Giving Grief Its Due

Just days before my fiftieth birthday last  April, my beloved dog Tanner became gravely ill. He was diagnosed with a rare, terminal condition and died in June.

My friend Suzy helped me bury Tanner in my backyard, right by some special lilies I’d planted in memory of my husband. Adam also had died of a rare illness, a relatively rare bone marrow cancer called Waldenstrom’s Macroglobulinemia, in May 2003.

In between losing Adam and Tanner, I lost my mother, as well, to complications from strokes she suffered at a family reunion on a beach in Maine in August 2005.

With three major deaths in five years, my grief has been profound. Sometimes it seems endless. And because these deaths occurred in such a relatively short stretch of time, just as the pain was beginning to soften from one loss, the next loved one died.

Yet for all the sorrow that has been telescoped into these last few years, I’ve come to appreciate the wisdom of giving grief its due.

Grieving takes time. Grieving takes energy. Grieving takes courage.

I have been amazed at grief’s power to affect every part of my being-physical, emotional, mental and spiritual.

In early grief, an extreme fatigue wraps around me like a blanket I cannot throw off.  Some days, I crawl right back into bed after having just eaten breakfast.

Sleep doesn’t necessarily bring respite. The tears flow even then. And my loss seems even louder as evening comes and the quiet magnifies the emptiness.

The simplest chores take Herculean effort. The figures in my checkbook just won’t balance. Items I never misplace disappear into thin air. My words sputter and stop mid-sentence.

“Grief takes up a lot of space in my head,” I try to explain to friends.  It’s the only way to depict how my brain wrestles with a reality so devastating that it seems incomprehensible-that my loved one no longer breathes on this earth.

And my heart? Who knew it could break so many times and so sharply and into so many pieces? And that emotional pain creates a fatigue that surpasses my extreme physical exhaustion.

Contrary to popular myths, I don’t “get over” my grief in a week or two, after a month, or even following a year of first anniversaries.

But thanks to hospice bereavement groups, some wonderful books and friends who’ve walked through loss ahead of me, I’ve learned to live with grief as best as I can. I slog through it, in fits and starts, in bewilderment and clarity, in sorrow and in grace.

It is a much longer, harder process than popular modern culture would have us believe. It feels that as a society, we’ve lost touch with the wisdom and rituals and reality of death that our ancestors understood.

The difficult truth is that the healing comes through the grieving. The respite after the tears. My laughter is jumbled in with my sorrow. The same poignant memories that stab with heart-aching longing also hold the warm, soothing comfort that eventually flows.

Gradually, very gradually, over months and years, the gratitude for the life we shared takes up more space than the grief. It is hard work to heal. Personally, I don’t “get over” my loss. Why would I want to get over a love so sweet and maddening and dear?

I do, however, learn to live with the loss, to move forward in my life, in what friends call a “new normal.” And I’m let in on one of humankind’s deepest and, in this culture’s, often unspoken truths:  facing death changes life forever. How often we forget this reality. Yet how differently we might live, and treat others, when we remember.

Helene J. Powers, a freelance writer and educational consultant who lives in Florence, MA, contributes frequently to, where this essay first appeared.  She can be reached at

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