People who have not suffered a devastating loss don’t understand grief, and those who have suffered such a loss often cannot describe what they are going through. No wonder few writers are able to accurately portray a grieving person.
I read a novel the other day about a woman who lost her husband, and the only acknowledgment of her grief was a single sentence: She went through all five of the Kubler-Ross stages of grief. I wish grief were that simple, that clinical, but grief is one of the most complicated — and agonizing — states a person will ever suffer. There are not just five stages of grief, or even seven. There seems to be an infinite shading of emotions in the process we call grief, and Kubler-Ross’s stages form the merest scaffolding.
We bereft feel do feel shock, denial, anger, guilt, sadness, depression, and perhaps acceptance (I say perhaps because I can’t vouch for acceptance since I have not yet reached such a stage. In fact, I fight it — what right do I have to say it’s acceptable for my life mate to have died?). We also feel anxiety, frustration, loneliness, confusion, despair, helplessness, panic, questioning (both as a need to know why and as a cry of pain), loss or gain of faith, loss of identity, loss of self-esteem, identifying with the deceased (taking on their characteristics or wearing their clothes), resentment, bitterness, isolation, inability to focus, suspended animation, waiting for we know not what, envy of those who are still coupled or who have yet to suffer a loss. And we suffer myriad physical symptoms such as queasiness, dizziness, sleep problems (too much or too little), eating problems (too much or too little), bone-deep pain, inability at times to breath or swallow, exhaustion, lack of energy, restlessness, and seemingly endless bouts of tears.
Even worse, we do not move through these stages one at a time as if it were a checklist, but we experience several emotions and ailments at once. Worst of all, we visit each of these states again and again. I suppose there is an end to this spiral of grief, but I am so far from seeing the closing stages that I have to put my head down and endure however I can.
If there were a market for tears, I would be a very rich woman.
Every time I think I’m getting on solid footing, something happens to slam me back into the black hole of grief. The hardest times to get through are the day of the week he died (Saturday) and the day of the month (the 27th). Sometimes unexpectedly coming across a note in his handwriting reminds me of all I am missing. Other times such a find makes me feel close to him. There is no logic to grief. It has its own timetable, its own method, and whenever I think I understand the process, grief changes its tactics.
I am a private person (at least I was until grief turned my life inside out) and not a joiner. But after he died, I was in such unbearable pain I didn’t know what to do, so I went to a bereavement group sponsored by Hospice. When I relocated, I started in with a new group. It’s good to be with people who understand, who have suffered what I am suffering. It’s good to know that one can survive. It’s good to see a bit of life growing in the cracks of grief.
You’d think that after all this, I would know what to say to someone who has suffered a loss similar to mine, but I am as tongue-tied as the uninitiated. A friend recently lost her mate of two decades, and all I had to offer her were my tears.
So much sadness. So much anguish. I still don’t know how any of us get through this, but we do.
Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels Light Bringer, More Deaths Than One, A Spark of Heavenly Fire, and Daughter Am I. Bertram is also the author of Grief: The Great Yearning, “an exquisite book, wrenching to read, and at the same time full of profound truths.” Connect with Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.
July 27, 2010 at 6:56 pm
I didn’t lose a spouse to death, but I lost my marriage. While there’s a world of difference, there are many similarities. I’ve been attending a peer counseling group based on the Kubler-Ross model, and you are so right about the infinite shades of those 5 stages. You also don’t just go through them one after another. You may loop back to one when you thought you were over it ages ago. I have good days and then out of the blue something slaps me in the head and takes me back to the bad place. At least those bad-place-days are getting farther apart.
Joining in a support group of folks who understand is so much help — or at least it has been for me. I wish you much peace.
July 27, 2010 at 6:57 pm
Sheesh. I can’t even spell my own name.
July 27, 2010 at 7:05 pm
Marilyn, shortly after my mate died, I talked to a woman who had lost her long-time marriage, and at the time, she was the one who most understood what I was going through. You are right, there are a lot of similarities. And a lot of pain.
