Grief Evolves: FOUR Shifts in my Journey

 

I’ve decided that comparisons like “easier” or “harder” / “better” or “worse” don’t really apply when it comes to grief. These words attempt to simplify a highly complex process that has billions of caveats because everyone’s grief journey is so unique.

However, humans crave order to feel in control. 

So in the two years of navigating life without my late husband, I wanted to offer a look at some of the differences between my first and second year of grief. Perhaps not to show that it’s gotten “easier,” but that even through the chaos, fear and uncertainty of life…

We can find peace and empowerment by learning to adapt! 

So here it goes: 

Shift 1: MOVEMENT ➡️ STILLNESS

Exercise has been and always will be my “go-to” outlet for coping with grief. During year one, I needed to physically move my body to feel and release the anxiety and anger that consumed me almost daily. I couldn’t “sit with” my grief because my emotions were too BIG — too overwhelming. If I didn’t workout I fell victim to the negative thoughts swirling in my mind and trapped by my circumstance. 

But, in year two, I started to discover the power of stillness in addition to moving my body as means to cope. I found that after I released the energy of an emotion, I needed stillness to sit with my grief and understand what it was telling me — 

What wounds needed attention? 

What limiting beliefs were holding me back? 

What external stressors were causing me so much inner turmoil? 

Entering my third year of grief, I understand that I need movement, stillness or a combination of both!

Shift 2: SURREAL ➡️  REALITY

Year one was surreal. Most of the time I felt numb and detached — disconnected from the life I was living. It still didn’t feel real because I was in shock. Yet, as the fog lifted so did the floodgates to my emotions.

I felt more anger and sadness as reality set in during year two. Everything felt more concrete and finite, which helped me accepting my loss (or rather surrender to it). But I felt SO much more!

Luckily I had learned a thing or two about grief in year one…

Shift 3: SURVIVING ➡️  HEALING

There is nothing that prepares you for the death of a loved one. So when the nightmare comes true and you lose everything you ever knew, loved, wished for and dreamed of, you are forced into a state of survival. This is a life you never wanted — in fact it’s your worst nightmare — and you are being asked to keep going! So you find a way to bear it — you endure, you exist, and day by day (sometimes minute by minute) you discover a way to pull through. 

My survival strategies in year one were asking for help, working out (like … NONSTOP), getting curious about grief, resilience and how to survive hardship, and finding hope and inspiration from other widows, communities or friends who had experienced a loss. 

I started making the shift from survival to healing when I began seeking meaning in my loss. I wanted more than to just bear or tolerate my new normal. So I focused on healinghow I could integrate this devastating loss into my life and find purpose moving forward. I’m still on this path today! 

Shift 4: COURAGE ➡️ CONFIDENCE

The first year after a loss is called the “year of firsts” for a very valid reason —  everything is totally foreign and new! From navigating the range and intensity of emotions, to taking care of the never-ending logistics, and filling in all of the gaps in your life that were once occupied by two! All of it was scary, painful, confusing and hard but with courageI did it anyways. 

With time and repeated action I found my footing and gained confidence in year two. I approached grief equipped with coping strategies, I knew my triggers, I made space for grief on major milestones — I had my roadmap!

This roadmap helped me create a healthy relationship with grief, which made it feel more manageable and freed up space to rediscover my identity and purpose.

Entering year three, I’m still get acquainted with this new, evolving version of myself.  I’m learning how to trust in her feelings and intuition, yielding decisions and actions that propel me forward.

I’m feeling confident that with time, patience, perseverance, surrender and the willingness to adapt to whatever life hands her … everything will work out. 

Maybe not the same, or “better” or “worse.” 

But different.

And I’m genuinely ok with that. 

xx,

Emily

If you’ve experienced a loss and are looking for gentle guidance on your grief journey, I would be honored to support you. You can learn more about all the ways we can work together here. Sending love and light your way!  

