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5 Ways to Move Forward with Grief After a Devastating Loss

Laura Williams is a freelance writer and exercise physiologist living and working in Costa Rica. After being widowed in 2018, she started using her own grief experience to champion others navigating significant loss. She’s now working to open a grief retreat in Costa Rica and an online grief community. You can follow Brave Heart Ranch on Facebook to learn more. Read on as she shares her experience with grief — and how she’s learned to find her new path and joy after such a big loss.

5 Ways to Move Forward with Grief After a Devastating Loss by Laura Williams

I was 36 years old when my husband died after a brief and terrible battle with cancer. I was devastated. Every hope and dream I had constructed for my life — our life together — was built around and with him. I honestly didn’t feel like I could ever pick up the pieces and move forward. We had been together 18 years — my entire adult life — how could I possibly continue without him?

The thing is, I knew he didn’t want to die. He was just 41 years old. He had unrealized hopes, and dreams, and even regrets. And I knew he was terrified of leaving me alone. I knew he was fighting and holding on for me, even when his body was telling him to quit. So I made him a promise — in his last days, I promised him, “I’ll figure it out. I don’t know how I’ll be OK again, but I promise you, I’ll figure it out.” And as he took his last breaths, I promised him again that I’d be OK.

Every decision that followed was anchored in that promise. I moved forward intuitively, checking in with myself and what I needed in order to “figure it out.” It hasn’t been easy. After more than two years, I still struggle. But I can say confidently that I’m OK again. That I kept my promise. That Lance can rest easy knowing that I’m embracing the life that I have left on this earth. And now, I want to help other people who are grieving find their path forward as well. If you’re struggling, these are just a few of the ways I discovered to manage and address my own grief.

Get Into Therapy

It was about a month after Lance died that I realized I needed to find a therapist. And not just any therapist, but someone who specialized in grief and trauma. I needed an outlet and a safe place to let all of my emotions flow, to share everything that was happening in my life and the confusing complex of anger and relief and devastation and sorrow and bitterness that were constantly flowing through me. I needed tools and resources for dealing with my newfound anxiety. And I needed to know the person I was talking to wasn’t invested in my decisions or possible outcomes.

Friends and family were incredibly important for support after Lance died, but they all wanted me to “get better” and to make decisions that made sense to them, even though no one close to me (at that time) had experienced something similar. Finding my grief therapist was one of the first, best decisions that I made in my grieving process. She helped me navigate my emotions and decisions, and was able to give me feedback to let me know I wasn’t “crazy” when I made choices that caused family members to balk. She confirmed I was doing what I needed to do for my own grief process, and having her feedback helped me effectively “grab grief by the balls” and start to own my experience of grief.

Find Other People Who Are Grieving a Similar Loss

I had quite a few people suggest I get into grief support groups after Lance died. But when I realized these support groups were open to all types of losses (parents, grandparents, friends, siblings, pets), I knew instinctively it wouldn’t be a good fit for me.

Likewise, when I looked for widow support groups, they were almost always geared to older women. Which makes sense — most people lose their spouses later in life. But at that point in my grieving process, when every emotion was raw and the unfairness of the situation was beyond escape, the last thing I wanted was to hear older widows, who’d had a full life and raised families with their spouse, talk about their loss.

I needed to find people at a similar life stage and with a similar loss to share my trials and triumphs with. Of course, I knew no one who had been widowed at a young age, but I had friends of friends introduce me to a few. These relationships served as lifelines for me. I was “behind” one widow by about three months, and “ahead of” another by about six months. Both were about my age (under 40). Neither had children with their spouses, although both had wanted families.

Being able to relate intimately with other people like me in the worst parts of the grieving process helped me understand what’s “normal.” As time passed and I got more distance from my own grief, I was also able to start empathizing with other types of grief and appreciating the challenges that come with all losses, whether a spouse, a parent, a friend, or a pet. But early on? I desperately needed people who could intimately relate to my own experience because they had a similar loss.

Travel Solo

I knew that sitting at home on the weekend in the house I had shared with my husband would be a terrible idea. I knew I needed to get out and get away as much as possible. In the early months I spent a weekend at a nearby vineyard, and at a friend’s country house. Then I visited family members in Chicago and San Francisco.

These were all good trips, and important for getting out of the house, but they also felt like pressure cookers. They were always with family and friends who had seen what I went through. Who witnessed from afar the types of trials Lance and I faced. They were with people whose lives and goals had been similar to mine and Lance’s. So spending time with them after Lance died, but without Lance there, just made me feel worse. They were reminders of Lance’s absence, and how he and I would never be visiting those people together ever again. They got to continue enjoying the life they had constructed with their spouses, while mine had been ripped away from me.

This was something that was incredibly hard to explain to family, but I could not find healing or hope in these situations. I needed something new and different, because all of my life without Lance was new and different.

So for Thanksgiving, I traveled to Costa Rica. And it was there, in Costa Rica, that I was first able to experience a brief relief from my grief. I was around other people who didn’t know my history, in places I hadn’t visited with Lance, and doing new activities that spoke to the inner child in me — the person I was before I met Lance.

