Between 2012 and 2017, I really got to know the Grim Reaper. He came for my father in 2012, then within a five-day period in 2014 he came back for my mother and my husband, Ed. Not cool, Grim, not cool. I saw him again the next year with the loss of an old friend, and he popped by in 2016 for my favorite uncle, and then back again for my aunt in 2017. As you can guess, navigating grief became a central theme in my life.
There is no exact schedule or timetable to follow to reach a point in your life where you feel 100% like your old self.
You will never feel like your old self because you have changed. This is NOT the same as you will never be OK or you will never be whole.
You can emerge from this stronger and with more clarity on how you want to live your life and who you want to be part of your life.
For me, there was a day when I realized that I felt like I consistently had my strength back. I realized that, for some time, I had been feeling healthy and grounded. I felt less hesitant about the direction of my life and I no longer felt like I was going through the motions. I was no longer treading water and trying to get by; I was taking charge and making plans and looking forward to the future.
I reached this point about one and a half years after Mom and Ed died. I share this with you not as a goal to meet or to exceed, but in the interest of honesty. It takes what it takes. Your journey will be your own.
Some days it felt like I would never have a regular life again. Truthfully, I did not know what that even meant. Initially, I thought it meant never feeling sad, never missing the people who I had loved and lost.
Now I can tell you that normal does not mean never feeling sad and never missing the ones you loved. It means accepting the way things are and living your life as fully as possible.
Regaining your strength involves building a life that helps you live with purpose, allowing you to prioritize what is important to you and then to live accordingly. For me, this means spending time with friends and loved ones, continuing my spiritual practice, working and traveling. You will define what works for you.
I did not come to this place overnight. It was a gradual process. I had times when I thought I was there. I was at full strength. But then something would happen, like the death of another loved one, and I would experience a setback.
But each time that I faced a challenge, I began to feel more resilient, and I recovered more quickly. You will, too.
Getting your strength back and being compassionate to yourself go hand in hand. It makes no sense to beat yourself up over feeling weak or over having difficulty coping. But you will not get your strength back until you do the required work.
Think of it as your own mental and emotional fitness program. You have to exercise on a regular basis to reach a certain level of fitness, and the workouts are not always easy. You might feel like others around you are making better progress than you are making. Don’t worry about them; keep focused on your own experience. We all have different levels of strength. Take charge of your own program to regain your strength.
If I were to try to define how I regained my strength, I would say that this was the formula:
Time + Self-compassion + Self-awareness + Acceptance + Action + Spiritual Path
Time, because, as annoying as it is, it is also true that time can heal all wounds. How much time? That is different for each of us. Know that there are aspects of your healing that cannot be rushed.
Self-compassion, because this is not the time to beat yourself up. Remember to treat yourself as you would treat your best friend. Be your own best friend. Do not shirk your responsibilities or engage in harmful behavior. Treat yourself in ways that will help you to overcome your suffering.
Self-awareness, because you need to understand your limitations and boundaries, and then know when to push yourself to exceed those limitations. Some people learn to ride a bicycle by using training wheels; some people jump on the bike and start peddling.
Acceptance, because you cannot move on until you accept that your life has changed. Your loved ones have died. You are still alive. Death is an integral part of life. You and death will meet again.
Action, because you need to do something. You do not just sit on your meditation cushion; you do not just intellectualize or internalize. You need to act. You involve other people, and you go back to work, and you go back to the gym, and you socialize and travel and volunteer. You actively create your new life.
Spiritual path, because you need meaning and a way to process your grief. In my specific case, Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path helped me recognize and reflect on my pain.
You may have noticed I have listed the elements of the formula, but not the proportions or ratios for those elements. I cannot give you exact amounts. I can tell you that it is different for each of us. And it is different for each segment of your journey.
Early on, you may have more self-compassion and less action. That is OK; you do not know what to do—yet. Next, you find yourself working with more acceptance. All of this transpires during the passing of time.
Know that it is normal to experience some setbacks and fluctuations. Keep at it. One day, you will feel it: there it is, your strength.