Emily’s Top Grief Books

While everyone’s grief journey is unique, I’ve discovered that educating myself about grief has helped me better understand my own process. Learning about the psychology of grief and trauma, reading other people’s stories of loss, healing and growth, and exploring various coping strategies has helped me begin to moveTHRU my own loss. Below are some of my favorite books that have helped me. Drop any of your favorites in the comments!

PICK #1: The Choice

This is my number one book recommendation for anyone facing a tragic loss — and it’s not even a specific “grief” book. What Dr. Edith Eger’s story did was give me was hope! She taught me how to shift from a victim mindset of why me? — to a survivor mindset of what now? In her memoir she accounts the horrors of Auschwitz, how she survived and overcame severe trauma for years following, and the went on to help and heal others. Her story made a profound impact on how I coped with my personal loss and taught me the valuable lesson  that struggle is universal, but victimhood is not. Despite how devastating and dire our external circumstances might be, we can seek freedom in our minds. As long as we have choices, we have power and are never trapped by circumstance!

PICK #2: On Grief & Grieving

I read this book one year after my husband died, and wish I had read it sooner. This book walks you through the five stages of loss, which have been misinterpreted and misused over the years since Elisabeth Kübler-Ross first introduced them in 1969. However, her colleague David Kessler explains that the five stages were never intended to be linear, to put grief into “pretty boxes,” or to over generalize people’s grief. He admits that grief is messy and that people experience the stages at different times. What learning about the stages did for me, however, was validate the intense emotions and feelings that I had experienced over the course of a year. By normalizing my grief, I was able to understand my emotions, stop judging myself for feeling certain ways, and ultimately seek meaning from my loss.

PICK #3: Option B 

This book is not just for widows, but for anyone facing loss or hardship! Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and author of Lean In, lost her husband about 10 years ago to a sudden cardiac arrhythmia during vacation. She teams up with psychologist Adam Grant, to provided data-driven evidence and practical tips on how to build resiliency and find joy in the face of adversity. Sheryl also created optionb.org — a website rich with resources on overcoming adversity including support groups and articles, videos and stories on building resiliency. Check it out and learn how we can help those suffering in silence.

PICK #4: Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief 

This book has been instrumental in finding peace in the permanence of loss. It helped me understanding that most events in life are ultimately meaningless, but we as humans give them meaning. It taught me that I can choose a meaning that adds to my suffering, or one that empowers me to move forward. I would highly recommend this book for anyone on their grief journey, as it brought me tremendous peace and comfort knowing that I could still connect with Ian by keeping his memory alive and finding ways to honor his legacy — and give meaning to his loss.

PICK #5: Hot Young Widows Club

Nora McInerny lost her husband, father and unborn baby all in the same year. Can you imagine? Probably not. I watched her Ted Talk shortly after Ian died and it gave me the reassurance that I can still move forward with my life and keep Ian very much a part of it. She is a witty writer, moving speaker and reluctant founder of the Hot Young Widows Club — an online support group for anyone who has lost a significant other. I joined and while I don’t participate in the conversation very often, it’s been helpful to read about other people’s grief journeys — finding comfort in our similarities and appreciating our differences. While the online support group is closed to widows and widowers, you can read some of the stories on their public Instagram Page. They are heartbreaking, beautiful and truly inspirational.

PICK #6: No Happy Endings

Another resource from Nora McInerny! No Happy Endings is Nora’s personal memoir documenting her grief journey. She writes about navigating the trauma of death, single parenting, filling the void, feminism, dating and eventually falling in love, re-marrying and having another child. She is raw, funny and relatable. This book helped me because it validated a lot the feelings and thoughts that I was too afraid to share with friends or family. Nora’s personal experience with grief gave me the permission to feel and do exactly what I needed to do (and still do to this day!).

PICK #7: Healthy Healing

Michelle Steinke-Baumgard (aka One Fit Widow) explains how she hit rock bottom after her husband died in a tragic plane crash and how exercise saved her. Not only does she share her personal story of using fitness as her main coping mechanism, but also provide scientific explanation for why exercise is so effective in helping us handle grief, nutritional tips, and common misconceptions about grief. The second part of her book provides a 12-week healthy healing program to help grievers incorporate exercise and healthy eating into their grief journey. I honestly only read the first half of this book because exercise is already such a huge part of my life (teaching spin and barre, and attending yoga and yoga sculpt classes daily). However, I really enjoyed learning about the science behind exercise and healing.

