The Way We Grieve Now

Boarding a flight, Lisa Niemi pulled out her phone and texted “I love you” to her husband. It was a sentiment she’d often shared with her partner of 34 years, actor Patrick Swayze. And even though he’d lost his battle to pancreatic cancer a year ago this week, she wasn’t ready to give it up. “Either somewhere out there he received [the message], or someone’s going, ‘Somebody loves me!’ And you know what? I figured it was a win-win situation,” revealed Niemi in an interview with People Magazine.

While sending text messages to a deceased loved one may not seem like a standard part of the mourning process, there’s no guidebook for grief.

“I have a client who never turned off her husband’s cell phone after he died. She takes comfort in calling his voice mail to hear him speak,” says Claire Bidwell Smith, M.A., L.P.C., a hospice and bereavement specialist. “Rituals and routines like that are actually healthy in confronting your emotions and can hold a person in a secure place for longer.”

Actress Michelle Williams echoed the sentiment in the months after Heath Ledger’s death. “I wish we had rituals about grief,” she said in an interview with Vogue. “I wish it were still the Victorian times, and we could go from black to gray to mauve to pink, and have rings with hair in them.”

Instead, Williams found some solace in her upstate New York garden. “[A friend] got me gardening in the spring, and that’s when it started to turn around…I remember being on my hands and knees. The ground was cold and muddy. I pushed back the dead leaves and saw the bright green shoots of spring. Under all this decay something was growing,” she said. “Caring for the garden reminded me to care for myself.”

That was something Williams had neglected to do in the weeks after Ledger’s fatal overdose, “I was severely accident-prone…I fell downstairs, broke a toe, put my fingers in a blender,” she confided. “I was holding it together by a string and a paper clip…I didn’t know if I could keep it all together.”

Jennifer Hudson described a similar fugue state after the grave murder of her mother, brother and nephew in 2008. “It’s all a blur, it was surreal,” Hudson explained in a VH1 interview. “It was like I was outside of myself.” To cope, she took to routine prayers. ”I prayed when I’d get up in the morning and prayed before I laid down at night.”

For Gwyneth Paltrow her own hair became a way of coping with the loss of her father in 2002.

“When my dad died I didn’t want to cut it off. I think it was because it was the hair he knew,” she divulged in a 2008 press interview. “One day I was on a shoot and I just suddenly said, ‘I need to cut it now.’ It was almost as if it was part of the grieving process. I just had to let something go.” Her impulse decision took six years to make.

Part of the struggle comes from the fact that there’s no time-line for the pain. Secret habits and rituals born out of loss can carry over for decades, even to the point where it becomes second nature.

“After a while you worry that the pain will pass and you’ll stop missing them, so you keep these connections,” says hospice and bereavement specialist Smith.

Smith’s familiarity with the process is more than clinical. When her mother, a talented chef, passed away, the Chicago native taught herself to tackle her mother’s recipes.

“Cooking was a big part of her physical presence so when she was gone, so were the wonderful smells that reminded me of her. It was like losing one of my senses,” says Smith who now features her mother’s dishes on her blog.

Brooke Berman, author of the new memoir “No Place Like Home,” found similar solace through her mother’s passion for clothes. “She kept everything in remarkable condition — sweaters in sweater bags, shoes in boxes, jewelry tucked away in Tiffany’s boxes.” After her death, Berman spent a year dressed in her mother’s belongings. “I had a pair of her sunglasses adapted with my prescription lenses. I wore her socks every day. I wore scarves and gloves, to keep warm that winter. I’d tell myself it was my mom keeping me warm. It completed my relationship with her, or possibly continued it.”

In the wake of Brittany Murphy’s death, her grieving mother, Sharon, admitted to sleeping in her daughter’s marital bed every night, beside Murphy’s widower, Simon Monjack. The unconventional arrangement may have seemed bizarre, but it wasn’t all that different from Berman inhabiting her mother’s wardrobe.

Unfortunately, these cathartic gestures are often partnered with shame. On one online grief forum, members anonymously share their unusual habits: buying annual Christmas presents for a deceased father, doing word puzzles once relished by a mother, calling non-working numbers just to go through the motions of contacting a lost friend. All members then pose the same question: “Is this normal?”

But nothing is normal in grief and no two mourners are the same. Some people find it helpful to broadcast their memories to a wide audience. YouTube is flooded with memorial montages. Even Angelina Jolie and her brother, James Haven, created a web video tribute of their mother three years after her death. Others would rather pay tribute in private. Kelly Preston, who planned to participate in a recent panel discussion on grief, canceled at the last minute, releasing the statement: “I am still deeply in the process of healing, and it’s just too soon.”

There is no uniform approach to loss. “The only thing that’s common is the feeling you’re losing your mind,” says Smith. “But once you share your coping rituals, however odd they may feel, you’ll find you’re not alone and not crazy at all. Then, you can start moving forward.”

Read original article: The Way We Grief Now


  1. Mary said on September 20, 2010 at 10:53 am ... #

    I write a note or letter to Bill every day. He died in March. An artist friend painted a portrait of him and it hangs right where I saw him the night he died. I talk to him on and off all day and will forever. It all helps but I wish the culture understood the devastation of losing your soul mate, spouse, life partner….nothing is every the same again.

