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What My Father’s Death Taught Me About Handling Grief

What My Father’s Death Taught Me About Handling Grief

The first few months of this year have been filled with significant loss. My dad died in February after a rapid decline from Alzheimer’s. We knew his condition was terminal, but in December, when my siblings and I contemplated that this family Christmas gathering might be his last, we didn’t realize his death would come so imminently.

While I have lost all four of my grandparents, an uncle, and beloved friends, my dad’s death hit me in a very different way. The experience taught me important lessons about grief, and also how to be more available and empathetic to others who experience loss.

Grief-adjacent vs. grief-stricken.

I attended the 2018 TEDWomen conference and heard Nora McInerny deliver her heartbreaking and hilarious TEDTalk about loss and dealing with life’s hardest moments.

While I loved her message at the time, I had no idea how much more resonant it would be three months later when my dad died. Nora spoke about how the well-meaning words of others helped her reframe her husband’s death.

Perhaps you’ve heard the adage that, “In time, you will move on from grief.” I don’t believe there is an expiration date for grieving a loved one, and Nora shared her personal insight, which gave me permission to look at grief differently.

Don’t leave those moments behind…it’s okay to speak about your loved one in the present tense. The people we love are still present for us. Aaron [her first husband] is indelible and present for me. I’ve not moved on - I’ve moved forward with him.

Nora shared that we get another chapter in which to live our lives. Love and grief are not opposing forces, but strands of the same thread.

[Related: 10 Things I Learned from Sheryl Sandberg's New Class About Resiliency]

What to say.

When my dad died, we commemorated his life with a traditional Catholic wake, a funeral mass, an internment ceremony at the mausoleum, and a brunch for family and friends. The two-day marathon that encapsulated these events was a roller coaster of emotions.

My mother, the primary care-giver for my dad during his debilitating journey with Alzheimer’s, was the quintessential host, greeting each person who traveled near and far to honor my dad with charm and grace. My siblings and I watched in awe as she held it all together while we succumbed to fits and starts of emotional breakdowns. My mom prefers to cry in private.

After it was all over, my family finally exhaled and debriefed about the experience. My mom candidly shared how frustrating it was when people asked, “How are you doing?” Her husband just died after a difficult journey with a devastating illness – how did they think she was doing?

While I know the question was well-meaning, a reframed version can better acknowledge the pain and grief a person is experiencing and offer an empathetic response. Consider:

  • “It’s really tough for you right now.”
  • “I’m sorry you are suffering.”
  • “You must really miss him/her.”

“Acknowledge that what they’re going through right now is very painful,” says Rebecca Soffer, CEO of Modern Loss. Don’t gloss over their feelings — let them have the chance to grieve fully and without judgment.”

Be proactive and do something.

Another teachable moment for me came after so many well-intentioned people asked, “What can I do?” or, “Do you need anything?” My grief-stricken brain fog did not give me clarity about what I actually needed.

Instead of asking what you can do, reframe this as an opportunity to be proactive and do something. Whether you nourish a grieving family with food, cards, flowers, or contributions to a meaningful charity, actually doing something - rather than asking a grieving person what you should do - can make a powerful impact. A gift of service as simple as a grocery run, walking a dog, or driving a carpool shift can be incredibly helpful.

The days and weeks after the cards, flowers, and hot dishes stop can be very lonely. Consider how you can do something that will bring peace and comfort to those grieving after time has passed.

[Related: Losing My Mother Inspired Me to Help Others -- Like You]

Crying is nature’s catharsis.

The epigram from early the American writer Christian Nevell Bovee is powerful: “Tearless grief bleeds inwardly.”

While I recognize that everyone processes grief in their own way, my experience is that crying is emotionally and physically cathartic. It can help in the healing process, and according to Lauren Bylsma, psychiatry professor at the University of Pittsburgh:

When people hold back their tears, it does seem to lead to mental and physical problems. It takes a lot of effort to hold back tears.

While I continue to do my fair share of crying as I grieve my dad, what surprises me are the triggers that bring on emotions. Not all of the memory triggers are sad, yet the unexpected emotional sparks can launch me into welled-up eyes, or full out ugly-crying.

The ugly-cry (for me) is deep, red faced, uncontrollable sobbing, and while it may freak out those in my radius, it does lead to an emotional calm after the crying storm. Nora McInerny spoke about “not getting your sad on other people” in her TEDTalk and how many people can’t handle being near someone who is sorrowful. I am grateful for those who gave me permission to get my cry on in their presence, and I vow to be there for others moving forward. A safe space to cry is vital for our humanity.

Self-care is essential.

One of the most important gifts my closest friends shared was the gentle reminder about self-care as I grieve. Grief can be exhausting and debilitating emotionally, so honoring your mind, body, and spirit is essential to your wellbeing. These tips by Heather Strang really help me cope:

Be kind to yourself.

Grief is painful, and self-compassion has tremendous healing power.


Grief-related insomnia is common, so experiment with different ways to get back to a healthy sleep pattern. Try meditation, mild stretching, increasing your exposure to sunlight, or a bedtime ritual to help you regain your restorative sleep.

Eat healthy, drink water.

A dear friend reminded me that crying is dehydrating. Nourishing your body with healthy food and water will help your physical and mental state.

Connect with others.

Spend time with others with whom you can be your authentic self. Connect with people who can be compassionate listeners, and lend your support to others in need.

Move your body.

Through exercise, you build your physical strength, release tension, enliven yourself, and keep yourself well. Exercise also releases endorphins that will lift your mood.

Express and create.

According to Brene Brown, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.” Keep a journal or tap your creative talents in some way to express yourself on this new journey.

  • Acknowledge the important people in your life and tell them you love them.
  • Apologize to those you love if you hurt them.
  • Express gratitude and appreciation for the love and care you receive.
  • Remember the cherished moments of your life.

My family came together stronger than ever when my dad died. We celebrated his life and shared wonderful memories that will help us move forward together.

[Related: Why Planning Ahead Matters in Life & Death]


Caroline Dowd-Higgins authored the book "This Is Not the Career I Ordered," now in its second edition, and maintains the career reinvention blog of the same name. She is Executive Director of Career and Professional Development at the Indiana University Alumni Association and contributes to Medium, Huffington Post, Thrive Global, Ellevate Network, and The Chronicle newspaper in Indiana. She hosts and produces an online show, Thrive!, about career and life empowerment for women on YouTube. Caroline also hosts the international podcast series Your Working Life - on iTunes and SoundCloud. Follow her on Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, and Twitter.

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