Saying Goodbye – practical tools for coping with grief

I killed at least 12 fish the year I was four, none of them on purpose. First overfeeding, then underfeeding. Once I forgot to clean the tank and they all jumped onto the rug. It was a hard way to. learn about death, killing things by accident. However, I think it has made me more conscious of treating things well when they are in my care. I also learned that when things are dead, they don’t come back.

Few of us ever learn to grieve well, and most people are told outright lies about what happens to people when they are dead. Whatever comfort we find in thinking that dead people are sleeping or living on some other planet or haunting the backyard, it will never bypass having to accept that they are not physically with us, but their influence can continue. What if we learned instead to consider everything transitory, and thus joyful for its presence in our lives right now? Or that not everything survives because if it did, there wouldn’t be room for everything that does? Or that this world is not fair or just, but we can find balance regardless? I believe in making up our own stories about death, ones that help us cope with the raw pain and the dull aching emptiness, until the memories are enough. I know of one child who decided that, when her grandmother died, she had an invisible extra body that was always with her in case of accident. It was a wonderful way to let her grapple with mortality as she got used to the idea of gram not being around any more.


Sometimes people must grieve for people who haven’t died, but still are no longer a part of their lives. Moving away from friends or leaving a lover are cause for grief just as much as death is. I have grieved for everything from the loss of a parent, friend and pet, to moving, leaving a job I loved, and ending a pregnancy. Hell, I’ve grieved about missing snow!

This notion of grieving contradicts the American ideal of retail therapy, that intimacy is replaceable with stuff, by asking ourselves to recognize what is satisfying and what is lacking in our lives on a regular basis. As much as we take the time to ask what is missing, we must also find ways to celebrate what is good and to compensate for our losses. It’s not enough (though it may help sometimes) to medicate the sadness with pills or food or shopping bags. It’s really important to find new ways to fill that cup.


If someone is fortunate enough to anticipate their loss, they have an incredible opportunity to make it a conscious transition. “The End” is not bad or to be feared, but it usually comes whether you want it to or not. Better to face it with a plan.

My partner and I have talked about what we will do if our rather serious relationship ends; we could either destroy each other (not desirable) or part as friends with mementos of our intimacy. There is no reason why this change must be destructive. We just need to recognize if our lives are so different that we can’t be close anymore.

When my mother battled 4 years of cancer, we tried to get as many stories as we could of her life in her own words and share meals as often as we could be together. When she finally died, we were there holding her hand, we were in each others’ company up to the last minute. Friends, and some very sweet acquaintances, kept us in food and company as we got through the first weeks without her. It was also important to me to keep up momentum in my life. I stayed active in music, stayed in school and tried to maintain a routine. Without ignoring that a huge part of me was hurt, I kept comfortable and familiar things nearby.


Sometimes loss happens without anticipation, and then we search for the message, the reason, and the straws of memory. The addition of shock to grief can make staying stable more difficult. At times like this, it’s good to know who and how to ask for help, and take some time off to let yourself adjust to a different reality. There are thousands of self-help grief books out there, and some of them really do give good advice. However, I’m wary of being told how we can have closure, especially through things like a funeral, and the pain doesn’t ever really disappear, no matter how much you accept it.

Perhaps the best way I dealt with losing a parent was to have a group of peers who were also grieving. We met once a week with a counselor (this was in high school) and had totally unstructured time. Though we rarely discussed our parents unless someone new joined the group (losses were: sudden, long illness, suicide, murder or accident), it was really helpful to be in the company of other people who had random thoughts like “dead people really do look they’re made of wax” or “shit, my mom won’t come to graduation now” or “why does my English teacher make us read so many tragedies?”. I didn’t feel so weird, knowing that other people referenced their grief like I did.


If I had to describe the ways in which my largest grief has changed over the years, it would be with two sets of pictures. In the first, my grief starts out all consuming. Then it becomes a distinct part of my identity which I occasionally reference. As I get farther away in time, the grief sort of scatters throughout my life, influencing all of it but dominating none. The second is a decreasing sinusoidal wave, marking the intensity of the pain I feel. Sometimes it really sucks. Sometimes, I feel as though maybe I would be a much worse person if I never suffered. Other times, I nearly forget that my life ever sucked.

But honestly, the point is that it isn’t intensely horrible forever. You will compartmentalize and integrate your grief if you give it space. And good things will happen to you in the meantime. Even if you never get over it.


Perhaps the most disappointing part of abandoning religion for me was the realization that most organized rituals don’t do much for me. There is nothing radical about death, but we can find radical ways to deal with death. Wakes and funerals (though they did once supposedly assure folks that the dead were really dead) have never really helped me grieve. I want a pine box or an incinerator, so choosing the silk in the casket and the readings from Acts of the Apostles doesn’t soothe me. A beer with friends in memory of the loss? Burning or burying mementos you don’t want to keep? Writing or singing or dancing? Hell yeah. Draw your own pictures. Being artistic is helpful in grieving, I’ve found. Favorite places and things to do can be great or traumatic. You’ll know once you try whether it helps to be there.

As each of us tries to untangle the commerce from our lives (a task not ever complete), understanding the significance of one’s actions helps recreate rituals that avoid trite mementos and empty words. While in the midst of grief, rituals to help get through denial and shock, or perhaps to numb instead, offer some soothing. Afterwards, it’s probably necessary to have some new routines to supplement what was lost. Whether it’s scheduling meals or finding new hobbies or solitude that helps– try it.

I want people to laugh and cry about the times I was thoroughly dorky when I’m dead and to forget my birthday as often as they did while I was alive. It’s selfish and disrespectful, to me, to ask others for more attention than they can honestly spare. We should give our dead what we can, without giving up living. It’s the least we can do with the time we’ve got.