Someone once told me that there are two types of people in the world: those who have understood the loss of a loved one and those who have not. But the world can also be separated in a different way: those who are grieving and those who are watching, hurting from watching and don’t know how to help.
I’ve been on both sides of the spectrum. As president of Penn’s grief support group, Penn Students of AMF or “Actively Moving Forward,” I’ve seen a lot of people hurt. Every time new members come to our meetings, they share a death that is relatively recent for them. Their pains bring up memories from my own high school years, when my own mom passed away after a two and a half year battle with ovarian cancer. It’s been a year and a half since she passed away, but some days it feels like it happened yesterday.
But most people at Penn don’t know that about me. Why? Because it’s a weird subject to bring up. How do you tell someone your mom died without getting the pity looks or the awkward conversation ends?
I think it can be universally acknowledged that people have no clue how to handle grief, even though it is something all of us deal with in some way, shape or form — or will have to in the future. The deaths that have recently taken place on our campus are not singular events; they create a ripple effect, with those who knew the students hurt, in shock and unsure how to move on. ?And really, how do you move on? That’s a question I still haven’t answered. But I’ll share some things I tell people in our support group meetings, and things they constantly remind me of as well.
Grieving for someone you loved does not mean you’re weak. This is something I always tend to forget. You’re going to cry. You’re going to have hard days and better days. Losing someone makes you feel vulnerable — it’s inevitable. But that does not mean you’re weak. If anything, you become stronger because of it. You find strength to get through any day, strength you had no idea you had.
There’s no time limit on grief. The “stages of grief” found in every psych textbook claim it’s all over and you’ve found inner healing by month 12. While it may be true sometimes, I haven’t found it to be. It takes more than months or years. A teacher once told me that after two years, it gets better. The truth is that it’s different for everyone, and it doesn’t just go away. You simply adapt to it, and change as a result.
Give yourself time. People have asked me, “Does it get better?” In a way, it does. You heal. Memories that once hurt become sad, then cherished. But it definitely doesn’t happen overnight. The hurt becomes healing. But even then, some days it’ll just hit you like it was yesterday. And these days usually are on the days when it’s most inconvenient for you. But if you give yourself an hour to rest, or even cry, it helps to refocus on everything that has to be done.
One of our group members told us when she starts hurting, she’ll go swim laps. Some people watch old movies. Some go on walks. The main thing is finding your own way to heal.
For the people who may not be personally grieving, but looking on:
One thing my group and I have always agreed on is that we hope our friends will treat us normally. Despite everything we’re going through, it helps to have some people in our lives that are stable — people who help us to forget about everything else going on, let us be ourselves for a little while and don’t treat us like fragile objects. And with those people, maybe then, we can start moving forward, toward a new normal.
Penn Students of AMF’s first meeting for the year is on Jan. 27 in Houston Hall 311 at 8 p.m. and is meant for students coping with the illness or death of a loved one. Visit www.facebook.com/AMFatUPenn for more information.
Melanie Wolff is a College sophomore studying international relations. She is the co-president of Penn Students of AMF, Penn’s student-run grief support network. Her email is firstname.lastname@example.org.