9 Helpful Things To Know About Grief that Nobody Warns You About

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 (Guillaume de Germain/ Unsplash)

To save us all some time, I’m going to start this by being blunt. A lot of my friends are dead. Romantic partners, roommates, high school friends, college friends, music scene friends, co-workers—too many to mention by name here. I can tell you that the youngest was 15 and the oldest was 47. And that there have been cancers, vehicular collisions, strokes, suicides, freak accidents, substance abuse, mental health problems, and one random act of violence.

It doesn’t get easier, but you do get less surprised the more that it happens.

I get the sense that more people understand that now than maybe did a year ago. Because in that time, of course, well over half a million American lives were lost to COVID-19. That’s too many to even comprehend, but calculations say a third of the country’s population lost someone. And I believe it. Because in the last 12 months—for the first time in my entire life—it has felt like the whole world stepped through the curtain and joined me in the waiting room.

Mourning one death while cautiously anticipating the next is not, as my mother has been fond of reminding me for years, “normal.” But we’re all in here now. In one way or another.

The thing with grief is that it does things to you that no one ever warns you about. Yes, grief is random and different each time, depending on who you are and who you’ve lost. But there are also a few things I wish I’d known earlier—the stuff that nobody wants to tell you because it probably sounds too harsh. But I do believe that knowing these things helps you move through grief better prepared, and stronger for it. And, as we ease out of this pandemic and start the business of all of this painful processing, we need all the help we can get. So I wanted to share some things I have learned the hard way (i.e. by doing it wrong).


[Please note that the following is based purely on personal experience and may not be applicable to everyone. I am not a mental health professional; I’m just a journalist who’s done this a lot.]

1. Ignore the Concept of Finite Stages of Grief

One of the biggest mistakes I ever made, grief-wise, was to assume that the five stages (or seven—depends who you ask) would just happen over time, in due process, and then I’d go back to normal. That is not what happens. Grief is not orderly. Worse, the idea of finite stages implies an end point to grieving. Trust me when I say you won’t necessarily get to an end point. Sometimes grief stays with you forever. It is far better to prepare for that eventuality than to assume it will all cease to hurt once you’ve ticked your way down the list.

2. Be Prepared For Loopy Thoughts

Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking was the first account of grief I ever read in which the writer unabashedly acknowledged the bizarre trips your brain takes you on after someone you love dies. And I cannot describe the relief of knowing I was not on my own. To give you a good example from the book, two months after her husband’s sudden death, Didion details packing up his clothing to give away. She has been encouraged to do this by various loved ones so is trying her best to get on with it.

Didion writes:

I was not yet prepared to address the suits and shirts and jackets but I thought I could handle what remained of the shoes, a start.

I stopped at the door to the room.

I could not give away the rest of his shoes.

I stood there for a moment, then realized why: he would need shoes if he was to return.

The recognition of this thought by no means eradicated the thought.

This is actually normal.

3. Time Doesn’t Heal All Wounds

I’m really sorry about this one. I am. But I strongly suspect that “time heals all wounds” is a lie someone made up to stop someone else from crying. Hoping time alone is going to heal your grief is like assuming a severed finger is going to grow back just because you want it to.

Back in 2013, my husband died suddenly. It is, far and away, the single worst thing that has ever happened to me. But because I was under the impression that time was an almighty healer back then, I thought all I had to do was white knuckle it for long enough and the agony would dissipate. It didn’t. And when it still hadn’t gone away three years later, in my confused, exhausted state, I convinced myself that my “grief energy” had worked its way into my home and was preventing me from healing. (See: No. 2.) I responded to this suspicion by cutting off all my hair, giving away all my furniture, and moving to Texas.

I recognize now that I was having a very organized, very quiet, very geographically ambitious breakdown. But that’s what relying too heavily on time fixing stuff gets you.

4. You Can’t Go Back

It took me an embarrassingly long time to figure this out, but getting over a death is not about getting back to who you were and how you felt before the loss. That, unfortunately, is impossible. Death leaves slashes across your life, dividing it into ‘before’ and ‘after’ segments. As such, you have to learn how to treasure the before without hanging onto it too tightly—doing so will stop you from moving forward into the after. It takes a while to get to grips with this one, but knowing you eventually have to might help you get there quicker.

5. Everything Doesn’t Happen For a Reason

When you are in mourning, a lot of people will tell you everything happens for a reason. These people are well-meaning, but absolutely infuriating. Sometimes terrible things just happen and are impossible to make sense of. Please don’t waste your energy on trying to find meaning where there is none. Focus instead on the healing you’ve got to do—it’s time much better spent.

6. Your Body Might Feel Permanently Different

Deep grief for a lot of people feels a lot like being hollowed out and weighed down simultaneously. At the start, that extra weight you feel is unwieldy and exhausting and it can drag you down to the point of depressed immobility. You think you’ll never be able to carry it on your own. And there’s a good chance that your friends and family are going to need to help you shoulder that burden. After a while though, you do figure out how to carry the weight on your own. And after a long time, you’ll have entire days and weeks where you don’t even notice it. After an accident or an operation, there is a period of figuring out how to function in your new body. Sometimes grief necessitates a form of physical recovery as well.

7. Don’t Forget to Cry When You Want To

It sounds so basic, I know. But culturally, we are not in a place where we can all just burst into tears whenever we feel like it—even in a pandemic. And holding it in is legit bad for you.

In the first half of 2020, I lost two friends in three days, and then my dog died. In the second half of 2020, I was suddenly afflicted with severe and chronic back pain that massage, physiotherapy and acupressure all failed to fix. The thing that rid me of it in the end? Energy work that was performed by a concerned friend over the phone. (I didn’t even know such a thing existed.) The many distractions and stresses of 2020 meant I had not been crying enough. My body needed me to stop and let it happen, and it physically hurt me until I finally did.

8. Using Alcohol and/or Weed is Fine

If you’re grieving, unless sobriety is something you’ve been actively working towards or living with, do not beat yourself up for wanting to take the edge off. A lot of professionals don’t feel okay admitting this out loud, but which is better: staying up for three days with raging grief-insomnia or drinking a glass of whiskey and/or smoking some indica, so you can actually get some rest? Using alcohol or any other substance as a daily crutch is not going to go well in the long term. But grabbing a break from the pain every now and again is perfectly fine—unless you are an addict or risk harming others by imbibing.

9. You Already Know You Need Therapy, Right? 


Of course you do. Every grief column on the internet says so. But it bears repeating, even on a list of things that people don’t usually tell you. I have mourned with and without a therapist—and with is definitely better. Last summer, KQED’s Nastia Voynovskaya, compiled a list of affordable, sliding scale and culturally competent therapy options in the Bay Area. If you can access any of these resources, you will more than likely benefit. And if you are unable to, please seek advice elsewhere. I recommend utilizing grief podcasts, Facebook grief pages and local help groups. Because knowing you’re not on your own is half the battle. And after the last 12 months? Well, you are definitely not alone.