elements of who you are that you’re still working on appreciating?

What I appreciate in my life are my friends. I’m very lucky that I have a close network of friends who have become family.

3. Share with us one of your most rewarding achievements in life? Tell us not only what makes YOU most proud but also share the goals and dreams that you still have.

At my job, my position has changed drastically from when I first started, which I credit largely to being self-motivated (as well as to the professional opportunities my boss and other colleagues have provided to me). Professionally, my goal is to continue to learn and build my leadership skills.

About the author

Kimberly Elmore

Kimberly Elmore

Identity writer Kimberly Elmore is currently employed by Delta Dental of New Jersey in the corporate communications department as the community relations coordinator. She serves as one of our top and longest contributors.

Kimberly has been a huge part of Identity's success since the beginning of 2006. During Kimberly's college years she served as the arts & entertainment editor of her college newspaper and interned in the public relations department at the March of Dimes.

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