How to Grieve
Insights and advice from 14 years of mourning
In late February 2023, my best friend’s mom Anna* died. I knew this woman for decades, not only as my friend’s mom, but also as a teacher and choir director. She was very kind to me after my mother died in 2009, and Momcat had great respect for her immense talent in directing choirs and orchestras. Though Anna had multiple health issues for many years, and her death means she is finally free from her pain, this loss still hurts a lot.
My friend said she was open to any and all insights and advice on what comes next, so this week’s post is dedicated to her and her family.
How to Grieve
1. Stay hydrated.
2. Wear comfortable clothes; ones that can easily go from bed to couch and back again are ideal.
3. Eat comfort food. Have a glass of your favorite beverage, whatever that may be. Find tiny moments of pleasure as you navigate this liminal space and screw the calories.
4. If you’re expecting a house full of people, do not worry about deep cleaning your house before they arrive. But if a friend offers to clean or pay for a housecleaning service, say yes.
5. The first year after a loss is full of administrative tasks: funeral arrangements, memorial services, closing accounts, transferring property, clearing out stuff. The decisions you are forced to make during this time may be ones that, later on, you think of as being poor, uninformed, or hasty decisions. Accept that you will make some mistakes in this regard.
6. When it comes to #5, the issues that do not require an immediate solution can wait.
7. Get 10 copies of the death certificate as soon as possible. It may feel inappropriate or morbid, but it will make #5 easier.
8. You do not need to remove every last item that this person ever touched. You do not need to set ablaze every letter, note, journal, or photo, even if only with your mind. You can ask a friend to take everything away and put it into storage for one year, at which time you might be able to look at them and decide, yes, no, toss this, dear god what is this pile of garbage, maybe.
9. As my friend Deena told me after her brother died, “people get froot-loopy after someone dies.” Their behavior seems antithetical to your previous experiences of them. You are allowed to be the froot-loopy one, and you are wise to remember that others around you may go froot-loopy, too.
10. Be aware of grief-bombers, aka grief vampires. These are the people who will come at you with concerned voices and sorrowful looks, asking you how you are doing. They expect you to put on a show so that they can comfort you or, worse, so they can turn your grief into their own. You may not be in the right headspace to tell them off or, better yet, punch them. A long, deep sigh, held for the count of three, followed by the words, “I’m hanging in there,” will suffice.
11. Many, many people will tell you, “If there’s anything I can do, let me know.” But you won’t know what they can or are willing to do, which leaves you stuck wondering if asking for them to walk your dog or take out the recycling is out of line. Prioritize these offers of help based on the specificity of the offer. For example, the cousin who says they will do airport runs gets an automatic yes. The neighbor who offers to babysit during the memorial: another yes.
12. The people in your life who have suffered a loss of their own will likely be the most adept at offering to do specific tasks.
13. Many people will say the stupidest, most insensitive shit couched in terms of condolence. This can include a response of “you’re kidding” to a death announcement on Facebook or “My [father/mother/pet rabbit/first cousin’s ex-husband] died too” or nothing at all. (Do not ask me how I know this.) You are well within your rights to never talk to those people again.
14. Well-meaning friends and family who are uncomfortable with death and grieving may give you gifts or trinkets, with the intention that it will make you happy. Accept these gifts graciously, then set them aside for as long as possible.
15. It is okay to find humor with loved ones over something that happened in connection to your loss. Some of the best inside jokes come from a place of shared pain.
16. Tears do not follow a timetable or schedule. Sorrow doesn’t have a zipcode. This is all to say that grief finds you in the supermarket, in the used books aisle at the thrift store, or behind the wheel of your car. If you go looking for grief, it will show up only when you stop looking.
17. In keeping with #16, time will feel more fluid. Minutes, hours, and days flow into each other and it can be unsettling to wake up and realize that a month has gone by.
18. There will be moments when your grief is a black hole, and others where it is a divot. If you begin to feel swallowed up by the black hole to the point that you cannot fathom it ever being a divot, seek help from a trusted advisor or counselor.
19. Those infamous five stages of grief are not linear, concurrent, or anything other than an optional framework for helping grief-stricken make sense of this uncharted land they now find themselves wandering. As Joan Didion wrote, “Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it.”
20. Not even this list will help you make sense of the insensible. But it can make you feel less alone.
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