For the last year, I’ve been contemplating going back to school to become a grief therapist. Kent State has a counseling program I’ve been looking into. But I need to career shadow someone to know if this is the sort of job I want to do. In my heart, I feel like it’s my calling. Admittedly, there are not enough counselors out there who have actually been through grief. As a grieving person, I found this distressing because the therapist can say, “Well, that’s normal for you to feel that way.” But you don’t really take a lot of credit from someone you know just knows the stages of grief through something they read in a psych book somewhere, or that they learned from other grieving patients. I wanted, really badly, someone who knew where I was coming from through personal experience.
There is a serious lack of info about death out there. Sure, there’s lots of self-help books that affirm what you’re feeling is normal, and they offer suggestions for dealing with your grief or “moving on” (I hate that term with a passion… there is no “moving on” ever… there’s “coping with a miserable situation and not letting it drag you down for the rest of your life”… that’s not “moving on.”) But there were not a lot of books written by grievers about their grief. For awhile, I was trying to write such a memoir. I keep putting it aside, though, insecure about my writing talents (and frankly tired of people scoffing when I say I’m writing a memoir at the age of 32 — like what do I have to say about life so young?)
Anyway, I once attended a hospice program through Parma General Hospital. It was a support group for young widows, of which I was the youngest widow at the age of 26. “Young widow” for most people means in the 40s. That was a real eye-opener for me. Even among “young widows,” my case is a minority. A freakish occurrence that happens to someone so young. Later, I learned from an online young widows list I was on, of young young widows such as myself, most of the deaths have been through some sort of accident. Health/heart issues, such as the one my husband died of, were something more common in the 40-something young widow crowd. So, I guess I’m kind of an “in-betweener.”
The support group was really good for me. It only lasted about two months, though, and I really could have used something that ran a little longer… if only just a “coffee break” event every other week with the other widows so that I’d have people to talk to who were still going through some of the stuff I grappled with. There really wasn’t such a thing, and that is something else I’d change as a grief counselor.
The people who led the live support group were just normal counselors. They freely admitted to having never gone through grief, and they talked openly sometimes about their husbands and children. These kind of things grated on my nerves, though I understand it wasn’t their fault. People enjoy talking about their families. However, to my over-sensitive and newly crushed heart, it stung like an open wound. Their discussion of family life only accented more for me what I didn’t have, what I now never would have. I felt they lacked the sensitivity to understand how painful their words were that only another grieving person could.
The best support I actually got was from an online community of widows and widowers I joined through yahoo groups. These were voices calling to me from all across the world, all different religions and backgrounds and situations. They brought me a lot of peace and comfort. I was free to express my anger and talk about the things going on in my life without fear of being judged. We shared of bond, an understanding, that bridged all gaps in our backgrounds. Death, and dealing with the pain and reality of it, is a shared human experience.
Now, as time has passed and I’m on my own road to recovery from grief, I feel this urge to become a counselor myself. I want to help people in the ways that I felt I needed help. I traveled the road of the grieving process solo; I don’t think it has to be this way. My journey was long and hard; I think it should be easier for other people. If anything, I think that a lot of people would find comfort in getting advice and counseling from someone who has actually experienced grief.
On the same token, I worry that I wouldn’t get respect from grievers of other types of losses, such as the death of a child. I’ve also noticed that there is a marked difference in grieving between someone who lost a loved one at the end of a long bout with an illness as opposed to people, like me, who lost a loved one suddenly without warning. Would I have enough common experience to be able to sufficiently help these people? Or, would they think, as I thought of those who had never suffered grief, that I was talking out of my two sides of my mouth, that I couldn’t understand their suffering at all?
Recently, I’ve come to realize that another type of loss is similar to my own grief: divorce. I never thought it was possible. To me, divorce was always the equivalent of a breakup, and, while distressing, it in no way paralleled the grief I felt in the loss of a man I truly loved at the moment he died. In divorce, even if you’re the one who was “broken up with” (as opposed to the one who initiated the divorce), you knew where you stood with each other: it was not a happy marriage. I figured, as is the case with any breakup, it hurts at first, but then you realize it was for the best and you “move on.”
Huh. It’s ironic, isn’t it, how I can so easily assign the “move on” label to a life change I don’t understand at all. Even when the same phrase made me instantly so hot under the collar. In my narrow view, there was no similarity between divorce and widowhood.
I was dead wrong. Over the last several months, deeper discussions with a friend who has been divorced has opened my eyes to the fallacies in my logic. I’ve learned that going through a divorce is a grieving process of it’s own — not entirely the same as the grieving for a dead loved one, but not entirely different either. One feeling we both meet on is trying to reconcile the loss of the life we expected to have with the life thrust upon us. It’s a dream in the distance that still calls to us in lonely hours when we’re weak to melancholy.
