“Grief is chaotic and messy and hard,” writes Debbie Augenthaler. And yet grief is also an invitation to see the world differently — aware of what we have lost and in appreciation of what remains.
In her new book, You Are Not Alone: A Heartfelt Guide for Grief, Healing, and Hope, Augenthaler draws upon her own trauma — losing her husband suddenly and tragically to an aortic aneurysm at only 45 years old — and her clinical experience as a psychotherapist specializing in trauma and grief to offer hope, encouragement, and understanding for those struggling with loss.
“The moments before and the moments right after someone dies are etched in your mind with crystal clarity,” writes Augenthaler.
Describing that day her husband, Jim, died, Augenthaler offers a vivid recollection. She writes, “‘Stop it, this is not funny, Jim,’ I say as I jump on the bed beside him. I want to pull this moment into all the other moments Jim plays jokes on me.”
Death, Augenthaler tells us, is difficult to comprehend. In our efforts to deny the unbelievable, we bargain, deny, attempt to escape the overwhelming feelings that threaten to take us over.
We often replay the moments before death endlessly, as if the effort itself can change what has already transpired. “It’s a natural response; because the world feels scary and out of control, and we feel helpless and wish we could change the outcome,” writes Augenthaler.
Death is also a division and we find ourselves caught between two harsh realities — what was and what now is. Augenthaler writes, “It is overwhelming to face the reality of what’s happened.”
Yet while we may cling to the world before, somewhere in the space between, we often have experiences that are magical and mystical.
“Spirit lives on,” writes Augenthaler. “The connected bond of love doesn’t end.” But walking forward into our new realities is painful, and each step is another reminder that our loved ones are gone.
“As each day goes by, the impact of my loss grows. Not only is my husband gone, I have lost my best friend, my lover, my rock. I have lost our future together. Now I have to confront the reality alone,” Augenthaler says.
The natural question grief brings is: Who are we now? With each day and each decision, we are further confronted with new realities, new losses like fresh wounds, each warranting their own mourning.
We can also feel detached from those around us. Augenthaler explains this feeling, saying, “I am different now, in an instant becoming someone I don’t recognize. The rest of the world feels divided from me in an invisible force field.”
Sometimes the pressure to keep it all together, to avoid making others uncomfortable with our grief, stymies what grief requires — a letting go. “We want to wail and keen,” writes Augenthaler. “And it’s healthy to do so, to let it out and to feel your feelings. Many cultures acknowledge this basic human need when grieving.”
The effort of moving forward into a world without the one we have lost is nearly impossible to comprehend, and it is normal to simply not want to. Augenthaler describes luring herself back to eating with the smell of cinnamon toast, which becomes as much a ritual as it does a simplification of the act of eating.
She writes, “Ice cream may be all you can manage to swallow for a while. It may be the only thing that comforts you. For me it was cinnamon toast. And marshmallow fluff spooned out of the jar — it was soft and easy to swallow.”
There is no way around the discomfort grief brings. There is no right way to grieve. And there is no way to simplify grief.
“The only way out of grief is to go through it,” explains Augenthaler.
We may move from despair to rage and back to despondency, and yet often, when we are at our lowest point, there is a subtle shift where we become open to the possibility of something transformative, even spiritual.
“You will feel the shift; you will know it. You’ll hear the sounds of life again, feel the wind, breathe in a sunny day, something will happen and the awareness of the shift will be clear. Like having lived through a very long storm and then one morning the sun comes out,” writes Augenthaler.
Healing is an awakening to the new, with keen senses, an expanded heart and a connection to those around us that runs deeper — unafraid of grief and aware of the transformation it offers.
You Are Not Alone is not just a guide to healing from grief. It is a story full of tender moments, heart wrenching memories and compassionate wisdom. For anyone coping loss, it is an invaluable read.
You Are Not Alone: A Heartfelt Guide for Grief, Healing, and Hope
Everystep Publications, May 2018 (Self-published)
Paperback, 245 pages