I hope your bad days continue to get further apart.
July 27, 2010 at 7:14 pm
The “why” of death and other great losses is a complex spiritual question, but regardless of belief system, I think one would have to be a very advanced sage to escape what you’re going through. And since the process of grief as you describe it is very non-linear, knowing the stages doesn’t let you check off each one as it goes by with a “thank goodness that’s over” attitude.
There must be times, though, when you wish you could check off the stages and say “moving on.” But, if you moved on “too fast,” would you worry about it as though lack of “sufficient” grief meant lack of love?
I was in an encounter group once. I found it very difficult to become open enough to share my feelings–and that included my responses to the issues others in the group described as well. Perhaps I’m better now than I was then. The hardest thing was showing that I cared and having that being enough. Men especially are conditioned to think that saying “there there” (figuratively speaking) falls short of being a proper response. So they want to fix it, offer advice, and otherwise meddle in where no meddling is needed or even appropriate. So I’m glad to hear your group is a helpful one rather than being a batch of people who start critiquing your grief, suggesting you’re doing it wrong or seeing it incorrectly or not acting like somebody else acted in a similar position.
What a tangled subject this is, but I’m glad you’re able to share it and have that be part of the process.
July 27, 2010 at 7:32 pm
Malcolm, I had no idea until I was thrust into grief what it encompassed. I thought it was a matter of sadness, of emptiness perhaps, maybe loneliness, but the reality is totally overwhelming. I would like to understand the process because I am basically an analytical person who needs to know the truth, because I am a writer who wants to create characters who live, and because part of me (quite erroneously, I am sure) thinks if I understand it, I won’t have to feel it. But the nature of grief is feeling. I’ve come to the rather bizarre realization that grief is a gift. If we let it become part of us, it will take us where we need to go.
My first grief group counselor worried that I was moving too fast. I had to move fast at the time because of all I had to accomplish, but now it’s catching up with me. It lays me low when I least expect it.
This group is very good. No meddling allowed. No critiquing the person, or even the method of grieving. I am connecting with some of the people, which is good. (And of course, thata is one of the reasons I am going. Since I have hermit tendencies, I wanted to make sure I didn’t cut myself off completely.)
As you can see, I both experience my grief and witness it. I guess that makes me a writer. Or it would if I actually sat down and wrote.
July 27, 2010 at 10:31 pm
Pat, I want to talk about acceptance because I think it’s often misunderstood in this context. It’s not about the loss being acceptable – you’re right, it never is – but about participating in the creation of a new life, one that is different.
Here’s my take: A loss is like a wound. It may heal or it might stay infected if not taken care of. But even if it heals completely, there will be days when you bump it on a door and it hurts or times when it aches for no discernible reason. And you are always different afterwards – a scar remains.
I think you know this already. It sounds like you are taking good care of yourself.
July 27, 2010 at 11:48 pm
Pamela, you’re right, I do know it already. It’s just way too soon for me to accept that I’ve started a new life, that my grief is moving me beyond the life we shared. And it still seems that by accepting this new life, I am somehow negating him. I know this is not true, but it’s hard not to have such feelings. Grief is not logical.
July 28, 2010 at 7:39 am
Yes, the negating. I understand.
July 28, 2010 at 8:03 am
Grief is probably one of the hardest things to write. If you haven’t experienced it, you don’t know if you can accurately describe it. If you have experienced it, you might worry you’ve described it too well, or can’t descrbe it as deeply as it really exists. And, no matter what, it is a topic we all have a natural fear of touching.
I think it is the patience to let someone grieve that is more important than finding the right words of condolences or even being there to lend a shoulder to cry on.
The right words are impossible to find because there simply are no right words. Just letting the person know you are there, and that it’s ok to grieve, and to grieve as long as you need.
