You can understand grief in the abstract sense – unless it’s happening to you. When you lose a loved one for any reason, grief is almost inevitable. But when you lose a loved one because of drunk driving, the senselessness of the tragedy combines with the incalculable loss to lock you in a vise grip of grief. It’s no longer abstract. It’s real. And it hurts. All you want is for it to stop, for things to go back to the way they were: to have your loved one back. But that isn’t possible. You know it intuitively. You’re stuck in grief. What can you do? There are no easy answers at a time like this. Anyone who tells you there are isn’t being honest or helpful or at all kind. It may help, however, to look at some ways of dealing with your grief that may somewhat ease the pain – at least for now, for a little while, until you can find the strength and courage to go on.
Grief is the Normal Response to Loss
First of all, there’s nothing abnormal about feeling grief after the loss of a loved one. Grief is the normal response of sorrow, confusion, and emotion when you lose someone important to you. Grief is actually a typical response to loss due to death, divorce, loss of a job, relocation away from family and friends, and loss of health due to illness. It’s the suddenness of the loss of your loved one as a result of drunk driving that eats away at you. Just turn back the clock, you tell yourself. If it’s yesterday and your loved one took a different way home, or didn’t drive, or walked an alternate route… he or she wouldn’t have been killed by a drunk driver. Or, worse yet, if you hadn’t been drinking and then got behind the wheel, your spouse or child or sibling or other loved one would still be alive today. Grief may be the normal response to loss, but how can you deal with it, anyway?
Recognizing Signs of Grief
Everyone processes grief a little differently. Some bury it deep, refusing to acknowledge facts. Others weep openly and profusely, unable to stop. You may think that you, or other family members, are handling their grief well when, in fact, they’re falling apart inside. Signs of grief include feelings of being empty or numb, as if you’re in shock. Many people who are grieving may experience trembling, nausea, dry mouth, trouble eating, inability to sleep, difficulty breathing, and muscle weakness. Anger may erupt at the least provocation – or none at all. Comments such as “I should have” or “I could have” are very common, and are manifestations of guilt, a component of grief. Strange, vivid dreams or nightmares, no desire to go back to work or go out at all, withdrawing socially, isolation from other family members, absentmindedness – all these are more signs of grief. The only good thing that you can say about these feelings and behaviors of grief – beyond that they are normal responses to loss – are that they usually are brief.
Grief Lasts Differently for Everyone
Don’t be concerned if others think that you should be getting over your loss after a period of time goes by. Everyone processes grief differently. What you feel and how you react to those feelings of grief may be totally unlike that of your other family members. There is no right or wrong length of time for grief to last. Grief counselors and psychiatrists say that grief lasts as long as it takes for you to accept and learn to live with your profound loss. For some, that is only a short period of time, weeks or months. For others, it may be years before they can fully come to grips with their grief. How close you were to the loved one plays a big part in how long you may grieve. Other factors to take into consideration about the length of grieving time include your personality, culture, coping style, health, family background, and other life experiences. Someone who has dealt with a great deal of grief or crises in the past may be a bit more prepared to handle the loss of a loved one due to drunk driving. But this is not always the case. When the loss is this close, it’s too inextricably entwined with your family dynamic, your overall sense of stability, or your role as spouse, parent, sibling, or other family member. If you seem to be able to better handle your day-to-day responsibilities and routine than others in the family, it only means that you have come to the point where you have accepted and are learning to live with your loss. Your other loved ones may need more time. You need to give it to them, being sensitive and mindful that each processes their grief uniquely and according to their own timetable.
Overcoming Grief is a Four-Step Process
There are countless books and articles on dealing with grief, explanations of the grief stages and process that you can read. Some are spiritually-based, while others deal in more practical terms such as how to get through the day, what to do with your loved one’s clothing and personal items, how and when and how much to talk about your loved one who died as a result of drunk driving. But everyone who grieves must go through a four-step process to overcome it. In essence, they need to:
- Accept the loss
- Work through and actually feel the physical and emotional pain of grief
- Adjust to going on living in the world without the person lost
- Move on with life
Grief versus Depression
Sometimes those who are stuck in grief may actually be suffering from depression. This is something that goes beyond normal grief. Clinical depression actually takes over the entire body, with symptoms that are distinctly different – and yet similar – to those of grief. Symptoms of depression include:
- Loss of interest in things you used to enjoy
- Persistent feeling of sadness, emptiness, or anxiousness that won’t go away
- Feeling gloomy or hopeless
- Feeling helpless, worthless, or guilty
- Fatigue, low energy, feeling as if you’re “slowed down”
- Recurring aches and pains that don’t respond well to any treatment
- Changes in sleep patterns or inability to sleep through the night
- Loss of appetite, weight gain or loss
- Trouble making decisions, concentrating, or remembering things
- Thoughts of death, suicide, or attempts at suicide
It’s important to note that if you’re feeling or experiencing any of these symptoms of depression, they could be part of normal grieving. But if they persist without any letup or lessening of severity, ask for help. Clinical depression can be treated. There’s no need to suffer needlessly.
Should You See a Psychiatrist?