The sudden loss of a dream — of your expectations of how you envisioned your life turning out — is a feeling I’ve learned a lot more people share. Two very good girl friends of mine have expressed these feelings in their struggles to become pregnant. Because children were never a necessary part of my own life plan, I’ve struggled on and off with understanding why such a thing was so important to them. For someone like me, who can give or take having kids (I don’t think having them would make my life any more or less complete), it never occurred to me that not being able to have them could cause the same aching sense of loss I felt at losing my husband. Not being able to have kids when it was part of your life plan is the loss of an expectation you had of your life. The death of a dream.
I’ve watched as one of these friends has struggled, in much the same way I’ve struggled, to make a new life definition for herself and her life. It’s torn my heart to pieces to realize that she feels, at times, just as lost as I did in the years after Mike’s death when I tried to figure out what I wanted to do with myself now that the plans I’d made with Mike would never happen. There is somewhat of a loss of identity that occurs there. I wanted to share the world with my loving husband as his wife; she saw herself as a mother. These are powerful definitions about ourselves that go beyond the titles themselves… Sometimes they become so ingrained in our self-definitions, our souls, that we can’t find the person that was there before we had the dream.
Coming off my self-centered world of depression, where I was always pouting like a teenager that no one understood me, opened my eyes to a world in which I could suddenly relate to my fellow human beings. In the worst of my grieving, I thought everyone else was happy and no one had problems like mine. Since I waking up and fumbling my way back into the world of the living, I’ve come to realize more and more that I’m not alone at all. I think most people try to make the best of the worst situations. But sometimes, in weak moments, they count those things they wish would have turned out differently. And we ask ourselves the important questions of “Why?”, “What did I do wrong?”, “Why can’t I have the one thing I’ve wanted most in life?” You cant help sometimes to feel a little jealous, too, “Why does she get to have what I can’t have? Don’t I deserve that too?”
I used to ask myself those questions all the time. When I’ve stopped to listen, I’ve heard them echoed in those friends who have suffered losses different than my own. It’s brought me face to face with my humanity: I am not feeling anything that was never felt before. There’s comfort and strength in numbers. Grief can make you feel really alone. I’ve had some of the loneliest moments of my life in the last six years.
I want to be a grief therapist because I want to alleviate some of the suffering for other people. No one can make you stop grieving; everyone grieves at their own speed and in their own ways. No one can change how you feel about your loss. However, you can join a circle of people who understand you and the loneliness can be eased. I wish I’d had more of that during my struggles with grief. I think because we were all so young, not a lot of my friends or family knew what to do for me or say to me, so they left me alone. I don’t blame anyone — what would I have done if one of my other friends had lost a spouse instead of me? I wouldn’t have known what to do for them either. Like everyone else I aimed blame at over the last few years, I would have been too focused on my own life — too happy about the things I have — to have paid as much mind to those around me who were suffering. I wouldn’t have been as susceptible to the empathy I now have.
I was at times vehemently angry, unbearably sad, and unrelentingly depressed. Only through experience did I learn firsthand what people during this time need. I don’t have all the answers — I probably still won’t have all the answers after four more years in college (should I chose to go back for this profession). I would hope I’d gain the tools and skills to combine with my understanding of grief issues so that I can more effectively help people than the help that was available for me.
I guess you always have somewhat of a need to make improvements on things you didn’t feel were done correctly for you. I see this a lot in parenting — people always strive to do the things for their kids that they feel were not done or done incorrectly for them by their parents. It can be reactionary and maybe serves as an imbalance in another direction. I would hope, however, that training as a counselor would provide a good counterbalance for me and that I wouldn’t swing in some completely opposite direction.
Grieving is a difficult process. It’s never going to be easy for anyone. My only goal is to help others feel less alone in what is, in most cases, the loneliest time in their lives. You never realize just how alone you are until something like this happens. I will never forget the long nights and, most especially, the aching, scary loneliness I felt on September 11, 2001 — the scariest night for just about everyone in the US — when I had to go home to an empty house and no one even called to check on me. That was my lowest point of the year (after Mike’s death). Alas, that is a subject for another time…
My wish is that I could create a network of support for people so that they would not need to feel as alone as I felt. If I’d had one young widow friend, or someone else, I could talk to when needed, maybe I would have been able to see the light of day sooner than I did. I was afraid often to ask for help, afraid to bother my friends and family who did not really know how to help me or what to say. I want to give others a safe environment in which to express their feelings without fear of the outside sources who whisper, “It’s been several months now. Don’t you think it’s time to move on?”
Anyway… if anyone out there knows of a grief therapist who might be willing to let me shadow them, let me know. I’m really curious about this profession. I think I can make a difference. I think my experience gives me a realistic and sympathetic edge to this position that I feel is slightly lacking… or maybe it’s not lacking, but it’s not as visibly available because our society doesn’t like to mention death in polite company. (I tried for months to find other services and therapy specifically for young widows, but never did find anything other than the all-too-brief young widows support group I attended at a local hospital. It only last eight weeks or so, and then I was back to my loneliness and an Internet chat group.)