Four months after almost losing our baby girl I was still in a state of shock. Whether my eyes were open or closed, all I could see, superimposed over the world, was the vision of my baby’s lifeless body. After a year I still saw her lifeless form every time I looked at that spot where I found her, and sometimes when I didn’t. We count it now in years, rather than months, and I still sometimes see that vision.
And I had her back, healthy and strong and wonderfully impish, to hold tight and keep reminding myself that she’s ok and not gone forever.
I can only imagine the what if, what if I was a minute later finding her and she couldn’t be revived.
Pat, we are here. For as long as it takes.
July 28, 2010 at 8:34 pm
L.V., There is so much tragedy and grief in the world, that it’s nice to know one story had a happy ending. It is interesting, isn’t it, that your grief lasted long beyond the instigating event? One reason my grief surprised me is that nineteen years ago my life mate was so sick he almost died, (and in a way he did, he was never the same after that, never had another healthy day). Even though he came home to me, my grief at having almost lost him didn’t completely dissipate for three years.
July 28, 2010 at 11:15 am
About a month after our first loss, I was told by a well-meaning relative to get over it. I was struck dumb and almost exploded until I realized that was how he thought a person should handle grief. He was talking about getting over the death of his nephew, a young man he loved. He must have been hurting more than he could stand to say something so stupid. As I think back to that moment, I forgive him AND I’m grateful to myself for not exploding.
July 28, 2010 at 8:40 pm
Joylene, I used to think grief was self-indulgent and didn’t understand why people didn’t get over it, though I would never have been so insensitive as to say such a thing. I still feel at times as if I am making a soap opera out of my grief, yet it is real, and it is all I have to hold on to right now. No wonder it’s such a complicated state! I am impressed you didn’t explode.
One of the things that this grief group has taught me is that not only do we have to handle our grief, we have to handle with sensitivity the insensitivity of others. Doesn’t seem fair, but neither is death.
July 29, 2010 at 10:46 am
That is so true, Pat. Apart from many things, grief teaches you a new tolerance for people. So many people speak before thinking and say the most incredulous things. I can count on one hand the number of times someone said something stupid, catch themselves and apologized. Most people say stupid things and walk away thinking they somehow helped. Or they do their duty by saying how sorry they are, then they run in the other direction as if what you have is contagious. They don’t realize that no matter how insulated they make their lives, grief touches everyone eventually. Even the in-sensitives will one day experience the pain of loss. Unless they die young, grief is inevitable.
July 29, 2010 at 12:23 pm
Pat, I suspect your tears spoke volumes to your friend. You gave her the most precious gift of authentic, heartfelt empathy.
And you give us a gift of insight when you share your thoughts, feelings and experiences with us. Thank you for your beautiful writing.
July 29, 2010 at 12:52 pm
I am very sorry for your loss, Pat. Four months is still a very short amount of time. Most “schools” debunk the stages process. Each person grieves differently and the process and time it takes is different for everyone. I wish I could understand it too as I am an analytical/logical thinker but I realized there’s no way to anticipate, no logic, no reasoning. If you believe in the stages, you must be prepared for them to return as it’s never a graduation from one to the other. It’s now just been a year-and-a-half for me. While I function MUCH better than I used to, I still feel moments of guilt, anger, denial, etc. I suppose I have moments of acceptance when I have a good time. It does happen!
I don’t believe anyone can be prepared for such a loss and you are right, it cannot be explained and understood by those who have not had such an experience. It is not something you get over or move past. It’s something you learn to live with. It gets easier, then worse, then easier again but nothing is ever the same and we have to adjust, not forget about it.
Becoming a widower is very similar to a breakup only much, much more intense. Poems I’ve read and songs I’ve listened to that apply to one, often apply to the other. Death is s a breakup that’s the worst case scenario. Your loved one has left you against all desires and wishes but he/she is gone forever.
July 29, 2010 at 12:56 pm
Should have said “Becoming a widow/er”
July 29, 2010 at 1:18 pm
Norge, I am finally learning the truth of what you said, that this is not something one ever gets over. The best thing about grief (if there is anything good about it) is the way people who have experienced a loss reach out. Thank you for reaching out. Wishing you peace.
