We enter this world without an instruction manual, and religious beliefs aside, we leave the same way. We are never prepared to say good-bye to someone we love. Our faith can provide a measure of comfort, but the everyday reality of life without our loved ones can only be lived, one agonizing moment at a time.

That first night alone in an empty bed. The first time we pick up the phone to call them. A birthday, an anniversary--all those "firsts"; all those remembrances…

Nothing can prepare us to continue our lives without someone who is intimately connected to our very being. So we take one torturous step forward—then another. Slowly—painfully, we emerge from the comforting cocoon of our grief and try to forge a life without the one we thought we could never live without.

We grieve in different ways, yet there are some shared rituals.  Memorial services are an opportunity to celebrate this gift of life and what we do with it. Graveside prayers and the scattering of ashes are a type of closure for many.

But closure itself is such a strange word when referring to a life. We don't "close" the door on our life with our loved ones. We can't put them in the past and walk away.

But we do need to learn to adapt to this new version of OUR lives. This version where their earthly life IS in the past. Where we must find a way to go on without their physical presence beside us. And yes, where we are challenged to find peace, joy and even love in what remains of our time here on earth.

I read recently that Patrick Swayze's widow Lisa Niemi, still sends text messages to Patrick, just like she always did. Some people refuse to erase the answering machine with their loved one's voice on it. Others can't part with their clothes. Some preserve their rooms as if they might walk back into them at any moment. I can't seem to remove their name from my address book.

Such small ways of acknowledging the existence of our loved ones' lives and mark the fact that they were HERE. But when does our reluctance to let go become an inability to go on?

Judaism has a structured 3-stage approach to mourning designed to help the grieving cope with their loss and ease back into their daily lives. Most cultures and religions observe some widely accepted customs and periods of mourning that historically have ranged from 3 days to two years or beyond. And while these traditions provide society with guidelines, the very fact that they differ so drastically gives us some insight into how individual the grief process really is.

But one thing remains constant for those who are able to navigate through the despair—time DOES make a difference. Getting through the first year of "firsts" is an important milestone. And as we begin to heal, those triggers aren't quite as devastating as before.

It is important to have a strong network of trusted family and friends with whom we can safely share our feelings. They also provide us with a much-needed distraction from the loneliness of our constant pain. It helps to talk to people who will just listen to you, who don't try to force you to feel or act a certain way. As Stephen Ministers, we learn that the most significant contribution we can make to another person is just to listen to them. And in the beginning, this may involve merely sitting quietly with them, just being there.

But sometimes family and friends are unable to offer the kind of long-term support we may need. Or they may be dealing with the trauma of their own grief and simply can't take on the burden of ours too.

Counseling, Stephen Ministry, or other forms of professional help may be necessary, especially in the beginning. Please don't hesitate to seek help. No one should have to walk this journey alone.