Most people, when they think of grief, if they think of it at all, tend to believe that grievers go through a series of stages, and once each of those stages have been dealt with, the person goes back to normal. Well, at least as normal as most people are or rather as they assume they are.
But going back to normal is not feasible. The truth is, there are no stages when it comes to grief. In fact, the five stages of grief model is dangerous because it makes grief seem like a checklist, as if grief were logical, but there is no logic to grief. Grief has its own timetable, its own method, and whenever we think we understand the process, grief changes its tactics. For days, weeks, months on end, a dozen emotions will attack us all at the same time making us feel that we can never get a grip. And then, for no fathomable reason, we hit an emotional trough where we feel nothing, and we begin to think that we can handle our grief after all, and then—pow! Out of nowhere, grief returns and slams us in the gut, and we go through the whole gamut of emotional and physical symptoms again. And again. And again.
Sometimes, even years later, someone who survived the death of a spouse or other person intrinsic to their life, will be blindsided by grief. A friend, whose first husband had died more than a decade before, was happily remarried, but when the daughter she had with her first husband got married, she had a full-blown grief attack. This sort of thing makes sense to those who have experienced profound grief because any major life experience reminds us of what we lost, of what the deceased lost, and so, for a short time, we are back at the beginning when grief was new.
I haven’t been blindsided by grief for a long time, though I did have a weird bit of vertigo the other day. I was simply walking down the hall (a very short hall) when I got an awful falling-elevator feeling, and I remembered . . . again . . . that Jeff was dead. I have no idea where either the vertigo or the thought came from, except that the anniversary of his death is coming up in sixteen days, so he — and my memory of that time — are close to the front of my mind, rather in the back where they generally reside.
Perhaps some people can put the deceased entirely out of their heads, but most of us can’t, at least not all the time. They were a big part of our lives for many years, and even after they died, they were a big part of our lives through our grief, our memories, our attempts to find a new life for ourselves. Who I am today exists because he lived. Who I am today exists because he died. I have no idea who I would be if I had never met him; have no idea who I would be if we were still together. But none of that matters. I have to deal with the reality of my days, and the reality is that every once in a while, for no reason at all, grief makes itself felt.
Admittedly, this recent episode lasted only a moment or two, but such moments are important, if only to remind us that our grief is never completely finished. How can it be? No matter how much we get used to the void in our lives where they once were, the void is still there. And they are still gone.
My mission in talking about grief, to the extent I had a mission, has always been to let people know that grief is normal. Even years later, if one breaks down in tears or gets a vertigo attack or whatever manifestation grief happens to take at that moment, it’s still normal.
What isn’t normal is believing that someone’s life can be the same after the death of someone intrinsic to their life. What isn’t normal is believing that grief is simple and logical and fits into a few recognizable stages. What isn’t normal is believing that grief is easily dispatched. Well, actually, all that is normal since that’s what most people believe, but just because most people believe something, it doesn’t make that belief true or right.
Pat Bertram is the author of Grief: The Inside Story – A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One. “Grief: The Inside Story is perfect and that is not hyperbole! It is exactly what folk who are grieving need to read.” –Leesa Healy, RN, GDAS GDAT, Emotional/Mental Health Therapist & Educator