Let Grief Be

Sometimes people ask me questions on a Q&A internet site about grief that I cannot answer because the question makes no sense. For example, one person asked if interrupting the grieving process makes it harder to complete the process. Someone else asked how people could start the grief process for the loss of a loved one when they still haven’t even been able to process that the loved one was gone. And of course, there is the ever-popular question about how to help a griever move on.

To me, questions like this are like asking “How do you peel an orange if you only have an apple?” Totally nonsensical. I suppose it’s a good sign that people are asking questions about grief since it’s a subject few people understand, and I suppose it’s good that they know grief is a process even though they haven’t a clue what that process is.

Processing the loss of a loved one, processing that they are gone, is the grief process. It is how we move on.

From what I understand about grief, there is no real volition to the matter. You don’t start the grief process and you can’t interrupt it. Grief is in control. Some people can bury their grief; others can simply decide not to grieve, others don’t feel grief at all. Generally, though, if the person who died was an intrinsic part of the survivor’s life, such as a spouse or a child, grief is not a process you can direct or an emotion you can redirect, but is a thing of the body, mind, soul. Such a profound death leaves behind a void that the survivor can never fill. It creates enormous stress (and is in fact the most stressful life event a person can experience, causing a 25% increase in the chance of the survivor dying, too). The death of a person deeply connected to you changes your brain chemistry, makes hormones (especially adrenaline) go out of whack, kills your sense of self, and plunges your life into chaos because what once was — the pair bonding, for lack of a better word — is no longer.

Oddly, the more you try to process your grief, the more chaotic it all becomes. So much of life is habit, and when one’s habits are obliterated, as so often happens after the death of a spouse, then the brain goes into overdrive because not only is it trying to process the meaning of the person’s absence and trying to understand death, which is something it cannot understand, the brain has to think about how to do things that you once did out of habit. And some of those habits die hard — for example, if you’re used to making coffee for two people in the morning, sometimes you forget that there is only you, and you inadvertently make a whole pot instead of half.

I’m not sure what it would even mean to “complete the process.” To a certain extent, we who have lost our mates are always somewhere in the process because the death affects us for the rest of our lives. We might not always be actively mourning, might even find happiness again, might find new habits and new loves, but still, the loved one is always gone so the void they left behind will always be there.

When it comes to grief, all you can really do is let grief take you where you need to go. You don’t try to start it, don’t try to stop it, don’t try to interrupt it. For some people, especially those with young children or aged parents to take care of, or if the survivor has a serious illness, grief bides its time. When they no longer have to focus on other needs, then grief comes and helps them move toward the next phase of their life. (I met several of these people at my grief support group; even though the death they mourned happened years previously, the grief was new.)

There are, of course, people who have the ability to bury their grief, but it still makes itself known in various ways — in illness, in mental issues, in emotional traumas — so my theory is always to let grief be; to let it do what it wants to do. As so often happens, if you do this, there is a good chance that years later you will end up in a completely different place — mentally, emotionally, or geographically — a place you could not even imagine but that brings you comfort and perhaps even joy.

I make grief sound like a good thing, don’t I? Perhaps it is. Although it is painful, grief is not the problem. The problem is that a person we loved more than life itself is dead. Grief is how we move from a shared life with that person to a new life that is ours alone.

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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

Ten Things Everyone Should Know About Grief

According to the US Census Bureau, there are now more than 52 million people in the USA who are over the age of 65, and that number will increase to over 70 million by 2030. Many of the Baby Boomer generation (usually defined as those born between 1946 and 1964) are now in their late 60s and early 70s, and the unhappy experience of losing a spouse or partner is going to be a reality for increasing numbers of Americans. The need for clear and practical information about grief has never been more urgent.

Grief is often shoved out of sight, but grief, no matter how painful, is important.

1) Grief is a normal reaction to an abnormal situation. It’s how the body and mind deals with the death of a loved one. It helps the bereaved cope with the profound changes and trauma of the loss.

2) All losses aren’t equal for the simple reason that not all relationships are equal. Studies have shown that the most stressful event in a person’s life by far is the death of a life mate or a child. The closer the relationship, the more the survivor will grieve.

3) Grief does not come in neatly packaged stages. Grief for a life mate or child is more complicated and agonizing than any grief model can describe. Grief is not just emotional. It is also physical, spiritual, psychological, and affects all parts of the bereaved person’s life.

4) Tears are not a sign of weakness, but a way of relieving the stress of grief. Some scientists think that crying caused by grief is actually good for you. Biochemist Dr. William Frey says that people “may be removing, in their tears, chemicals that build up during emotional stress.”

