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8 Tips for Understanding Grief and Rediscovering Gratitude in Times of Loss

Melissa Rousseau
Written by Melissa Rousseau

On December 9th, 2008, our lives changed in an instant. I had rushed my mother to the emergency room after her level of confusion became alarming. We received the gut wrenching diagnosis that she had a brain tumor. Later that week we would find out that it was lung cancer that had metastasized. She had also received a diagnosis of breast cancer earlier that November. So all of a sudden, in a single moment, my vibrant, beautiful, colorful, brilliant artist of a mother was riddled with cancer.

Complete and utter disbelief. Every cell in my body felt the sharpness of our new reality. I fainted.

Our world turned instantly upside down. That disbelief & shock held their ground and then shifted into fear. Fear held on too, but eventually turned to sadness. Sadness stuck around but turned to anger. The doozy was that at any moment, any one of those feelings would take charge again and spin us around so fast, that we would loose our balance and our breath.

All of the big questions flooded our minds: How, why, when, and what can we do?

For the next year I was my mother’s right hand gal, driving her to Dana Farber and Brigham & Women’s Hospitals for daily radiation and chemo appointments, researching other healing systems, consulting with natural doctors, booking her massage & reiki sessions, making playlists to keep her spirits up during our awful commutes, cooking her meals, forcing her to drink green juice and smoothies packed with cancer killers, encouraging her to make life lists and plan for future trips to her favorite places like Tuscany and the south of France. And eventually bathing her, helping her get dressed, and cleaning up the destruction state that chemo had left her weakened body in. As I look back, I realize that I was somehow taking impeccable care of myself as well: green juicing/smoothies, working out, walking in the woods, meditating, praying…I had to be at my strongest to bear the load of her grief, anger, sadness, and depression. I see now that I didn’t have time to grieve. I was too busy trying to save her life.

On January 12, 2010 at 5am, after a year and a month of fighting, we lost her. My best friend, mother, and soul mate was gone from this world.

It’s been 2 ½ years since that day and the disbelief and shock are still present. I still endure moments of crippling sadness and mindblowing anger at the universe. Many days of these past years have been spent in bed with the most debilitating depression of my life. Somehow, someway, I managed to refocus my career sites on wellness, and made it through muscular therapy school, graduating at the top of my class. And I continue to pursue my wellness career with a holistic nutrition program that will be finished in June. Although bits and pieces of the past years are completely blurred, with many details totally erased from my memory, grief’s nasty, slimy claws are slowly releasing their grip on me.

There are the days now of real clarity when I realize that my mother isn’t gone at all, she’s just changed form. And the realization that she left so that I would discover and pursue my true passions in life: wellness, nutrition, healing, helping others relieve their own pain. Reflecting back on this journey, I am aware of some patterns of knowledge and tools that were imperative to my healing, and continued healing:

1. Understand that grief manifests itself differently for everyone:  I have spent much of my time constantly questioning why I wasn’t making progress putting my life back together and why my father and sister seemed to be so capable of moving on. How are they not in as much pain and suffering as I am? A medical intuitive that I sought out during one particularly rough patch said these words to me: “Their grief is none of your business.” At first those words stung a bit. But she was right. They were doing what they needed to do. The fact that my father began dating right away and my sister was able to get right back to her life with her kids in Vermont, as painful as it was to watch, really was none of my business. My one and only goal was and is to focus on my own path and healing, one day at a time, one breath at a time.

2. Understand the inconsistency of grief and allow it to come: Grief can come at any moment, and in any form. Hearing a song on the radio would reduce me to sobs. Seeing a mother and daughter shopping together was a knife to my heart, that would quickly turn in to anger, cementing the crystal clear truth that I was never going to be able to share life’s big moments like getting married and having babies with her. And I felt like I could never prepare myself for these shots to my system. That concept alone was exhausting, but I began to tune in and understand that what I was feeling is part of the grief picture and healing. I began to give myself permission simply to FEEL. I made the conscious choice to be more patient and kind to myself during those times.

3. Sit in nature: The FOG I have felt and continue to feel is also part of grief. For most of the past years, I had been feeling dizzy, numbed, living as a shell of my former self. Not always fully aware of my surroundings. My processing of the world around me seemed in slow motion. Conversations were hard to follow. Too many loud noises at once destroyed any concentration that I had left. The one comfort from this feeling that I found was sitting in nature and really tuning in to the sounds, the movements of leaves and creatures, the fresh air blowing, the earthy smells. It has helped to reawaken my dulled, numbed out senses that were feeling too sad to feel anything at all.

4. Follow a routine: However simple or mundane as that may seem. I forced myself to get up, do my breathwork, meditate, drink my green smoothie, shower and cry. Every morning.

5. Exercise:  Without a doubt, exercise has gotten me through this time. As a massage therapist, I am huge believer that emotions, when not properly released, can get caught in our tissues, muscles, and cells, with the potential to cause extreme long-term physical pain. Exercise forced me to move some of that grief out and re-oxygenate my body with positive, fresh O2. It allowed for a time and space where my brain could focus on something other than the excruciating pain of loss. It was a release and relief.

6. Find solace in other people’s grief journey:  I couldn’t read while I was caring for my mother. Could barely leaf through a magazine just looking at the pictures. I watched countless movies instead. After she passed, however, I found Joan Didion’s book, The Year Of Magical Thinking and devoured it. It was just what I needed. I had begun isolating myself from everyone, feeling as though no one understood what I was going through, or that they had expectations that I should be moving on faster than I was. I found comfort that I was unable to find anywhere else in Joan’s words and processing of her husband’s passing.

7. Have faith that time does shift the sharpness of the pain: I used to get so angry with people who would say “Oh just give it time…” It would make me venomous. But I have slowly come to believe that this is true. The pain will never fully go away. A piece of my heart will forever be missing, but the pain has begun to shift, becoming less sharp, piercing, and invasive.

8. Practice gratitude: This has been a tough one for me. I have been too angry at the universe to say thank you for anything at all. I realized this a few months ago during a particularly challenging meditation. I was repeating my gratitude mantras when I saw so clearly THAT I DIDN’T MEAN IT. I wasn’t grateful. I was pissed and furious and fearful to continue in this world without my mother. In that moment I decided to shift my mantras to simply asking for HELP TO RELEASE myself of any fear and anger. Just to see what happened. I knew that they were no longer serving me in any way. They were blocking me from living. And something started to click into place. My mother left this world so that I could continue on the path that I was meant to follow: helping others overcome their pain and fill their own lives with passion and wellness. She cleared the way for me to finally open my eyes and really investigate my own true intentions for this life. And finally, for that, I feel overwhelming, wonderful feelings of gratitude.

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