Grief: Loose Cannon on Deck

A loose cannon conjures images of a weapon wildly firing in all directions, but it actually refers to a cannon on the deck of a ship. Cannons needed to be lashed down, but in turbulent waters, cannons sometimes came loose and rolled around the deck. Their great weight (some weighed as much as 1800 lbs!) made those loose cannons a dangerous liability and they could crush a hapless sailor who got in the way.

That’s exactly the way grief feels. Every time you feel as if you’re getting a solid footing despite the turbulence of your new life, whack! That cannon comes loose and crushes you again.

It would be so much easier if the so-called stages of grief were actually stages that you can check off after you’ve experienced it. Denial. Check. Pain. Check. Anger. Check. Depression. Check. Acceptance. Check.

All done, right?

Wrong!

After you’ve gone through the list, there it comes again, the pain or the anger or the disbelief that he is gone, and you have to do it all over again. Add to that the innumerable stages that aren’t commonly known such as isolation, anxiety, low self-esteem, confusion, panic, frustration, hopelessness, loneliness, bitterness, missing the person, fretfulness, hanging on, waiting for you know not what, and dozens of others. Not everyone who has experienced a significant loss goes through all the stages, but no matter what, we’ve all felt that loose cannon and wish we could just tie the dang thing up and get on with our lives.

So we do.

And then, comes another storm, there’s that loose cannon again.

Can you sense the pettishness of my tone? Must be another stage I’ve never heard of. Well, check this one off, too.

Grief: Denying Denial

I never really had a choice about feeling my grief. It wasn’t so much that I embraced it, but that it embraced me. It took hold of my life and didn’t let go, though it is easing enough so that I am able to see the process for what it is.

People talk about denial as if it’s a bad thing. If I’d been able to deny grief and just go on living as if my mate of thirty-four years hadn’t died, I’d probably have done so. Grief is debilitating, disorienting, causes innumerable physical and emotional reactions, makes one susceptible to cancer, accidents, and other closer-to-death encounters and on top of that, it’s just downright painful.

So why deny denial? Because in the end, it’s better to embrace grief, to learn to live with the pain (which does diminish, though according to comments left on this blog from others who have also lost their mates, it never goes away completely. It can resurface even years later). By embracing grief, by learning how to cope with it, you can learn how to feel deeply again, look forward to the future, and embrace life. This in no way negates your loss, but allows you to honor his death with your life.

Another reason to deny denial is that grief will affect you whether you embrace it or not, but the effects of denied grief are not overt ones such as crying, eating too much or too little, sleeping too much or too little, feeling as if you’ve been kicked in the gut, feeling as if half your heart is missing. Instead, grief that goes underground can create in you long-term problems, including the symptoms of post-traumatic-stress disorder. Two friends — both of whom lost their husbands a few month ago, both of whom are deluged with family and family obligations that give them no time to grieve  — were diagnosed with PTSD after days of internal quivering that only responded to drugs. They do not have time to spare for grief, but grief is not sparing them.

Grief is stressful, which is why crying, screaming, beating up on defenseless sofas are necessary — they help relieve that pent-up stress. You can go into denial and hold grief in, but it’s like holding in your stomach for years on end — you can never think of anything else but your stomach. If you hold yourself tightly against memories, dreams, unexpected encounters with photos, you have no time for living. Perhaps you don’t see a purpose for living now, but if you do your grief work (and grief is work, there’s no doubt about that) chances are you will regain your desire to live. You might even be able to love fully again, and that means risking more pain, but after dealing with your grief, you will be strong enough to accept the risk.

At least, that’s the way I’ve interpreted the grief process. You might see different reasons for either denying grief or denying denial.

Grief: Cleaning Up the Past

Thirty weeks and still counting. I’ve already stopped counting the days since my life mate — my soul mate — died, soon I’ll stop counting the weeks, and eventually I’ll stop counting the months. Perhaps there will even come a time when the anniversary of his death goes unnoticed. But in the end, it doesn’t matter. Whatever happens in my life, he will always be a part of it — almost everything I do, feel, say relates to him in some way. He was instrumental in making me who I am, and his death is the catalyst to make me who I will become, though I still don’t feel different from who I was before he died. So much of the change in me came before his death, during the long years of his dying.