5) Grief can manifest as illness, especially in those who cannot cry. If bereaved people find themselves frequently going to the doctor, they should mention their loss.

6) TV shows and movies often depict grieving as a process that lasts just a few weeks, but in reality fully adjusting to the loss of a partner or close family member often takes from three to five years.

7) Many bereaved people find that it is difficult to explain the emotions they feel and for their friends and family to understand. Being a good friend to someone who is bereaved involves showing patience, listening to them, and allowing them to grieve at their own pace without urging them to move on.

8) Upsurges of grief are common on anniversaries, such as the anniversary of the death. The body remembers even if the bereaved doesn’t, and this body memory accentuates the strong emotional impact of anniversaries. Understanding the process can help grievers and their loved get through these upsurges of sorrow.

9) Short-term memory problems, and a general inability to concentrate, are common effects of grief.  Making important decisions, such as whether to move to a new home, are often best delayed because of this.

10) Those who lost someone intrinsic to their lives, such as a life mate or child, can never go back to the way they were, but as grief wanes, they can go forward into a new life and eventual happiness.

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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

Dealing With Death

Death is such a strange thing. A person lives and then something happens, and they are gone. The survivors have to deal with all the terrible death tasks — arranging a funeral, taking care of finances, getting rid of the person’s effects. And then life closes around where the person used to be, and to the world at large, it’s as if the deceased has never been.

It’s only the loved ones left behind who feel the absence, who have to deal with the grief, the angst, the loss, the missing, the yearning. When grief is new, all of those chaotic feelings fill the void where the loved one used to be, and then years later, many years later, even those feelings dissipate, and what’s left behind is a photo that begins to seem like that of a stranger. Even the void left behind loses its name — it becomes just a feeling of something that should be there but isn’t.

Even with all my experience with grief, I’m just as tongue-tied as anyone when it comes to offering words of condolence. In my case, it’s not ignorance of what the person is feeling, but a recognition of the terrible angst they are going through and will continue to go through for a very long time.

Some people never get a chance to work through all those feelings. If an elderly woman loses a son, as did my mother, chances are she will die with those feelings. In my mother’s case, the death of her fifty-four-year-old son killed her. Oh, not immediately, but she never got over the shock of his death or the horror of seeing him in a casket. She got sick within a couple of months, and she died right before the one-year anniversary of his death.

A friend has recently lost her son, and I can’t help thinking of my mother and what the death of my brother did to her. In light of that, it’s almost impossible to find consoling words for something I know cannot be consoled. As I’ve often told people — it’s not what you say that matters, it’s what you do. It’s being there. It’s letting the bereaved find what comfort they can in your presence.

For a while, people do rally around the bereaved, and then gradually, they move on, getting back into the swing of their own lives, leaving the bereaved alone to deal with their grief the best way they can.

It’s not the best system, perhaps, but it is what it is. After all, as people often have said, life is for the living, and it’s the living who gradually fill in the void where the deceased used to be — someone will take over their job, someone will wear their clothes and use their things, someone will move into their house. Gradually, the remnants of the deceased’s presence will disappear and life will continue largely unchanged for most people. But for the people who lost their loved one? The void remains, and their life will never be the same.

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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

Twelfth Year

I got through the eleventh anniversary of Jeff’s death without a major upsurge of grief, just a feeling of nostalgia and a bit of sadness. For a moment, before I retired for the night, I wanted to cry if for no other reason than a recognition that he is gone, but no tears came. I think I’m cried out, which in itself is ironic because for so many years, it felt as if the tears would never stop.

I once heard a saying that I didn’t understand until after Jeff died: Nothing changes and then everything changes. For years, nothing changed in our lives. It seemed as if we would always be like that — him struggling with dying, me struggling with living. Then he stopped breathing, and in that moment, everything changed.

Well, not everything. One thing has never changed. After all these years, he’s still the person I most want to talk to. We shared so much over the years, it is bewildering to me that we can’t sit down and get caught up. Or stand up and get caught up — looking back, it seems as if we were always standing when we talked. Who better to help me make sense of our lives both before and after his death? I do talk to him, or rather to his picture, though my comments are nothing more than asides, mentioning my day, maybe listing something for which I am grateful, or asking him how he’s doing. It’s hard to have a deep meaningful conversation when it is all one-sided.

