Last Thanksgiving, instead of gathering with loved ones to enjoy a feast, I huddled alone in front of my laptop, tears streaming down my face. My father had died just two days earlier, and I spent the holiday planning his funeral.
While I felt the intense void of dad’s absence this Thanksgiving, I also experienced gratitude for the progress I’ve made in my grief-journey.
Here are eleven things I learned about grieving during this past year:
1. Grieving can begin while a loved one is still alive. I began feeling the deep ache of losing my father long before he died. This is called “anticipatory grief.” Some end-of-life journeys are very long good-byes. As our loved one declines, we not only grieve incremental losses of physical and mental abilities, we begin to pre-grieve losing him or her completely.
2. Everyone expresses grief differently. I didn’t cry at my dad’s funeral, even when I gave a tribute. What people never saw were the countless times I privately wept from the depths of my soul. It’s important to remember that outward appearances may not tell the whole story. A person who looks like they “have it all together” may be falling apart on the inside. On the flip side, individuals who freely let their emotions show may not be as fragile as they appear.
3. Grief doesn’t follow a timeline. The “five stages of grief,” (denial and isolation, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance)  are interpreted by some to mean that once we check off the final box, we are done mourning. In reality, grieving does not follow a predictable path, nor is it something we “finish.” Major loss changes us forever—and it should. To put pressure on ourselves or others to “just get over it and move on” is both unkind and unrealistic.
4. Grief hinders life functioning. I became frustrated during my first few weeks back at work because I made many more errors than usual. Later I was reminded that a grieving person’s body, brain, and emotions are in a compromised state, making it harder to focus and think critically. In fact, several grief recovery resources state that it’s wise to avoid making any major life decisions for at least six months following a significant loss. 
5. It gets easier. Really, it does. Recently I’ve been following the grief-journey of a man who lost his wife to cancer. His sorrow is so profound that he cannot fathom ever feeling better. I used to feel the same way. But one day, at about the 3-month mark, I noticed I could sometimes make it through the day without crying. My grief “symptoms” gradually lessened from that point on. While everyone progresses at a different rate, it does get easier.
6. Forgiveness may be needed. My grief was initially super-charged with anger towards the medical providers whose errors contributed to my father’s death. My rage also turned inward because I failed to prevent their mistakes. I had to choose to forgive the physicians, caregivers, and myself before I could move forward. One helpful tool was to express my feelings in writing. Several of my blog posts, including Faced with a Life or Death Decision, helped me process my anger and grief.
7. “Grief triggers” can occur any time. Initially a multitude of things unleashed overwhelming waves of sadness. These ranged from the obvious, like going to dad’s house, to small things, like passing the almonds and toothpicks at Walmart (two things my dad was never without). Gradually my grief triggers have become less frequent and less intense. Thankfully, some reminders (like photos) now actually make me smile, generating fond memories instead of pain. However, “sneak attacks” still come. Recently, a news story about a WWII veteran ushered in a wave of emotion because the gentleman reminded me of my dad.
8. Grievers become part of an elite club of comforters. I watched my co-worker’s eyes well with tears as she shared that her father was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer. Before I could even respond, she said, “You know. . .You know.” Several of my friends have lost parents in the months since my dad died. In each case, I didn’t have to come up with magic words to comfort them. They knew that I knew what they were going through – and that was enough.
9. Finding a “new normal” takes time. Sixteen years ago I relocated from another state with the express purpose of helping my parents. Ever since my dad passed away, there has been a void in my heart—not only because my last parent is gone, but because I lost a significant “purpose” in my life. I continue to go through the motions of living, but look forward to the time when I find my “new normal”—a state of being where I still miss my parents, but have embraced a fresh calling that propels me onward.
10. God is close to the brokenhearted. In glancing back at my grief-trail, I can testify that God was with me every step of the way. As the familiar poem “Footprints in the Sand” describes, there were times his footprints were beside mine, and other times when only one set of prints were visible because he was carrying me.  I draw comfort in knowing that Jesus not only understands my grief, He willingly bears it. Isaiah 53:3-4 (NASB) describes Christ as “. . .a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief . . . surely our griefs He Himself bore, and our sorrows He carried.”
11. Heaven grows sweeter as the days go by. The hope of heaven is becoming increasingly precious as more of my loved ones take residence there. Through faith in Christ, I look forward to being reunited with my mom, dad and others who have gone before me. As my dad sometimes sang, “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passing through.”  Heaven is indeed my true home, and one that has an increasingly stronger gravitational pull.
I hope that my reflections on grieving have somehow encouraged you. I invite you to share your additional insights in the comments section below! Grace and peace to you.
 Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, On Death and Dying
 “This World is Not My Home,” by Mary Reeves Davis (Performed by Jim Reeves)
Thank you, Jane. Your life lessons on how each person will experience and handle grief differently are a good reminder.
Thank you, Jane, for these insights which were mostly new to me. I’m sure I will need to refer to them in the years ahead!
Thank you Jane. We attended a funeral of a young 38 year old man last wednesday and I will share this with his mother in law. The man who gave the sermon at the service said many of these same things you wrote about.
Thank you Jane for these thoughts. They are ever so true and it is good to be reminded of them again. You have expressed it so well.
Thank you, Lorna!
You’re welcome, Geoff. I wish none of us had to experience loss and grief, but it is part of our experience this side of heaven!
Janna, I’m so sorry to hear of the loss of this young man. His family will be in my prayers. I am humbled that you feel the content of my blog might be helpful to the family.
Thank you so much for your comment and affirmation! Blessings on you.
Your first point about “anticipatory” grief was very helpful to me.
I’m so glad the section on anticipatory grief was helpful to you. That was a new concept to me not long ago, and it has helped me understand some of my feelings.