During the last year of his life, as the cancer spread from his kidney up to his brain, he spent more and more time alone. I thought I coped well with the situation, continuing with my life, taking his dying for granted. I thought I’d moved on. In fact, I told him I’d be okay after he was gone, that I’d finished with my grieving. And I believed it.

After he died, the depth of my grief stunned me. His death shattered my state of suspended animation, and I was appalled by the way I’d behaved that last year. How could I possibly have taken his dying for granted? How could I have refused to see what he was feeling? How could I have become impatient with his growing weakness, his reclusiveness, his inability to carry on the long ping-ponging conversations that had characterized our relationship? How could I not have treasured his every word? Even after his diagnosis, even after we’d apologized for any wrongs, even after we become as close as we had been at the beginning, I continued to think I wouldn’t grieve. How could I have not known how much I still loved him?

I’d been living that last year over and over again in memory, trying to make it come out right, but no matter what I did, I could not change the past. It haunted me, that year. I could feel everything I refused to feel back then, and it about crushed me. A few days ago, while I was crying uncontrollably, I remembered hearing something during my grief support group session that struck a bell, so I checked back over the paper the counselor had read to us. “Self protection — denying the meaning of the loss.” Aha!

I had never denied his dying, just the immediacy of it. (Which is not surprising. He had the strongest determination of anyone I’d ever met, and he kept rallying until he couldn’t rally anymore.) But unconsciously (or subconsciously), I had denied what his death would mean to me. Denied what he meant to me.

After my aha moment, I started wondering what would have happened if I hadn’t gone into suspended animation, and I realized if, during that last year, I had let myself see what he was feeling, let myself feel what his dying and his death would mean to me, I would have been in such agony I would have cried all the time. He would have hated that he was causing me so much pain, which would have made me feel even worse. I still couldn’t have done anything for him, so eventually I would have blocked out all that was happening. I would have gone on with my own life and left his dying to him. I would have become impatient with the restrictions of our life, with his weakness, with his retreat into himself. In other words, even if I could have gone back and relived that year knowing the truth of it, my behavior would have been the same. And he would still have died.

With that realization, my tears stopped. I continue to have teary moments, but I am at peace with the way I acted that last year of his life. I still wish I could have done something to make that last year easier for him, of course, but perhaps I did — with all his troubles, at least he didn’t have to deal with my grief.

On Writing: Characters and Grief

For characters to be realistic, they need to experience the same emotional arcs that we experience in our lives. A grieving person, for example, undergoes several stages, including denial, guilt, anger, depression, and finally acceptance. Chip, the hero of my current work loses everything and everyone he loves in a single day of earthly upheaval, but so much was thrown at him so fast, he barely had time to comprehend it all, let alone go through protracted stages of grief.

Still, he did experience a period of denial; how could he not? What happened to him and the world was unbelievable. He also felt guilt, wondering why he survived when so many others didn’t, but again, he had little time to indulge in the feeling — he had to learn to live in a plastic world. (Plastic, in this case, meaning capable of being molded and re-formed.) He dealt with it all until the final insult — the loss of the candy that was his one indulgence — and then he gave in to a fit of anger.

These first three stages, as I mentioned, were brief. Now that he is in a place of safety, away from the upheavals of his world, he could revisit those stages, but I don’t think it’s necessary. No point in taxing a reader’s patience with repetition of effects. So that leaves me with the two final stages of grief.

At the end, Chip will come to accept what happened to him. He will also come to accept his new role in life, but until then he will need to go through a period of depression. Should this depression be as short as the other stages? Should it continue for a while to make his predicament seem more normal? I don’t think it’s necessary. A character in a constant state of depression is not a vibrant character by definition and, anyway, this story is supposed to be lighthearted, a whimsically ironic apocalyptic fantasy.

I’m thinking on the fly here, letting you see how I develop a character. That’s not strictly true. I’m doing it because I need to figure out my hero’s next stage of development, and I need to post some sort of bloggery. I end up getting so many people to guest, that I forget the main purpose of this blog: me. Well, me, my novels, and my characters.

But for now, I do know where I stand with Chip. He will be going through a period of depression, but also he will be dealing with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. Or will he? I’ll figure that one out tomorrow.

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