PICK #8: The Invisible String

Of all of the children’s books I’ve read on grief and loss, The Invisible String has been my favorite! We started reading this to my three-year-old, Izzy, when Ian started getting really sick, just to introduce the idea of loss. The story explains how even though we might not be able to physically be with a loved one — whether they be deceased or just at the grocery store — we are always connected by an invisible string of love. Izzy and I would draw the invisible string with our hands and send kisses to daddy when he was in the hospital — or even now that he is gone. This book provides a very tangible tool and storyline to help children feel connected to their loved ones, even after death.

Check back for more of my favorite grief books as my list continues to grow!

 

How to Support A Grieving Child

I asked my 3-year-old daughter Izzy if she wanted to say goodbye to her daddy. Earlier that morning, her father Ian had just passed away from Uveal Melanoma.

At first she hesitated, but then she grabbed my hand and asked to go see him. We entered the room where my husband lay lifeless. Her grip tightened as we approached his hospital bed.

I can still hear her timid, confused, yet so innocent voice as she softly said, “goodbye daddy.”

We stood there for a second and then she looked up at me and asked, “can we go?” I nodded my head and we left.

We walked the beach and when we came back Ian’s body was gone. They had taken him to the mortuary while we were out. When Izzy entered the empty room she looked at me in astonishment.

“Where did he go?”

“Up in the sky,” I answered.

“Like poof?!”

“Yes, Izzy. Just like that.”

Children are often the ones left behind in the wake of grief and loss. They are the silent grievers. Depending on their age and their social/emotional development, they might struggle to fully comprehend the permanence of loss or to verbalize the complex feelings and emotions involved in grief.

Their understanding of death largely impacts the way that they grieve. While preschool aged children tend to see death as temporary or reversible (ie. magical thinking), school-aged children understand the finality of loss but still might have many questions or have difficulty processing that such tragedy could happen to them. And while teenagers may cognitively comprehend the magnitude of such a loss, they might lack coping skills or feel isolated from their peers.


Izzy had a lot of questions after Ian died. She asked if we could go visit daddy in the stars. She asked if he was coming back. I told her that he was still with us in spirit, but she didn’t understand why she couldn’t see him and touch him. Even now, almost two years after his death, Izzy still checks in to see if daddy will be coming home — to hold her, to hug her, to tickle her and go swimming with her.


Children’s knowledge of death and the world around them influences their feelings about the loss. For instance, children tend to have a self-centered view of the world, which leads them to believe that they caused their loved one’s death. Such thoughts might trigger feelings of guilt and self-blame, and these feelings impact their behavior. Some children act younger than they are — needing more attention, cuddling, baby talk or might even regress to wetting their beds.


In the months following Ian’s death, Izzy who is usually a fantastic, independent sleeper had to cuddle in bed with me every night. Every bedtime was a battle as she hysterically clung to me and begged for me to sleep with her. She couldn’t tell me why in words, but her actions said everything.


Just like adults, emotional memory and trauma are also stored in our body. So while feelings are driven by conscious thoughts, children might express how an emotion feels literally in their body. For instance, a child complaining about “tummy troubles” might be experiencing anxiety. Children might also experience an emotion and not be able to verbalize it at all, so they act out physically.  For instance, anger might be revealed in boisterous play, nightmares, and irritability, among other behaviors.


Izzy was constantly fighting with her brother — wrestling, kicking and hitting him. She would also lose her temper and shout over minor upsets. For me, it was hard to distinguish what was grief and what was normal 3-year-old behavior.

I consulted child grief experts in Denver and they told me that it’s impossible to separate out what is grief vs “normal” developmental behavior and that it actually didn’t matter! Bad behavior needed to be corrected no matter what the root cause. For instance, I wouldn’t excuse her from beating up her brother because daddy died.