If your grief continues to be unbearable, with or without depression, you may want to consider seeing a psychiatrist or going into grief counseling. Some individuals do better in the four stages of grief by doing it on their own, at their own pace, but others may be so debilitated by the loss that their everyday functioning is seriously compromised. They may not be able to take care of other children in the household, or even take proper care of themselves. If the death of your loved one due to drunk driving was your fault, you may have considerable guilt and self-loathing to overcome in addition to normal grief response. You may not be able to process the grief without professional help. If your reaction to the grief is to plunge even further into alcohol or drugs to escape the pain, you are only doing yourself and the memory of your loved one a disservice. The best thing you can do now is to get professional help, either by seeing your doctor and asking for a referral to a counselor or going into a treatment program to overcome substance abuse or dependence. You will still need to process your grief, but you will learn how to do so without saddling yourself with self-destructive addictions.
Things You Can Do to Get Unstuck from Grief
Despite your loved one’s loss, life still goes on. This may sound harsh and inconsiderate, but it isn’t meant to be. It’s simply recognition of the fact that you are still breathing and alive, and so are others. Family members around you still need care and attention and love. Coming out of your grief is something that you will do eventually. To make it a little easier, you may wish to try some or all of the following:
- Resume your normal life as soon as possible. Of course, this is the last thing that you feel like doing. How could you? You’re too raw and vulnerable. But it’s the routine, the daily schedule that will help lift you from the black pit of pain. There’s the housework that needs to be done, meals to make for the family and yourself. There’s your job that you can’t stay away from for an extended period before you may put your employment in jeopardy. Even personal daily responsibilities help you to put some semblance of order back into your life. And you need this.
- Spend time with friends and family members. – Now is the time when you need to be in the company of others that you are close to. Friends and family members can be the best balm to ease your aching heart. Feel free to talk about your loved one who died as a result of drunk driving. Share stories and laughter and tears. It’s good to purge, good to reminisce, good and healing to share your memories of your loved one with others. It doesn’t have to be a big deal. It can be a small get-together at your home or a neutral place like a park. Go on a picnic or to the beach. Attend a religious service. Just being with your friends and family will give you a respite from the pain that will help it gradually ease.
- Engage in physical activity. – Vigorous exercise, such as walking, hiking, going to the gym for a workout, swimming, jogging, or playing various games or sports will help you by releasing tension both physically and mentally. When you engage in physical activity, aim for at least 20 minutes to a half hour to start and gradually work up to an hour. Do these activities three to five days a week.
- Learn something new. – When you involve your mind by learning some new activity or pursuing knowledge – whether it’s a hobby or craft or getting a degree or how to cross-country ski – you are not only helping to overcome grief, you are also gaining knowledge or skill.
- Take a trip. Maybe you’ve been putting off taking that trip you’ve wanted. Now may be a good time to go. Travel to different places. It can be an extended trip or a weekend, or even a day trip. Extend a business trip to see the sights or take in cultural events and exhibits. Make it a combination trip – to get away and to learn something new. Being with and meeting new people and being in different surroundings helps extend your world view and bring you out of grief in a healthy way.
- Meditate or enrich your spirituality. Meditation helps many people to overcome their grief. Others find peace through their religion or by exploring and enriching their spirituality.
- Get involved in a cause or take part in a support group. – Some parents of children who died as a result of drunk driving work through their grief by getting involved in a cause. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) is one organization that has been very effective in helping to raise awareness about drunk driving, to stop drunk driving, and to help the victims of drunk driving – as well as working to prevent underage drinking. In fact, MADD was founded by Candice Lightner, whose 13-year-old daughter Carrie was struck and killed by a drunk driver. Support groups for bereaved parents and families may be another lifeline that may help. Just knowing that you’re not alone in what you’re feeling, that others have gone through this and are there to support and encourage you can make a world of difference as you try to get unstuck from your grief. Take whatever works for you and use it. If you still find yourself mired in grief and nothing is lessening the pain, by all means go for professional counseling. It doesn’t mean you’re weak to ask for help overcoming grief. It’s a realization that you need outside counseling to help you make sense of this paralyzing state of grief and take steps to gradually come out of it. Finally, be comforted in the knowledge that grief does eventually subside. Don’t be too hard on yourself or others as you and they work through the grief stages. Remember your loved one and take your own time as you adjust to life without him or her. What may seem impossible today will be easier over time.
Resources Online Grief can cripple you anytime of the day or night. But help is always available through online resources. Here are some that you may wish to check out further. As you explore each site, there are books and links to other websites and email or chat forms of communication that you may find useful.
- GriefNet.org – GriefNet.org is an Internet community of persons dealing with grief, death, and major loss. The community has almost 50 email support groups and two websites, including KidSaid.com, a safe place for kids to help each other deal with grief and loss.
- Bereaved Parents of the USA – Bereaved Parents of the USA is a national, nonprofit, self-help group whose aim is to support bereaved parents and their families who are struggling to survive their grief after the death of a child. The organization is open to all parents, grandparents, or siblings, regardless of the age or circumstances of the death of the child, grandchild, or sibling.
- Compassionate Friends – This national, nonprofit, self-help support organization has nearly 600 chapters and offers friendship, understanding, and hope to families grieving the death of a child of any age from any cause. There is no religious affiliation.
- Fernside – This organization offers grief information, resources, and support for grieving children and their families.