July 29, 2010 at 1:01 pm
Beautifully expressed – grief is messy, and it comes and goes at will. I know from my own experience when my dad passed in 2003 I grieved deeply, and mourned for my him, but with time it soften, and I was able to once again think of my dad and smile, and then my world cracked wide open September 15, 2008. My 17 year old son died, and all bets were off regarding the explosion of emotions that ripped through me. We are approaching our two year mark, and my grief journey s one without a destination, there is no end in sight.
July 29, 2010 at 1:12 pm
Lisa, It’s true that one death never prepares us for another. My mother died two years before my mate, and so I thought I understood grief and was prepared for it. But like you, what I got was something entirely different.
I am so sorry about the death of your son. My heart cries out for you.
August 3, 2010 at 4:52 pm
I’m so sorry for your loss. I sometimes worry about it happening to me because my dear hubby will turn 75 before the end of the year. We are both reaching an age where anything can happen to us.
You expressed your sorrow well and deeply, Pat.
A friend from FB.
March 24, 2013 at 1:22 pm
It is also four months today for me too, I have read some though not all you have written. I’m finding it hard to concentrate. I was doing ok – but the longer the time the harder it gets. My husband died of cancer, i was his carer for the last year. I miss him, I share your sorrow and have joined a group and meet up with two or three ladies so we can support each other – it seems there is no understanding except from those in the same pain. I have also struggled today and have just had a bloody good cry. The only thing that seems to ease the pain, though often I hold on to the tears – I don’t want to be a misery, and I don’t want my children to see me upset. I hope we both feel better tomorrow. x
March 24, 2013 at 9:15 pm
Yes, it’s hard to concentrate. Grief takes a lot out of you. And yes, it gets harder. Just when everyone decides that you’ve grieved enough, the realization that he is gone forever hits you, and the sorrow grows.
It’s good you have others you can talk to because the truth is, unless someone has been there, they cannot understand. Yes, cry. It’s important. Tears help relieve the incredible stress of grief.
If you don’t feel better tomorrow, you will next year or the year after. I promise. (Though you will probably always miss him.)
Wishing you peace in the coming months. Take care of yourself.
August 23, 2016 at 11:55 am
I can’t function.
August 23, 2016 at 5:07 pm
Of course you can’t. At four months, you’re still a toddler when it comes to grief. All you can feel is pain and bewilderment and disbelief. Some people even have traumatic stress syndrome. Be patient with yourself. It takes a long time to begin to function again.
Wishing you peace.
August 23, 2016 at 5:12 pm
August 25, 2016 at 4:15 pm
Thinking of you. Sending you wishes of hope since I’m sure it’s hard to manage hope on your own.
October 31, 2016 at 6:58 pm
The 29th of Oct. was the 3-month anniversary of my mom’s death. Today was my 1st holiday (Halloween) without her. I made it through most of the day ok, but as the night started to wind down—I lost it. I miss her so much. She was my best friend. I’m starting to wonder if I’m going to survive this. She was my everything. I dread Thanksgiving and Christmas. God help me. I don’t think I have the strength.
October 31, 2016 at 7:21 pm
You will survive it. I promise. The firsts are truly awful. But you only go through the firsts once. The second time around, the holidays can be bad, but never as brutal as the first time. One way I got through the holidays was to do something completely different than i did with him, though some people find comfort in following tradition.
I am truly sorry about your mother. It’s always hard to lose someone you are so close to.
November 1, 2016 at 1:17 pm
Thank you so much, Pat. I hope you’re right.
November 1, 2016 at 3:30 pm
One day at a time. Sometimes one minute at a time. That’s the only way to deal with the pain. And someday, some year, you will wonder how you did it. But that’s all anyone can do — just one step at a time. You are aware now of the horrors these first holidays will bring you, so try to find some way to comfort yourself. For me, it was screaming. I’d go somewhere no one could hear, like in my car, and simply scream. It helps relieve the awful stress of grief. Wishing you moments of peace.
