The Wonders of Grief

Topics: Grief
Photo of Mom's calendar with garden and October 19th circled

October 19, 2018

Today is my mother’s birthday. I thought long about what to do on this day to recognize it and to get myself through it.

I decided to make the class I need to help me with the holiday season that starts, for me, today. It is my hope that if you are out there in the world missing someone or something you lost, you might find a bit of solace from my work here.

Maybe someone you love died. Maybe they were a parent or a child or a pet. Maybe you have just been through a divorce or other family ending. Maybe your grown child moved away. Maybe you finished a project you had worked on for years and it was time to let it go even though you weren’t able to make it the way you had dreamed it would be.

I have experienced all of these and a few more. As I look around me, I think these are about the average number of losses for someone my age. But whether my losses are average or not, grief comes in many forms and has taught me lessons I never wanted to learn.

For today, I’m offering you this piece I’m calling a Grief Care Plan. Mom was a nurse as well as an artist. She used care plans to map out the ways she would work to heal patients and track the effectiveness of the treatment. A care plan feels like the right thing for this squeezing sadness even if I won’t be measuring outcomes in the same methodical way a trained RN would do.

You can read it below. You can download a Word document of Karrie’s Grief Care Plan to print or email. You can pass it around if you think it might help someone. You can add things to it that you’ve discovered and send it back to me or on to others who need it. You can take out parts or add photos. It is my gift to you and to my mom.

Then on November 1st, The Day of the Dead, I’ll launch a four-week course on making a Book of Grief. Stay tuned for more details on that if you are interested.

The Grief Care Plan: How to Keep Living When They Left and You Can’t

“You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly—that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”

-Anne Lamott

1. Be gentle with yourself. My friend suggested this to me as it became apparent that my mother was gravely ill and caring for her became consuming. At first, my inner compassion helped because whenever I missed an appointment or forgot something important like a bill or my son’s swimming lesson, I did not beat myself up or question why I would do such a thing. I was losing my mother and this gave me a sort of pass on being a productive citizen. It helped tremendously to ease the mental stress and let me do my best on the things that mattered most.

After she died, I took it to mean I should stop looking for ways I should have done things better for her. I knew deep in my heart I did my very best, but the grief pulled me into a vortex of ‘what ifs.’ I wrote before about how regret plays a role in grief whenever we lose a loved one, I believe this is because, no matter how well we have loved someone, we are bound to fall short. Because we are human.

Recently, I discovered Guy Winch and his video on Emotional First Aid. In it, Winch insists that beating yourself up after suffering a serious loss or during a time of emotional trauma is much like taking a cleaver and cutting the wound deeper after you accidentally slice your finger while chopping the vegetables. We teach our children from a young age to use soap and water and apply a bandage after they get physically hurt. It’s vitally important to take similar measures when we are psychologically wounded. Even small moments of distraction when you find yourself in the vortex can help you put that mental cleaver back down again.

2. Make the world stop for only you. When my father died in 2011, a friend and pastor told me that the world would not stop. People would continue going to work and doing their grocery shopping just like always in spite of how shattered I was. But, she said, I could make my own world stop on occasion when I needed to. So I did. I worked on a Book of Grief for Dad, drawing pictures and writing memories and taking photos of my favorite places with him. I took days off work and went to visit the island where he was born with my mother and sons. And I took days off to go there by myself.

It was soothing to make things stop and also empowering. Losing someone so close changes everything for the person who lost and lasts long after our friends and family have left us at the memorial.

3. Remember the good things about your loved one when you are ready. In the beginning, I have found thinking even of happy times can be unbearable. In a grief group I attended, a young woman who recently lost someone said she didn’t understand how remembering the good times would help when she could never have those times again. She was right and in the early days this can be overwhelmingly painful. As time goes on, you may find the memories are sweeter and it is far better to think of lost loved ones than to forget them.

4. Make something. Insomnia was a savage beast I faced when I first lost my mother. A counselor recommended I not lay there spinning but find a way to get the pain out. Again I turned to a Book of Grief and then began to carry it around with me like a touchstone. You can make books of memories like I do. You can carve wood, paint large canvases, play music, or even smash pottery and fix it to the wall of a laundry room like the grief and anger stricken character I once saw  in How to Make an American Quilt. (I haven’t tried this but have so wanted to on occasion.) Whatever you do to express your pain lets it out and gives it shape in the world. This can make all the difference when it comes to letting out the festering emotional pain and getting to sleep at night.

5. Look for small ways to care for others. Send cards when you hear others have lost someone. Reach out to them and really listen when you can. Share the beauty and love you discover with those around you. This does not mean you overstretch yourself or to stop caring for your own needs. But when you take the time to comfort someone even for just the time it takes to touch their shoulder, it lets you feel connected and gives you a sense of your wholeness even as you continue to soothe your own broken heart.

6. Deliberately look for joy and laughter. Making a conscious effort to look for the good, to hug the loved ones still in this world, to find something that makes you laugh like the second Incredibles movie and that scene with Jack Jack and the raccoon. These are all small joys that heal.

A part of me worries that if I have a good time, it means I love my mom less. Because of this irrational and normal fear, I have a two page spread in my Book of Grief called ‘Honoring my mom with a life filled with joy.’ Here I pasted photos of me smiling. I know she wanted me to live life to the fullest even with all its pain and especially with all the joy wherever I can find it. I do this now for my children, my husband, for my late parents, and for myself.

I’m sure you know I don’t have all the answers. These are just the things I have learned because I have lost people I cannot live without and had to do it anyway. They are the ways I have found to begin dancing with my scars and limps. This list is my birthday present to my mom.

And to you.

May you know grace and peace in the midst of life’s pain.



photo of Book of Grief with plants in the studio background


About the author: Karrie Zylstra Myton is a blogger, essayist, and aspiring author who writes for the wild joy it brings on the best days and the hard lessons she learns about life on the worst. After crafting stories in the ridiculously early morning hours, she chases her two sons, cuddles with cats, and laughs with her husband about how crazy life can get in middle age.

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Karen McCoy October 19, 2018, 12:53 PM

    Thank you Karrie. Your mom was special to me and I feel your pain. You are right in that grief never goes away we just learn to live with it.I have found sharing with others about my brother who now has been gone almost 21 years. I still can hear him laughing and telling stories. Yes there are still tears but memories do help.

    • Karrie Zylstra October 19, 2018, 3:35 PM

      It really helps when people tell me how much she meant to them, Karen. Thank you. And I am sorry about your brother. We just never get our loved ones long enough. Never. And sometimes the time we get is tragically short. All my best to you in your own journey.

  • Brock Zylstra October 22, 2018, 3:10 PM

    Excellent words. So true. Thank you for the reminder….

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