I discovered a strange thing this morning. Although I have picked a tarot card to read the first thing every morning, I noticed a blank spot on my tarot journal where yesterday’s card was supposed to be. My morning routine is quite rigid. I do some stretching exercises, make the bed, fold three origami cranes, then shuffle whatever tarot deck I am using, and pick a card. Somehow, after I folded the cranes, I must have become distracted, and spaced out the whole tarot thing.

It’s nothing major, just a weird lapse, but it makes me wonder if subconsciously I blocked it out. After all, the tarot readings are a sort of memorial to my brother, and he loathed Jeff. Or maybe I simply didn’t want to know what the card would say. Either way, it’s unsettling to me — I don’t like forgetting to do things that I thought had become habit. Though, to tell the truth, this sort of forgetting does happen with me.

When I was in my late twenties, I ran a mile every day for years, and then days would go by, and suddenly I’d remember that I’d forgotten to run. One day I stopped running altogether. I simply forgot. It’s the same reason I am adamant about blogging every day — if I don’t blog every day, the days might pass without my ever writing a word. I have forgotten to blog a couple of days, but remembered sometime the late in the evening, so I was able to do my daily stint. Would it matter if I forgot? Probably not, but I do like the discipline of writing something every day, and if I let a day lapse, and then another and another, chances are I won’t be as willing to get back to blogging. (If I do forget to remember to blog one day, don’t worry. It has happened in the past, and will probably happen again, though I do try to remember not to forget.)

But that’s not important. What is important is that today starts my twelfth year of living without the person I thought I’d grow old with. Well, I am growing old; it’s just that I’m growing old alone. I’m mostly okay with that, at least, today I am. Tomorrow might be different.

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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

What It’s All About

Today is the eleventh anniversary of Jeff’s death, and as with everything to do with grief, I am feeling a bit bewildered. None of it makes sense to me. Was I really that woman? That woman who watched a man slowly die, who wanted the suffering to end, yet whose love was so ineffectual she couldn’t make him well or take away a single moment of his pain? That woman so connected to another human being she still felt broken years after his death? That woman who screamed the pain of her loss to the winds?

I’ve always considered myself a passionless woman, so how could that woman be me? I’m mostly living in a state of relative equilibrium at the moment, feeling more like myself than I have at any time since his death, which makes that bone deep grief I lived with for so long seem even more unreal. Sometimes looking back, it almost seems as if all that emotion was an effort to make myself seem important, and yet I know it was real. It came from a part of me I didn’t even know existed. It makes me wonder if maybe that’s what changed over the years — not that I became more used to Jeff being gone, or that time healed my grief, but that the part of me that surfaced after he died has simply sunk back into the muck from which it rose.

Making the situation even more unreal, I can barely remember what he looked like — I do not think in images, so it’s understandable (though distressing) that I have no clear image of him in my mind. Even worse, I don’t have a photo that matches what I remember of him. (The only photo I have was taken about twelve years before he died.) And so the image of him in my mind now is the image in that photo. I remember the first time I looked at the picture after he was gone — I was shocked that it no longer looked like him. I put the photo away, not wanting that false image to be the only picture of him in my head, but when I moved here, I put his photo on the bedside table, finding comfort in that now familiar image. Does it matter if it didn’t look like him at the end? When I was going through his effects and found a picture of him around the time we met, I didn’t recognize that image of him either. And yet, they were both good images of him at those times. So what difference does it make how I picture him? He was all those men, and none of them.

Nor do I have a clear sense of time. Sometimes it feels as if he died just a couple of months ago. Sometimes it feels like a lifetime ago. The demarcation between our shared life and my solitary life was once so stark it was like the edge of a cliff. All I could see was the past and what I had lost. The living I have done in the past eleven years has blurred that edge almost to the point of nonexistence, adding to the sense of unreality.

I didn’t really expect to grieve for him today, and I didn’t, though the day isn’t yet over, so there’s a chance a bout of sadness will visit me tonight as I prepare for sleep. What I did today is what I have done every day since he died — lived the best I know how, finding joy in simple things, finding life in novel experiences. He was so sick at the end, it seemed as by dying he set us both free — he from pain, me from a lifetime of servitude to his illness — and I have been careful not to waste that gift.

Today’s simple joy was the blossoming of the Glory of the Snow bulbs I planted last fall.

And the novel experience was getting to drive a baby John Deere. The worker who is laying rock around my house drove here in the tractor to make it easier to transport the rock from one side of the yard to another, and to my delight, he let me drive the thing up and down the street, and even showed me how scoop up the rocks.