November 2, 2016 at 8:29 am
Thank you, Pat. I appreciate your advice. I feel like screaming often—and I’ve done it a couple of times. I keep searching for ways to comfort myself—but it’s hard. Everything on TV reminds me of my mom and I’m having trouble concentrating enough to read books. Going on websites like this one seems to help. I cry when I read them and sometimes I feel better afterwards. I do go to group counseling once a week, which also seems to be helpful.
November 2, 2016 at 9:36 am
Not being able to concentrate is part of grief. It takes everything from you, even the ability to focus.
I had to give up reading for many years because most books either end with the couple together, which made me sad, or they end up alone, and that made me sadder.
It’s good that you’re going to group counseling. It will help you get through this horrendous time. And you will find peace. Eventually. You can’t hurry the process.
November 27, 2016 at 3:39 pm
Well, I somehow survived my first Thanksgiving without my Mom. I am hoping that next Thanksgiving will be easier. Now I just have to get through Christmas Eve, Christmas and New Year’s eve. Ugh. I want to go someplace and hide.
November 27, 2016 at 6:08 pm
MiMi, thank you for etting me know you got through the day. i know it was unbelievably tough.
Of course you want to hide. Grief is hard during normal days but nearly impossible on days that remind you of what you are missing. i am so very sorry. wishing you moments of peace.
November 13, 2016 at 9:02 pm
Our 32 year old son drowned along with 3 friends almost 4 months ago. Devastated just doesn’t describe how this has hit us. Intense waves of anger, disbelief, grief, thinking about his last moments.. I feel we will never recover from this.
November 13, 2016 at 9:22 pm
Oh, my. I am so very sorry. It takes my breath away just trying to imagine how you feel. You’re right, you may never recover, but it will get less painful. Eventually. I promise.
December 11, 2016 at 3:57 am
Thanks Pat.. I keep hearing this but so hard to imagine.. we went down to pack up his things from where he was living a couple of weeks ago, thinking it would give us closure, but it has only reopened the wounds.. I am dreading Christmas because I know it’s going to be a day of ‘putting my emotions in a box’ as I have come to think of it, to get through the day.. seems like if I am ok then everyone else is ok and that is hard.. I still struggle believing this has happened, I get distracted while busy then as soon as I stop, reality hits again, like a fresh wave of pain. I lost my father at 9 years old and that left a big hole in my life and now I have another huge hole where my son should be. It just feels so unfair and I get really angry. Not sure that life is meant to be so hard..
April 22, 2017 at 5:50 pm
Thank you for helping me begin to understand all that I am experiencing. You were spot on…I wish we could make a billboard of your blog for all the world to read. I get it because I am in the thrust of it. Your sharing has helped me tremendously. From my heart to yours, I thank you for expressing our grief so throughly! It is with heartfelt appreciation and gratitude, I thank you with tremendous love for being an answer to why I still feel the way I do with the multitude of roller coaster emotions!!! I was on the verge of giving up on life. Thank you for saving me!
April 22, 2017 at 8:16 pm
JoAnn, I am so very sorry you are having to deal with grief. It’s such an painful state, made almost impossible by our inability to understand what we are going through. If I helped any with your understanding, I’m glad my pain had some use. Please don’t give up on life. It takes a long time, possibly years, but the sun does come out again, and you will find peace, though you will always miss the one who’s gone. Wishing you peace.
April 23, 2017 at 2:21 am
Thank you Pat and when I feel bewildered and lost, I will reread your posting. Namaste.
March 6, 2019 at 6:43 pm
Thank you. I lost the love of my life almost three months ago , after forty years, and I can’t believe how grief just takes you down.
March 19, 2019 at 12:41 pm
It really is shocking how hard it is. Nothing can ever prepare us for the horror and pain of it all.