Everyone experiences loss, but not everyone’s grieving process follows the prescribed five stages. What happens when that model isn’t a perfect fit? That’s where Becky Aikman found herself when she was widowed in her 40s. Unexpectedly given the boot from her grief-support group, Aikman convened a gathering of like-minded “misfit” widows, in the process throwing out the book on grieving and literally writing a new one. Here, Aikman shares some of her discoveries with Chatelaine.
On not wallowing: “Many might think we spent our time together crying and being sad, when in fact we spent much more time laughing and having fun. There wasn’t much room for self-pity. There was a strong feeling we wanted to move forward. This wasn’t about wallowing and sorrow — it was about the next step.”
On being resilient: “We’re so uncomfortable with the idea of death and loss that we tend to think of it as an insurmountable incident. But it’s one of the most common human experiences. I was surprised when scientists who study grief told me it’s much more typical for someone to be resilient in the face of tragedy than to be undone by it.”
On embracing all of life: “Death used to be integrated more naturally into life. The more death occurs away from home, in hospitals, mediated by institutions, the more people find it foreign and frightening. I myself had never thought much about death. So I was completely flat-footed when it entered my life. It’s one reason why I wanted to write about it.”
On letting go of guilt: “Initially I felt guilt when I experienced pleasure or acted normal. It was a tremendous relief when I discovered that if you grieve all the time it’s very hard to break free. It’s completely natural to feel the depths of sorrow, then have bursts of humour or pleasure only to feel the depths again. If you continue this way, gradually the depths become less deep.”
On the healing message of nature: “We saw a series of Chinese watercolours of lotus blossoms on a private art tour. As soon as we saw them, our connection to them was clear: They bloom even in the mud, and the idea that something beautiful can emerge from something so dark was such a powerful image for us, and it still is.”
On the right to happiness: “‘Grief is a process of finding comfort’ is a quote I clung to after speaking to George Bonanno [a professor of psychology at Columbia and author of progressive new studies on bereavement]. It was reassuring to learn that no one should be condemned to a sad life after losing someone. We have the right to work toward being happy and fulfilled throughout our lives.”