Those two things in particular add to my bewilderment today about life and death and grief. If Jeff were still alive, I wouldn’t have had those treats. In fact, if he were alive, I would be someone else, more like the person I was eleven years ago rather than the person grief shaped me into.

Then I have to add in the aging factor to the bewilderment. He will always be the age he was when he died, and I am getting ever older. Sometimes I feel the injustice of it all — we were supposed to grow old together, and because of our healthful lifestyle, we were supposed to beat the odds and be vital to the end. And yet, he’s gone and I am trying to pick my way through the minefield of growing old by myself. I am glad he won’t have to deal with that. I’m also glad he didn’t have to deal with the angst of surviving the death of a life mate, though what do I know. It’s entirely possible, if the dead have any sort of consciousness, that they grieve for us as much as we grieve for them.

But what all this comes down to is that it’s been eleven years since he died, and I don’t have any clearer idea now of what it’s all about than I did back then.

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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

Grief Eve

Today is the eve of the eleventh anniversary of Jeff’s death. For several years after the first year, the day before the anniversary was painful, but the anniversary itself was not as much of a problem. I don’t know why that was except that perhaps I’d been focused on the anniversary itself and so was prepared for that, but I wasn’t prepared for what I felt in the days leading up to the anniversary.

So far, today isn’t any different from any other day, which kind of surprises me. The calendar this year is exactly the same as the year he died, so I expected to feel something . . . extra. Apparently, he’s been gone so long that I no longer feel the “calendar” of his absence. During the first years, even when I didn’t actually check to see what day it was, I could feel the various anniversaries (his diagnosis, signing up for hospice, his dying) in the marrow of bones, in the depths of my soul.

Body memory such as I experienced is often associated with extreme stress, and the death of a spouse/life mate/soul mate is about as stressful as everyday life gets. Body memory is not a flashback, where you are actually experiencing the trauma again, though that re-experience did happen often during the early years. Nor is it simply a vivid memory. In fact, the body memory comes first, and only afterward do we remember why we felt such an upsurge of emotional and physical grief reactions.

I’ve always felt that my internal clock was reset on the day he died, so that ever after I talk about that day as “the beginning.” Back then, I meant it as the beginning of my grief, but learned to see it as the beginning of a new stage in my life, one that was dictated by his absence, my grief, my struggles to find a new way of living. Now that clock, or at least the internal memory of him and his dying days, has wound down. As you can see, I still count my years from that day, but it is a conscious count, not a body memory.

Many memories of my life before that delineation, that beginning, have faded with the years. It annoys my sister when she asks me about things that happened in our childhood and I don’t remember. (And it annoys me that she still asks, knowing that I don’t remember.) It’s as if those years belonged to someone else’s life in the same way the characters I have read or written weren’t actually my life. Truthfully, I don’t want to remember my younger years. Nor do I have any particular desire to try to remember my years with Jeff — I feel those memories in the void of his absence even if I don’t recall a specific incident.

For many years, every Saturday, the day of the week he died, was a sadder day for me. I could always tell when it was Saturday even when I didn’t know. (I’m one of those people who, if they were in an accident and a medical professional would test my cognizance by asking me the date or the day of the week, I’d fail.) But back then, I did know Saturdays. It’s been a long time since I “felt” a Saturday. All my days, at least as they pertain to Jeff and his absence and my grief, are pretty much the same now. There is a deep running current of sadness that will never leave me, but it doesn’t affect me the way it once did. I can still be happy, can still find joy in the little things of my life, such as the flowers poking their pretty little heads above ground.

But this is how I feel today. Tomorrow is the first time since he died that the anniversary falls on Saturday, so who knows what I will feel, what my body will feel, what I will remember.

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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

Seven Things Everyone Needs to Know About Grief

1) Grief belongs to the griever. It’s no one else’s responsibility. No one should tell a griever how to grieve, when to grieve, or how long to grieve. No one can bind grief or limit it, usually not even the griever.

2) All losses aren’t equal for the simple reason that not all relationships are equal. The more deeply committed the relationship, the more roles a person played in your life, the more you will grieve.

3) Grief for a life mate takes much longer than everyone assumes that it does. Many people find a sense of renewed interest in life or at least a sense of peace between three and five years, and even afterward, they can experience grief upsurges.

4) The most stressful event in a person’s life by far is the death of a life mate or a child. Such a loss is so devastating that the survivor’s death rate increases by a minimum of 25% percent.

5) Grief is normal. The whole chaotic mess of new grief, no matter how insanely painful, is normal. Whatever a person does to help get through the shock and horror of losing a life mate or a child is normal.