So, I ended up reprimanding bad behavior but also provided her with coping tools. We explored breathing exercises, how to shout into a pillow to release anger, or how going into her room to color and enjoy some “me-time” could calm her down.

I also realized that Izzy behaved better when she was able to move her body — when she ran around the playground or played soccer. Just like me needing a workout, she needed a physical release for these intense emotions. I’m still exploring contact sports like Jiu Jitsu as a healthy outlet for Izzy to feel her feelings.


Unprocessed grief and trauma can have long-term effects. Research shows that bereaved children are at an increased risk of disrupted development, mental health issues, and decreased academic performance. And in the midst of such devastation, children’s grief might  to be overlooked as parents or other support figures are dealing with their own.

These situations are hard. There is no right or wrong way to navigate them. So, based on my own personal experience and research in the field of grief and loss, I’ve compiled some tips to help support your grieving child (and also take care of yourself).

Let me know if something resonates!

TIP 1: Help Your Child Express his/her Feelings

Children should be encouraged to express their feelings openly or freely. Ask them — how are you feeling? Are you sad? Are you happy? If they are having trouble naming their emotions, you can do this with books and pictures. I love the “Little Unicorn is Angry/Sad/etc.” book series for this.

If verbalizing feelings isn’t working, provide other outlets for expressions such as drawing pictures, building a scrapbook, looking at photo albums or telling stories.

TIP 2: Be Direct

When talking about the death, try to avoid using euphemisms. Kids are extremely literal, so hearing that daddy “went to sleep” or “is resting” might be scary or create fear around bed time.

When Ian died, we told Izzy that he had Cancer. I explained to her that she couldn’t get cancer and that she also didn’t give it to daddy. Cancer made daddy’s body stop working and he died.

This language might come off as abrupt or too harsh for children, but remember that they are trying to process the loss just like we are. The more honest and concrete we can be about the facts, the easier it will be for them to understand and accept the loss.

TIP 3: Stick to Routines

The world becomes a scary and unpredictable place when someone who we love dies. This environment can trigger anxiety, fear and anger as our body and mind respond to perceived threats. Sticking to a routine provides a sense of normalcy by creating safety, comfort and predictability. So if your child attends school, extra curricular activities, or playdates — maintain their normal schedule. Just like adults, children are more than likely craving these types of outlets.

If you are worried that your child is too withdrawn, sad or anxious to return to the schedule, consider lessoning the load and by all means trust your intuition. You know your child best!. But, be aware of our adult projections over the situation. Follow their lead!

I would get so worried when Izzy would breakdown in tears, missing her daddy. But typically within five minute she’d be off playing with her brother without a care or concern in the world!

TIP 4: Give them Closure

For adults, we typically find closure after a loss by attending funeral, memorial service or celebration of life. We often wonder if children should attend or not. The rule of thumb here is to give them the option. If they want to attend, then allow them to. But if they don’t, then there is no need to force it. Although we are probably trying to protect our children from these harsh realities of life, preventing them from attending important rituals or leaving out vital information about the death often creates more questions, more uncertainty — thus more trauma around the loss.

If your child chooses not to go to the funeral or memorial, try to create another ritual or ceremony to create closure. Ideas like planting a tree, sharing stories or releasing balloons with special messages to their loved ones are great options.

I questioned if Izzy and Theo should attend Ian’s Celebration of Life. I honestly wanted that time for myself — so that I could say good bye to my husband free of distraction from my children. So, I decided that I would attend the paddle-out (a traditional Hawaiian tribute to those who have passed on) alone, and my children would attend the reception after. However, I did create a “mock” paddle-out with Izzy and Theo, my brothers and some close friends to provide them with the same type of closure that I needed.

TIP 5: Put your own Grief First

This tip is really hard to put into action, but essential to both your healing, as well as your child’s. It’s easy to feel guilty about taking time for yourself and away from your child when both of you are grieving a loss. But, as the saying goes  — you can’t pour from an empty cup.

