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Is This Normal?

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My mother died on October 25th of last year. She had been battling a rare lung cancer for over four years. At the time, I was 8 months pregnant with my second child. These last 9 months have been the saddest and hardest of my life, but I have somehow been able to keep moving forward in my life. I recently started back to work part-time in a new job. I was amazed at how difficult that ended up being. I was so lonely and often ended up in tears at the end of the day. It was as if starting the new job made my mother's absence so obvious and painful. I guess in the past I would have called her up for some encouragement or understanding. My husband was very supportive, but it's not the same. I thought her long illness had prepared me and that I was doing so well coping lately. But lately it just feels like something is missing from my life. I'm not all out depressed. I don't cry all day. I still enjoy lots of my life. But sometimes I'm just so sad and there is nothing I can do to make it feel better. And there is this feeling like something is missing.

Fall was always my favorite season. The other day it was raining and cool when I woke up...it felt like fall was here. Normally I would love a morning like that, but this time the feelings of last fall when Mom died just poured over me. It just took me right back to those hopeless and terrifying days. Now I am really dreading fall when it comes for real. I'm not sure how I will deal with it. Is the one year anniversary of a death typically a very hard time? Is that a stupid question? I always thought this would get easier. I know mourning is a very individual thing and I'm very sorry to be rambling. Are these feelings normal?

Thanks for listening.


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Dear Lisa,

I'm so very sorry to learn of the death of your dear mother, and I must tell you that as you approach the one-year anniversary of her death , it is not unusual that your feelings of grief seem to be reawakened.

In hopes that it will help you (and others) make sense of what you are feeling, I'm including here an excerpt from one of the lessons I wrote for an online e-mail course on grief (if you're interested, you can read more about the entire course by clicking on The First Year of Grief: Help for the Journey

Lesson # 22: Setbacks, Aftershocks and the Recurrence of Grief

No one can make you feel inferior without your consent. -- Eleanor Roosevelt

"Sometimes I think I'm doing okay—then something happens and I can't seem to do anything right. I don't have any self-confidence anymore."

Setbacks are the unexpected but inevitable frustrations and disappointments you'll encounter in your efforts to rebuild following your loss. They include statements from family members or friends which, intentionally or not, discourage your efforts. They can be your own internal thoughts, feelings and attitudes which have inhibited and debilitated you in the past: rigidity, closed mindedness, self-doubt, bitterness, anger, disappointment, and the temptation to quit. Or they can be external roadblocks stemming from natural occurrences or from bureaucratic rules and regulations you'll encounter along the way.

Accept that setbacks are a reality of life over which you have no control. Remember that, although you cannot choose what life has to offer, you can always choose how to respond. The attitudes you bring to life's circumstances are always within your control. You can choose to give up and give in, or you can choose to take charge of your life and to keep moving forward.

"As I drove along a lonely stretch of road the other day, I heard our favorite song on the radio and it kept me crying for miles. I thought I was done with all this crying."

Aftershocks happen when some of the "down" feelings you've already experienced in grief come at you again several months after the death, or even after a year or more. Sometimes something acts as a trigger and catches you by surprise: a song, a place, a movie or a season, and it's as if you're confronted with the death for the first time, all over again. Painful emotions crash in upon you, and it feels as if you're starting the entire grief process anew.

Know that aftershocks of grief are normal, and they will pass more quickly each time you experience them. They can be controlled somewhat by controlling the reminders of your loss, either by disposing of them or deliberately seeking them out. Maintain a balance between what you hold onto and what you let go of. Keep what's special or of sentimental value and when you're ready, discard the rest.

Even though some time has passed, are you still feeling frightened and confused, all this time expecting that your grief would have been resolved by now?

If anything, does it sometimes feel as if your pain has intensified?

Recurrence of grief is common and normal, but disturbing nonetheless. Although the strong feelings of grief are not continuous, they can return at any time, whenever you are reminded of your loss. They may be especially apparent toward the end of your first year, as you approach the anniversary date of your loved one's death. As the anniversary of your loss draws near, you may find yourself preoccupied with thoughts of your loved one's diagnosis, treatment and care, remembering your experience of facing a terminal illness together.

Rest assured that what you're feeling is normal and to be expected. You are not losing ground; the progress you've made is real. Getting past this anniversary is but another significant step in finding your way through grief. At this point it is only natural to look back and reflect on what used to be before you can let go of it, move on through your grief, and embrace whatever your life is going to be in the future.

"Is there anything I can do to prepare myself for this anniversary date?"

Be aware that oftentimes the anticipation of an anniversary date is worse than the actual day. Identify those days, events and seasons that are likely to intensify and rekindle your pain, and build comfort and healing into them. Plan what you're going to do ahead of time, even if you plan to be alone. Don't set yourself up for a bad day. Let your friends and relatives know in advance which days and events are significant for you. Verbalize your needs and include them in your plans. They may be very willing to help, but need for you to tell them how.

As this first year draws to a close, plan a memorial ritual. Draw on those familiar, comforting ceremonies and activities unique to your religion, culture, traditions, family or way of life. Use this ritual as your rite of passage through grieving to healing, to mark a shift in the way you mourn, or as an official end to this first year of mourning.

If you're feeling anxious, confused or immobilized as a certain date or time approaches, get the reassurance you need by returning to your support group or speaking with your bereavement counselor.

"I have so many unhappy memories; how can I ever shut them off?"

Handle your memories with care. If they are painful and unpleasant, they can be hurtful and destructive. If they create longing and hold you to the past, they can interfere with your willingness to move on. You can choose which parts of life you shared that you wish to keep and which parts you want to leave behind. Soothe your pain by thinking of happy as well as sad memories. The happiness you experienced with your loved one belongs to you forever. Hold onto those rich memories, and give thanks for the life of the person you've lost instead of brooding over the last days. Build "memory time" into the day, or pack an entire day with meaning. It's easier to cope with memories you've chosen than to have them take you by surprise. Immerse yourself in the healing power of remembrance. Go to a special place, read aloud, listen to a favorite song. Celebrate what once was and is no more.

"I don't think about my loved one as often as I used to — does that mean I'm letting the one who died slip away?

Letting go of what used to be is not an act of disloyalty, and it does not mean forgetting your lost loved one. You will never forget, because a part of this person remains in you. Letting go means leaving behind the sorrow and pain of grief and choosing to go on, taking with you only those memories and experiences that enhance your ability to grow and expand your capacity for happiness.

As you've already discovered, you're never really finished with loss when someone significant leaves you. This loss will resurface during key developmental periods for the rest of your life. You will have to face it again and again, not as the person you are today, but as the person you will have grown to be in two or five or twenty years from now. Each time you will face it on new terms, but it won't take as long and it won't be as difficult.

I hope this information is helpful to you, Lisa. Please know that we're all thinking of you at this sad and difficult time, and know that we are here for you.

Wishing you peace and healing,

Marty T

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