6) Grief is physical, too. People often tell the bereaved to put the deceased out of our minds (at the same time they tell them that the deceased will always live in their hearts), but that’s hard to do because grief is also in our bodies.

7) Anger is an effect of grief. It is not a stage of grief, not a complication, but an intrinsic part of the process. In fact, we don’t need to be angry at someone or something to feel anger as part of grief. It is the body’s natural response to a perceived danger.

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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

Saying Goodbye

A dear friend left town today to go back overseas where she grew up so she can be with family and friends as she lives out her last months. I never got a chance to say goodbye, though I’m not sure that matters. This way I can always think of her the way she was the last time I saw her: happy, contented, glad to be done with pain for a while.

To be honest, I am glad she is going to be with her people. Although she fit in well with our small-town America environment, she’s from a major Asian city with food and shopping and friends on every block, and she missed all the bustle.

To be even more brutally honest, though it might make me seem small, I am glad I won’t have to watch her deteriorate. I’ve watched too many people die, and I simply cannot do it again, especially not when it comes to her.

From the first moment we met, we connected, as if we were long-lost sisters. She was so vital, so charming, so interested in everything, that the news about her being afflicted with cancer came as a shock to me. Even worse was when I found out the cancer had metastasized. And now she is gone from my life, though for a time, at least, we can still connect via email or FB messenger.

Her husband, who’s also become a friend, has already been through this before. I can’t imagine the courage it takes to find a new love and then once again, to lose that love to death. He’s got a hard time ahead, not just watching her fade away, but having to be jolly in the face of it because she doesn’t want anyone to be sad.

After the sorrow of this day, knowing she is journeying far beyond my reach without one last hug, I intend to honor her wishes and think of her at home. Happy. With her husband and family and old friends.

There will be time enough for mourning when her days are finished, but maybe even then I will simply think of her as being home where she belongs, and be happy she came into my life.

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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

Shedding Light on the Dim World of Grief

I happened upon an internet discussion yesterday where people were commenting about those who post bereavement, death, and grief comments on the various social sites. As you can imagine, this got my ire up.

It seems that it’s okay to rant about politics, gossip about celebrities, talk about diet, brag about one’s feeble accomplishments, restyle one’s life so that it seems admirable and exciting rather than as mediocre as everyone else’s, and of course, post copious photos of pets as well as posts about the illnesses and deaths of those animals. But apparently, it’s not okay to mention something as important as grief for a fellow human being.

I realize people would just as soon forget that their lives have an expiration date, would just as soon forget that a person cannot be happy all the time, would just as soon forget that bad things happen to everyone at one time or another, but still, the major problem with grief is that so few people want to even acknowledge that death and grief and ongoing feelings of loss do exist.

If you’re one of those, then if someone posts about death or grief, scroll on by. You’re not obligated to acknowledge someone else’s pain, though perhaps it would be the kind thing to do.

Some people in the discussion thought that those who posted updates about grief were simply looking for sympathy. I suppose it’s possible some grievers do so, but no one of my acquaintance has ever mentioned their grief in a bid for pity. If we are looking for anything, we’re looking for validation of our feelings, looking for an acknowledgment that life after the death of a loved one does not and cannot continue as before, looking for someone to stop and pay attention.

Some people, perhaps, are looking for a sign from their deceased loved one, which, if there is life after death, would be feasible since we, like computers, are an electronic medium.

Mostly, though, if the social sites are about laying out our lives for others to see, then to refrain from mentioning death or grief would be a disservice not just to ourselves and our deceased loved ones, but to the world at large.

The truth is, you cannot pretend such things do not exist, at least not forever. One way or another, you will confront death, if not a loved one’s, then your own. Wouldn’t it be nice to think that after you were gone, people would still remember you with an occasional post online? Or would you expect people to wipe you out of their lives and thoughts?

I’ve come to realize that some people have little sympathy for those who acknowledge their losses because they think when someone dies, that person is not just erased from this world, but is erased retroactively, so that the deceased never existed, never left behind a hole in the fabric of life on Earth. Because of this retroactive erasure, those unsympathetic people tend to think that anyone who still misses their loved one years later is buying into a victim mentality, perhaps is even addicted to grief.

Whenever I think I’ve said all there is to say about grief, I discover a new black hole of ignorance and insensitivity, so apparently, my mission of shedding light on the dim world of grief, is far from over.

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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

Grief Is Neither Simple Nor Logical

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.

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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