If I didn’t make space for my grief by attending a yoga class, meditating or walking in nature, I found myself irritable, angry and incapable of serving my children’s needs. I was better able to help Izzy cope with her emotions after I had leaned into mine.

TIP 6: Consult an Expert

The loss of a loved one is overwhelming and all consuming with the range of emotions experienced in grief and the logistics involved in adapting to our new normal. We have little time to process our own grief, so supporting anyone else’s can feel impossible at times. If you find yourself in this situation, get support! Find a child therapist or local non-for-profit that supports bereaved children. Knowing that your children are in expert hands can lighten the weight of carrying other’s grief so that you can focus on yours.

I enrolled Izzy in play therapy for about one year following the loss of my husband. This was a safe space for her to process her emotions through play. The therapist would talk to me after each session and notify me of any “red flags.” Having Izzy’s behavior validated by an expert gave me a sense of comfort and alleviated some of the concern I was carrying regarding Izzy’s grief.

TIP 7: Keep their Memory ALIVE!

Death kills a person. It doesn’t kill a relationship. Talk about your deceased loved one! Share funny stories about them and keep their legacy alive. Teach your child how to connect with their loved one without them being physically around. I love the book “The Invisible String” for this!

The memory of a loved one is all that we have after he/she dies. Keeping these moments alive helps fill the void of their physical absence for both you and your children.


While Theo is still too young (2-years -old) to understand death or verbalize his grief, he already owns his story. He tells me that daddy died and sends “shakas” to him up in the sky before bedtime. I know that as he grows older, he’ll have questions and I’ll answer them as honestly and openly as possible.

Izzy is still processing her father’s death. Just like me, she has good days and bad days. She has outbursts of tears as she longs to give him a hug, but she also giggles as we look at pictures of him together. She talks to me, other grown ups and children about her loss — how daddy died of cancer and how he’s not coming back. Her grief needs to be witnessed, just like mine!

When asked to draw pictures of her family at school, we are still a family of four. I love this because she understands that despite Ian being physically here, the love never dies.

We are always connected by an invisible string of love.

Sources:

Exploring the Life-Death-Life Cycle

We’ve all heard the phrase with every ending comes a new beginning. Right? But did you ever really stop and think about it.

Endings are inevitable.

    • We fall in love, all is well, but with time our values and needs change, so we decide to end the relationship.
    • We go to primary school, high school, maybe university and beyond, then with graduation, our formal education ends.
    • We get land a job. We work hard for however long it takes to become disenchanted, seek something new, or get laid off.
    • We get married. We start a family. And with each new role — mother, father, spouse, head-of-household, friend — another past identity evolves or fades away.

Endings are a part of life; and beginnings are inherently dependent upon them. Endings and beginnings can’t exist without the other.

While beginnings are viewed with excitement and vitality, endings are approached with fear and sadness.

Beginnings are viewed as success, yet endings are viewed as failure.

Our society tends to celebrate quantity — how long we stay in a job, survive in a marriage — but fail to even acknowledge quality. (How many “long” relationships do you know that are dysfunctional)?

We equate change with disruption and turmoil. Consistency with peace and stability.

And to top it all off…we qualify ALL OF IT!

Stable = good

Disruption = bad

It’s such a strange phenomenon.

And, like all the other endings we might experience in life, death is by far the most feared. The most taboo. The most avoided. Yet, the only certainty we have in life!

So why we are so afraid of endings?

I don’t have the answers, but I’m committed to asking the questions and changing the conversation around death, end-of-life and our societal fear of “endings”.

In the video below, Natalie Levy of She’s Independent — a women’s empowerment collective — and Life Mastery Consultant Kevin Carton — who helps people discover and live their soul’s purpose — join me for a conversation on the Life-Death-Life Cycle. This cycle explores how the inevitable endings we experience throughout life are merely doors to new beginnings.

Watch the video and leave us any comments or questions to keep the conversation going! I continue posting videos of virtual chats here on the moveTHRU blog. If you would like to follow the conversation live, follow me and moveTHRU on Instagram or sign-up for the moveTHRU newsletter.

xx – Emily