"I myself have often longed for some structure and theory that would compartmentalize or chart my pain. But, there is no single story or timetable or passageway through sorrow."
- Helen Vozenilek, Loss of the Ground-Note
There is a strange sort of expectation that grief should conform to a general pattern or principle. There are even scientific polls of measurement — what is “normal” — what is “extreme” grief. As if individuals are not radically different, and as if even the course of a common disease, like cancer, will not manifest itself differently in different individuals.
- Joyce Carol Oates, NY Times interview
Early on, I assumed that every day would get better and easier. That doesn't happen. After the numbness wears off, and reality begins to sink in, the ride is more like a rollercoaster. (And I'm not talking the fun kind.) Definitely not linear. Some parts are level, others are scarily steep. They wax and wane. There is no predictable timeline. There are, however, some commonalities.
When I was in college, I read Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's seminal work, On Death and Dying. The book was mainly about how dying patients respond to a terminal illness. For me, the most interesting part was the journey people travel to reach acceptance of loss.
Kübler-Ross's described five stages of the grieving process: waves or surges of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and ultimately acceptance (if they lived long enough.) They may be experienced in any order, and you can go back and forth between them. Progress is not always forward (or as Doug used to say, "Always Forward, Never Straight.")
In her last book, Kübler-Ross noted that the stages "were never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages. They are responses to loss that many people have, but there is not a typical response to loss, as there is no typical loss. Our grieving is as individual as our lives.”
I am not religious by any stretch of the imagination (and PLEASE don't try to convert me), but the Jehovah's Witness website lists other stages or emotions. They include shock, mental and emotional confusion, emotional numbness and detachment, a sense of unreality or being out of control or powerless (feeling like you are in freefall or stuck in quicksand), mania, guilt (for what you did or didn't do, for being alive and enjoying life), fear, relief, memory loss and abrupt changes in mood, flawed judgment and thinking, anxiety, reduced work capacity, irrationality (such as resentment of spouse), obsessive behavior and thoughts, magical thinking (I had the power to do XYZ and didn't do it, thus causing this tragedy), and visual or auditory hallucinations (feeling, hearing or seeing the deceased.) For me, a BIG one that is missing from Kubler-Ross's list is the gutwrenching almost unbearable PAIN of a broken heart.
There can also be physical symptoms. Appetite change, nausea and weight loss or gain. Loss of a sense of taste or smell. Insomnia or interrupted sleep, extreme fatigue/exhaustion and lethargy. Shortness of breath, chest or throat pain, muscular tension (e.g., back aches). Headaches. Worsening illness or increased susceptibility to to colds, etc., due to a depressed immune system.
In the leveling off period, there may be sadness, nostalgia, and pleasant memories tinged with humor.
I thought this was good advice, from Leavetaking—When and How to Say Goodbye: "Don't let others dictate how you should act or feel. The grieving process works differently with everyone. Others may think—and let you know that they think—you are grieving too much or not grieving enough. Forgive them and forget about it. By trying to force yourself into a mold created by others or by society as a whole, you stunt your growth toward restored emotional health."
A lot of people who have not been through this do not realize how long it can take to learn to come to terms with a major loss. The rational side of me knows there are brighter days ahead. That there will be days without tears. But it is hard to envision that early in the process.
My mom lost my dad in a boating accident at age 59. I told her that her life would never be the same again, but it could still be good. I remind myself of that now. It sure isn't fun at the moment....
"Take it slowly, take it gently, take it at your own pace.
~ Transcending Loss
07/05/2010, updated 09/15/2010
Emotionally, grief is a mixture of raw feelings such as sorrow, anguish, anger, regret, longing, fear, and deprivation. Grief may be experienced physically as exhaustion, emptiness, tension, sleeplessness, or loss of appetite.
~ Judy Tatelbaum, The Courage to Grieve: The Classic Guide to Creative Living, Recovery, and Growth Through Grief
Look on each day that comes as a challenge, as a test of courage. The pain will come in waves, some days worse than others, for no apparent reason. Accept the pain. Little by little, you will find new strength, new vision, born of the very pain and loneliness which seem, at first, impossible to master.
~ Daphne du Maurier
I don't guess people's hearts got anything to do with a calendar.
~ from the film Hondo
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