Five years ago, Jill Smolowe experienced a lifetime of grief squeezed into less than a year and a half. Over the course of 17 months, the 58-year old Smolowe lost her husband, sister, mother and mother-in-law. She recounts the life-altering experience in her new memoir Four Funerals and a Wedding: Resilience in a Time of Grief. The book’s title serves as its own spoiler, giving away the improbably happy ending to Smolowe’s journey through the grieving process. That upbeat endnote—her own new marriage, a few years after her husband’s death—was just the largest of many surprises she experienced along the way. It turns out that pretty much everything Smolowe thought she knew about grief was wrong.
“I’m hoping to enlarge our understanding of grief,” says Smolowe, a longtime staff writer at People who now also counsels clients as a grief and transitions coach. In that role, she counsels clients about how to handle all kinds of loss, from the death of a loved one to the ending of a marriage.
Here, in Smolowe’s own words, are five surprising, hard-earned lessons she learned about coping, grief and loss over that difficult time in her life.
1. You are prepared to handle grief.
“When my husband was first diagnosed with leukemia, it was one of those before-and-after moments in life. I began to process the thought that I might lose him. What I learned is that we all have our modes for dealing with upset, crisis, whatever. And those will kick in to play. You do know what you need. Loss shows up in so many different ways in our lives. We think that grief over a death is something completely divorced from anything we’ve known before. But in my experience, it’s not. You actually know what your best coping strategies are. What becomes harder is that the people who surround you may not allow room for that.”
2. When you first learn of a friend in mourning, write don’t call.
“I would not pick up the phone or rush to someone’s house—that’s really a demand that the person deal with you right there, right then. People’s intentions are good; I think most just don’t have a good sense of how to be helpful. So email is a wonderful vehicle to communicate your concerns and your availability to help out. That enables the person to respond when she’s ready. Find specific ways you can help. It’s much better to offer something specific than to say, “Anything you need, just call.” Anything kind of comes down to nothing. It’s too big. You’re asking the person to take that on, too.”
3. Resilience means you stay engaged with your life.
“The majority of people who go into a mourning or a bereavement phase are actually resilient. But resilience is like a wave. There are good days and bad. The key is that people who are resilient don’t lose sight of or track of the good things in their lives. They don’t just let go of everything. If we can help people reframe what they’re looking at, if they can shift their lens a little bit and feel grateful for things that are there, they can realize that not everything has shattered. The story is not about how your life comes apart but about how you hold it together.”
4. It will not look like the movies.
“The image of grieving that I had was ‘I’m going to get in my bed, pull the sheets over my head and just stay there.’ And yet there was never a day when I actually wanted to do that. I realized later that that was this cultural script about grief that gave me that idea. In every sad movie, there’s somebody in grief walking the beach and looking at the horizon, and then they’re in the closet sniffing the shirt and then they’re curled up and somebody’s bringing them chicken noodle soup. But that’s actually not what it looks like for most people.
5. Your way is the right way.
“Loss is universal. Grief is personal. Each person who is mourning a loss should feel free to let people know what he needs. And at the same time that supporting cast of friends and relatives should be alert to those needs. Don’t make assumptions. Don’t project what you think somebody needs. The biggest projection I had was ‘Oh, she’s lost her husband, or her husband is deathly ill, she must only be thinking about that, she must only be capable of talking about that, so I must ask her about that.’ In my case, that was exactly not what I needed. I could worry all on my own. What I needed was for people to remind me there were other parts of my life that were still in place. I needed to talk about politics and books and the weather and my dog and my daughter. I needed other parts of my life to remain steady.”