No one is born knowing how to cope with the wave of grief that follows the death of someone we love. As a psychotherapist who’s worked with many grievers, I know when faced with overwhelming grief, many people feel like they are alone in what they’re experiencing and can feel like they’re going crazy. Helen Keller wrote, “We bereaved are not alone. We belong to the largest company in the world—the company of those who have known suffering.” The death of someone we love shatters us, yet in our grief-phobic society, we don’t often talk about death until our own world breaks apart with the loss of someone we love.
My husband Jim died suddenly, in my arms, from a heart attack. I was thirty-six years old and he was only forty-five. When Jim died, all our together dreams, including trying to have a child, died in my arms too. I have experienced a lot of loss in my life, but nothing prepared me for losing him. The loss was immeasurable.
Though I was devastated and felt broken, I continued to work and carry on my professional and personal obligations, as if I was wearing a mask to cover the pain. I survived thanks to the constant support of family and friends, and my therapist, who was crucial to my healing. I became a therapist because I wanted to help others like she helped me.
I wrote You Are Not Alone, A Heartfelt Guide to Grief, Healing, and Hope so I can help more people than I can one-on-one in my therapy practice. This is the book I wish I’d had when I was newly grieving and feeling hopeless. My story, coupled with my professional experience and training, offers healing insights to help guide the reader, and those who want to help, through grief and healing, along with simple suggestions of things to do that can be helpful along the way. I want to instill hope at a time when there may be none. With the connection of a shared experience, I gently guide the reader through grief to transformation and a new beginning.
Many of the experiences and feelings from my personal story are similar to the ones I’ve heard repeatedly from my clients and many others who are grieving. I share my story because it helps grievers to know they are not alone in how they are feeling. It helps to hear other people’s stories and how they coped and survived. It gives the hope that they will survive too. When my husband died, I couldn’t find a book to speak to the part of me that needed to know someone else had felt this way and had survived. I wanted to read a book by someone who “got” what was happening to me. And I get it. You Are Not Alone is about hope.
Grief Is Not Linear
Almost all of us are familiar with the five stages of grief – denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. I went back and forth through these stages for years. It’s important to remember that grief is not linear, and these stages, or phases as I like to call them, are not an orderly progression. There is no timetable. We all grieve in our own way, in our own time. Don’t let anyone tell you how to grieve.
It’s Okay To Be a Griever
We live in a grief-phobic society, with what I call the unwritten rules of grief: Please don’t make a scene, don’t make us uncomfortable, and please keep the messiness private. I tried my best to “behave” in social settings when I was grieving. These unspoken rules are there to help others feel more comfortable with your grief. Grief is messy, and it’s okay to be a griever! I am so delighted to have watched NBC’s show This is Us, which explores a whole family handling grief, in their own individual ways. Shows like this start a much-needed dialogue about how grief shapes our futures.
It’s Not About You, It’s About Them
The best friend of someone I know died two days after delivering a healthy baby. The children next door drew pictures with crayons and put them under the family’s front door. The children wrote, “Sorry Terry died but glad the baby lived.” And, “Sorry you are so sad, but Happy Fourth of July!” People often don’t know what to say, and sometimes stumble into saying something hurtful or inappropriate. It’s hard to remember their words are not meant to hurt you, and that this is not about you, but about them.
The more we discuss grief and are there for each other, the more we will learn how to help each other through our most challenging times. Because we need so much more than a sorry—we need someone to look into our eyes and not be afraid of the river of tears.
The Gifts of Loss
Rumi wrote “it may take years to realize what was calamitous at the time was instrumental in your spiritual growth.” When Jim first died, if someone told me one day many gifts would come from the experience, I would not have believed them. But I’ve learned there are many gifts that come with loss, including spiritual awakenings and discovering the connected bond of eternal love. We often develop a deeper compassion for others when we have been so emotionally stripped, realizing the sacredness in the life cycle, and that grief is not a sign of weakness, but ultimately one of power.
Grief is a part of life we must embrace. Many people are grieving, feeling alone and overwhelmed. It’s important to remember that tears are like small messengers of unspeakable, indescribable love. With the tumultuous events and tragedies occurring almost daily in our world, it is time we work together to normalize the grieving process, and be fully present with each other through the messiest times of grief. My book and its message are my offering toward hope, healing, and transformation.
About Debbie Augenthaler, LMHC, NCC
Debbie is a psychotherapist in private practice in New York City, where she has specialized in trauma, grief, and loss. Her husband, Jim, died suddenly in her arms when she was only 36 years old. He had been healthy and vibrant – the doctors compared the probability of his death by heart attack to being struck by lightning. That lightning strike ended her life as she knew it and thus began the “baptism by fire” that brought her to her new future.
Debbie’s book, You Are Not Alone: A Heartfelt Guide for Grief, Healing, and Hope (May 2018), is the book she wishes she’d had when she was grieving, and wishes she had now to offer clients experiencing life-altering losses. With the connection of a shared experience, Debbie guides the reader through grief to transformation and a new beginning.
Debbie has as Master’s Degree in Counseling for Mental Health and Wellness from New York University. She has completed a two year post graduate Advanced Trauma Studies program from the Institute of Contemporary Psychotherapy and is trained in various modalities that inform a holistically based practice including EMDR, Internal Family Systems, Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, Energy Psychology, and Hypnosis. In 2012 she received the NYU Steinhardt Award for Outstanding Clinical Service.