Six ways to go on living after loss

“You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.” – Anne Lamott

Have you ever looked so particularly sad that someone would suggest that “you look like you lost your best friend.” So a deep sadness is defined by what you would feel if you lost your best friend? What if you have?

In 2014, with the death of my husband, I essentially lost one of my best friends, too. I published 12 ways to survive after the loss of a spouse in 2017. Much of what I suggested could be applied to the loss of a friend, although I felt the need to create an addendum, because for some – especially young people who have yet to find that “best friend” who becomes a spouse – the “best friend” is the most important person in the world.

Your BFF is the person you confide in, who knows all your secrets, your hopes and dreams. They know your faults and everything you hate about yourself. You annoy the hell out of them at times, and they love you anyway. They keep coming back because you represent all of those things to them as well. You’re there for each other, especially at the most challenging times.

So what do you do when one day, they are suddenly no longer there? Aside from my own experience with loss,  I’m no expert. When my daughter’s BFF died in March, I couldn’t begin to imagine how I would have felt to lose the girl that filled that space in my life at 19. The void is monumental. 

Although, I thought what I’ve learned was worth sharing.

Understand it’s normal to feel sad. Losing someone close to you sucks. But also know the raw pain that you felt at first begins to dissipate gradually over time. The expectation that you will “get over it” is wildly misplaced. The extent of your pain is linked to the extent of your love. The love is not something you will – or even want to – get over. Although while you don’t get over it, you do get used to it; while you would never really want to move on, you do move forward. The grieving process is not linear however. There will be times out of no where, after feeling good for a long time, that something triggers your emotions. It happens. That’s normal.

Be kind to yourself. Exercise. Meditate. Journal. Seek professional help.

Exercise produces endorphins. “Endorphins also trigger a positive feeling in the body, similar to that of morphine. For example, the feeling that follows a run or workout is often described as ‘euphoric.’ That feeling, known as a ‘runner’s high,’ can be accompanied by a positive and energizing outlook on life.” (WebMD).  Exercise can be as hard as a long or fast run or it can be a calming hike in the woods.

“Meditation can give you a sense of calm, peace and balance that can benefit both your emotional well-being and your overall health.” says the Mayo Clinic (who provides this thorough guide to help you begin a daily meditation practice).

“Journaling can be effective for many different reasons and help you reach a wide range of goals. It can help you clear your head, make important connections between thoughts, feelings, and behaviors, and even buffer or reduce the effects of mental illness!” (Positive Psychology, which also offers a nice “how to” guide).

Finally, seek professional help. Although I mention it last, this shouldn’t be regarded as a last resort, but something that can work in tandem with these other self-help tools. When you first experience loss, seek out a professional specifically trained in bereavement counseling.  I would also add that after the initial shock of the my loss wore off, I appreciated having a counselor who was able to pivot and help me with goals that allowed me to move forward. I feel the best counselors are those who allow you some time to wallow in your pain, but then hold you accountable for growth and help get you “unstuck” from that place (a coach can also be good here when the time is right).

Stay busy. While leaving some personal time for the helpful activities stated above, fill your calendar with distractions: projects, hobbies, trips, classes, socializing with family and other friends. Spending some reflective time alone is good, but not too much. I found it hard at first to accept invitations when I wasn’t feeling like it. Then I realized how good it felt to dress up, get out, and join the the living. And that doesn’t mean social media. Social media has be known to depress its users more than it helps. And if anyone is likely to say something insensitive, it’s way more likely to be on social media where you open yourself up to friends of friends and even total strangers. Watch how much time you spend online, and watch what your posting.

Find ways to honor your friend’s memory. For some that might mean getting a meaningful tattoo, or wearing a piece of their beloved’s jewelry. It might mean setting aside time on their birthday or other special day each year for a remembrance. Other ideas could include a Spotify playlist with all the songs that remind you of your time together that you can listen to when you want to feel close to them; or holding a fundraiser in their name for a cause that would be meaningful to them (the act of planning something can also be a nice distraction). 

Find new activities, adventures, and friends. Don’t stop growing. Be open to new possibilities. You will find that in being kind to yourself, in your effort to stay busy, and creating some way to honor you friend’s memory that you also begin to make more friends, and you try new things, and experience a new world. All the while keeping your memories alive. You begin to feel good again.

Write the next chapter. I often think of my life as before, during, after, and now. As you come out the other side and learn to live with your loss, think about moving to a new journal. After Chris died, I title my journal “Mary’s After-Life” meaning after my parents, after Chris, and after my marriage. The journal I began to write in when I moved to Illinois became “Mary’s New Life.” And I recognize that it’s pretty unlikely it will be the last chapter. The pages of our lives – filled with sunshine and rain – continue to unfold.

Learning to live with loss is one of life’s difficult lessons. It’s also the downside to longevity. The more we love, the more we lose. As painful as the loss is, we would never want to take away the love that is reflected in it.

Everything continues to move even after the sun sets. Chicago, Illinois. August 2020.

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