  2. Sue said on September 20, 2010 at 2:59 pm ... #

    I also wish people understood the devastation of losing your husband. I honestly think some of my so called bitterly single friends think well, now she knows how I feel…they were always jealous I met and married the man of my dreams, and in some cases, probably someone they wanted!!! This miserable experience has cost me many “friends” because I try and tell them, and I either scare them or depress them. I am 16 months out, and while I have improved, I have a long way to go. I have not resolved totally my issues with God, why did this happen? Could we have prevented it? Why didn’t the doctors pick up on it? He was only 62!!!! You aren’t’ supposed to die at 62..hardly anyone in the obits is 62 or younger. He was such a fine man…His 64th birthday is Weds…I love you Mike.

  3. Tracy said on September 20, 2010 at 6:29 pm ... #

    I recommend 2 Great Books to help you cope with your loss and get
    you through this journey of Grief and Loss… The Grief Club by Melody
    Beattie and Healing After Loss by Martha Hickman….I lost my husband
    James 9.25.09 Saturday will be 1 year.. He was 49 Years young…
    Interesting thing this grief because it comes when it wants or should
    I say needs is a journey we must to through not around.. God

  4. Amy said on September 20, 2010 at 9:30 pm ... #

    My father died when I was 16. I kept a few dried flowers from the funeral. Shortly after turning 30, on father’s day, I felt it was time to let go. Live for the future……not live in the past. I went to his grave and sprinkled the flowers over his grave, left a trading post because he loved reading it and said what I needed to say. It was very theraputic.

    Tracy, your words are very wise. My father died at 59……and almost 15 years later I was finally able to move on in life. For a long time I coped by going around until it hit me in adult hood that I must go through. Anyhow, sorry to hear of everyone’s loss. I pray for your healing and hope you find peace.

  5. Liz said on June 19, 2011 at 8:27 am ... #

    Thank you so much for this article. I really related and now understand why i wore my husband’s watch. This information is really helping me cope.

  6. John said on November 22, 2012 at 5:49 pm ... #

    Thank goodness I found this article! I didn’t deal with grief very well when my parents died years ago.

    However, I do some of the things in this article since my wife passed nearly two months ago. I play scrabble with her, read to her, talk with her, ask her opinion, write things about her on her laptop, think about how I am going to finish her book, love looking at the clothes she made, give away some personal things to friends so that they have more memories, keep the garden that she loved looking nice, help a neighbour with a similar medical condition, pray every night, light a candle every day in her memory and just carry on as best I can as if she was here. It helps to ease the transition for me.

    I don’t ever say that she has gone. She might not be here physically, which I intensely miss, but she is still here spiritually.

  7. Barbara Rieger said on November 26, 2012 at 4:41 pm ... #

    I have lost my father in 1991, my only sibling brother in 1995. Then my only child/son in 2010 when a young man driving his girlfriends SUV hit my precious son head on. This past Monday November 19,2012 my dearest mother passed. I can recall my dad would call with one ring that was his signal to call him back. For the longest time the phone rang with one ring. Once when I was coloring my hair I felt my brother standing there. I asked him to sit down and that was the last of his presence for me. One thing I do is write letters on a site to my son. They are all with me. When I want to see one all I have to do is look in the mirror. All but my mother had hazel eyes just as I do. However, today at the nursing home when I showed a lady mom’s wedding photo 73 years ago she said and showed me the upper eyes and my high check bones looked like my mother. But I also have her lip shape. This is a weird feeling now that I’m the only one left of the people I lived with in my life. I even found out that my first husband and biological dad of my passed just one month after my son. I’m glad I married a man younger than me who loved and adopted my precious son. My mother considered my son loving him as her third child. I cope by living my life as I did before. Have some special friends I grew up with, belong to a garden club where I am an active member. Also have other friends as I sit on the senior center commission. My heart is crying and once in a while the tears are going to come down when I least expect it. They are not totally gone they took the love with them. I hole all of them in my being until we all reunite once again.

  8. Adrienne Crowther said on November 27, 2012 at 11:50 am ... #

    I love this article! I related to several of these anecdotes. For example, after my husband passed away, I re-painted every room in my house – much like the response by Gwyneth Paltrow about hair. I’ve been wearing a lot of my mom’s very fashionable clothes since her passing. She was also known for her stellar sense of style.

    And yes, I believe that our loved ones become part of who we are, as we carry them in our hearts.

  9. Valerie said on April 5, 2013 at 2:36 pm ... #

    My dad died almost eight years ago. We had an ambiguous relationship but had mended a few things before he died. I struggled with not feeling anything about his death for many years. One of the things my siblings and I did was transplant his flowers to our respective gardens, something I thought would help me feel connected to him in some way. After my brother died unexpectedly a year ago I went into an emotional tailspin of anger and sadness. His death was a catalyst for addressing dysfunctional family dynamics that were never addressed or healed. After awhile in therapy I went home one day and uprooted my dad’s 36 plants and felt a release from a lot of that anger. I appreciate people sharing the impact of the loss of losing truly loving loved ones, but I am reminded of how others lose friends or family members who were difficult to be with or grieve their absence. It certainly heightens my awareness to anticipated grief of loved ones whose loss will be devastating to experiencem, and to be mindful of all the little moments that may be future memories.

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