By John T. Catrett, III
Those hurting from the loss of loved ones describe it as feeling empty. Some people describe a physical sensation of being hollow. Others describe it as a constant state of ache and longing. The physical condition of grief is well documented, and a variety of ailments tend to vary among those who are hurting.
The basis of this emptiness tends to come down to what was once perceived as ‘the meaning or foundation of life’ is now gone. The void left can only be described as the hollow aching feeling. The desire for that which was “lost” is so high that it overshadows every other aspect of life – even that which is essential (e.g. other relationships that were highly regarded now seem unfulfilling).
A mother of loving and devoted adult children lost her spouse. She expressed how she became upset with her children because of their constant presence and that she had no privacy. She wanted some time to think. If her children saw her teary, they would often say, “Mom, you still have us.” They didn’t understand. It was hard for her to admit but she preferred them not to come by as often. It wasn’t that she didn’t love them, and she surely appreciated their devotion. It was simply: “Nothing, but my spouse could change the emptiness, longiness, and pain deep within and he was all that mattered.” Before the loss, they were filled living life, but the loss shook the world so that it holds none of the same joy anymore. Some people describe it like their soul has been dimmed.
Why do we feel so empty? It is because the people we love were a part of our purpose and drive. We made a nest in our home with them or sought their input regarding our home. We worked to give them a better life or looked to them for approval in our life choices. Somehow the loved one we’ve now lost gave us a purpose that kept us striving to move forward each day. Now our desire is damaged, even gone, and our joy has vanished. Life is meaningless. Are we nothing but robots going through the motions of duty?
This emptiness affects our identity. Our identity is forged in our relationships, roles, and occupations. The loss of a loved one, a lifelong responsibility, or career can impact each of the other two areas. Those who love us are reflecting pools of what we believe about ourselves – especially the kind and lovable things. When those pools can’t be seen, the positive things we feel about ourselves begins to dry up.
Over time, grief tends to mend the wound in our heart and soul. We will forge new identities and relationships, but takes a significant amount of time. As each season changes, we find ways to adapt, creating new meanings to frame the world. It is how we are created, and it is fully possible to still love the person who we are grieving while at simultaneously crafting a meaningful life, and become accustomed to an altered self.
Managing the emptiness by taking actions in areas where we can. Here are four basic things that we can do today that will help deal with emptiness as well as help feel more in control in our daily living:
Make routine plans to connect with people in our support network. Not only will we feel connected to others in a meaningful way and help balance out the tendency to isolate, but also calendared events give us something positive of which to look forward.
Find something meaningful to do with your time. Helping others is a great way to begin to create meaning in your everyday life! Service to others gives us the balance of perspective because we think outside of ourselves. When we can make a difference in the life of another, we feel powerful! It may be true that we can’t change our situation, but we can sure make a difference in someone else’s. There are numerous opportunities for people to volunteer, and many require only 3-6 hours per month.
Allow ourselves to have pleasant life experiences. So many times the bereaved forget to enjoy the simple pleasures of life like a good meal, beautiful surroundings, or doing something nurturing for themselves. Some bereaved persons report feeling guilty to even think of having “fun.” No one who genuinely loves us would want us to stop enjoying our life! Often, if we enjoy the things that we once enjoyed with them, we create a new type of memory with that loved one! It is a new emotional link in a healthy and healing type of way. So feel free to benefit from the beauty of nature, art, massage, or music – do what it is you enjoy! There are many ways to allow pleasant experiences to minister to us and add to our resiliency.
Let our spiritual beliefs, values, and convictions to guide us. These are at the core of our being. Even if God feels far away, the practice of one’s faith remains necessary to stay connected to our lost loved one. Other elements such as humor and creativity can also help ignite feelings of life’s meaning again over time.
Remember, that every person is different, and so everyone experiences grief differently. Those who are naturally introverted before their loss may have difficulty volunteering. If you are among them, then commit to picking one of the other suggestions to work on. Once the meaningful feelings become a part of our regular routine, then we choose another to incorporate. Each one us over time will begin to make a difference in managing the empty feelings of our grief.