Being alone, and trying new things in a new place gave me the opportunity to own my grief differently. To experience it when I wanted to and to address it how I needed to, separate from the emotions or expectations or even just the watchful eyes of all the people in my life. I had the space to ask myself hard questions about who I was and who I wanted to be and what I wanted to make of the life I had left, now that I was facing it alone.

After returning from my first solo trip to Costa Rica, the experience of relief was so great that I decided to go back over and over again. After six months, I knew that Costa Rica was my calling, so I picked up and moved. It was the best decision I could have ever made.

Take Big (But Calculated) Risks

People often say you shouldn’t make any big decisions in the first year after you lose a loved one, but I don’t think that’s accurate. In the year after a close loved one dies, you have to make a shocking number of big decisions. And then you’ll feel like making numerous other decisions. And everyone in your life will have an opinion on what they think you should or shouldn’t do based on their assumptions of your experiences and circumstances.

The weight of grief combined with the weight of everyone’s spoken (or unspoken) concern and investment in your decisions can be overwhelming. And while everyone’s assuming that the grief you’re experiencing is making you weak or unsure in your decision-making, what I found is that it can actually make you strong.

What I found was that taking big (but calculated) risks helped bolster my self-efficacy in smaller choices so that I was ready to make big decisions when I needed to, regardless of what the people in my life thought. So, I jumped out of a plane. I got my first tattoo (and later, my second). I traveled solo to Costa Rica for Thanksgiving. I took up surfing and I started CrossFit.

I remember one time surfing in Costa Rica. The conditions were rough and the waves were big and choppy. And it was hard to get out past the breakers to the place where you could even try to catch a wave. I was out there with a group of people who had a lot more experience than me, and who were having every bit as hard of a time as I was. One after another, they gave up. There were only three of us left, and I wanted to quit. But I told myself, “If you can hold someone as they die, you can push yourself through these breakers.” And I did.

Grief and loss can make a person stronger and more determined. And a strong, determined person who spends time thinking about their decisions can confidently make life choices following loss, regardless of how much time has passed.

When Lance died, everything in my life broke, so it was the best time to test the waters to see which parts of my life, personality, and goals were meant to stay, and which were meant to be left behind.

Every time I did something that required inner focus, determination, and guts, and I ended up enjoying it? That gave me more confidence in my own decision making for other, life-altering changes.

It was just five months after Lance died that I quit my full-time job, and nine months after he died that I moved solo to Costa Rica. If I hadn’t pushed myself to start taking calculated risks that challenged me shortly after he died, I wouldn’t have been in the position to make the big, important, and perfect decisions I made in the first year after his death that helped get me to a place of healing.

Own Your Grief — It’s Nothing to Be Ashamed Of

It became evident very quickly following Lance’s death that people (generally) don’t know how to interact with someone who’s grieving. There’s a lot of tiptoeing around on eggshells and “there-there” pats on the back followed by quick exits, as though grief is an illness that can be “caught.”

There are also lots of cliched, “Everything happens for a reason,” and “Time heals all things,” comments that get thrown around like they actually mean something. Anyone who has experienced deep loss knows that these statements are unhelpful and false.

When people’s reactions are so often unhelpful, and sometimes outright hurtful, it’s easy to start accommodating other people’s feelings as a mechanism for self-preservation. Maybe you don’t share what you’re going through. Or you put on a happy face when you feel like you’re dying inside. Or you apologize to others when you cry or show emotion. But ultimately, “faking it” to make things easier for others (and, really, yourself), doesn’t serve to alleviate the experience of grief. It isolates you. It reminds you that your experience (even though grief is universal) isn’t something other people really want to talk honestly about.

And unfortunately, there’s not a good answer because on the one hand, not talking about grief is a form of self-preservation — you don’t want to keep getting hurt by others’ thoughtlessness — but on the other, it’s isolating and damaging. It’s a double-edged sword, and only you can decide how to proceed.

Personally, I started wielding my widowhood like a machete to “weed people out.” I brought up my widowhood and grief early and often in conversations and I watched carefully for the reactions of others. This may not have always been fair, but it gave me the chance to see who I was “safe with” emotionally, and who I needed to walk away from.

That’s the thing — when you own your grief and do so unapologetically, not everyone will respond well. But that also gives you the power to say, “well that response isn’t okay with me, so I’m going to walk away,” rather than feeling like you need to adjust your emotions to accommodate other people’s feelings.

I am a widow. It’s part of my story. It has and continues to shape every part of my life. And even after two years, my experiences of grief continue. Talking about it and owning it are how I’ve also found the courage and wherewithal to move forward with confidence. That’s a message I hope everyone can understand and resonate with.

What am I doing now?

Now I’m trying to help others manage their grief! I’m currently living and freelance writing in Costa Rica where I live with my new husband. We’re working together to open Brave Heart Ranch, a grief retreat center and online community based in the hills of Costa Rica’s Guanacaste Province. We’re promoting the Indiegogo campaign now, and need your help! Please check it out and share it with your family and friends — every donation counts.

To hear more of my story and why I want to start a ranch, check out this video. —Laura Williams

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