When my husband died through illness, I had the distraction of work and study, but my grief was particularly challenging when I was on my own – at nights and weekends. Facebook support groups and real-life support groups, and the internet, did not exist as they do today. I was left to do my own research about grief.

I started with rebuilding my life. I returned to work on the Monday after the funeral. I returned to study part-time in the first semester of the following year. In between I struggled with my grief. I was left feeling that the only grief theory was the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. It seemed all very neat and packaged. In reality, this model felt unrealistic – too linear and not messy enough to match my experiences. It did match the questions that I faced periodically “Have you accepted it yet?” “You should be over it by now?” Tears felt like visible shame. I just wanted people to hear me and see my teary emotion – but not to focus on the tears “Oh but you were doing so well?” I felt the pressure to be good – a good mourner.

To break up the work and study I would go into nature. It was a healer for me. I could reminisce about my childhood. Nature brought all my senses to life. As a child, living next to a forest and reading books like ‘The Enchanted Wood’ and ‘The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe,’ nature was key. I soon began to travel to places that we had both talked and dreamed about in our short marriage. I went to these places and had profound spiritual experiences of a closeness to him and to my grief – unjudged even by me. It felt like I was truly honouring my loss without self-pity. I felt at times that he was walking beside me, guiding me in my journey which had abruptly become me alone. I still found it incredibly difficult to return to an empty home, but I treasured the trips away to be with my grief – places we had been together, and places we had dreamed of travelling to one day. I had learnt to honour my loss.

Grief changed when I decided to take a trip just for me. Not at all in my comfort zone. My mind told me that I wasn’t prepared for this – not then and not ever. I knew that if I waited until I was ready – the perfect timing – it would never be. It was almost 5 years after his death. I rafted down the Franklin River in Tasmania for 10 days. It had some real ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’ moments. I laughed when one of my new rafting friends said joyously “the thing that I will remember about this trip is that each day I woke up wondering whether I would die today.” Parts of the trip were terrifying and exhilarating all at once in the majestic heritage listed Franklin River.

I enjoyed the company of my fellow river rafters. While we were all meeting for the first time, I had found my people. It had greatly awakened a deeper connection with nature, that I had not thought possible. When I returned home, I joined a bushwalking club. While I enjoyed solo walks, I had learnt the enjoyment of sharing the experience with others. I felt connection to place: my compass had returned.

Still trying to make sense of my grief. It slowly unfolded over the years, long after I remarried and had two children. Some parts of my grief still didn’t sit well. I had been studying tertiary courses for most years after the death of my husband. From about 16 years after his death, I began to lean into the helping professions and changed the trajectory of my career. I sought out all the grief education that I could while continuing post graduate studies in counselling. I read, attended workshops and conferences, and met grief therapists and many of the grief theorists whose books sat on my shelves. I expanded my knowledge into dying, death and bereavement to become a certified thanatologist, applying creative arts to become a creative grief practitioner, and learning and studying the field of the end-of-life doula and end of life companion animal doula. I completed an internship to become a specialist bereavement counsellor and I continue to work and study in this field.

If I can reflect on what did help me with my grief it was that…

  1. Returning to work and helping others provided the distraction from my grief and helped to have a normal day.
  2. Returning to study provided me with direction for future career, sense of self, and challenging my intellect when my compass was spinning off the map.
  3. Travelling solo to places we had dreamed of travelling to and returning to reminisce on the places we had been.
  4. Acknowledging that to learn new tasks such as home and car maintenance and repairs were going to be challenging on my own.
  5. Developing over time a list of trusted tradies for home maintenance and repairs was a must (trust = reliable, sincere, competent, caring about their trade).
  6. Finding something for me where I could be as I was – for me being in nature.
  7. Don’t let “but I can’t draw” limit exploration of personal growth and grief awareness.
  8. Family, friends can be wonderful support for a person experienced loss and grief. A counsellor trained and experienced in grief and bereavement can walk along beside a bereaved person offer gentle support, guidance and grief education to help make sense of the reactions to grief.
  9. Grief reactions are normal and natural, we all grieve differently, and grief has a role to integrate loss into our lives.
  10. Grief is not about stages and this model was unhelpful for me. Plenty of others have been very helpful including but not limited to – Stroebe and Schut’s Dual Process Model of Change, Lois Tonkin’s Growing around Grief, William Worden’s Tasks of Mourning.

I help clients to work out their own ways to honour their grief, rebuild their life, find their place. I am a grief counsellor with lived experience of grief. I continue to expand my learning to meet clients where they are in their grief and work with compassion and openness.

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