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

Grief at Thirty-Five Months

video[7]Today marks the thirty-fifth month since the death of my life mate/soul mate, yet today is a day like any other. There is no particular upsurge in grief, no particular focus on his death or my loss (two separate things).

This “acceptance” of the day is not a positive step forward so much as the combination of a couple of non-related factors. For one, I’m dealing with a major sinus infection, and upsurges in grief and upsurges in ill health don’t seem to happen at the same time, probably because both take an enormous toll on the body so one gives way to the other.

Even old grief, grief that is past the first year of raw pain, is stressful because you walk an unsteady path in an alien world, and you have to make mental compensations to travel that path, the same way you have to make physical compensations if your ankle is broken. During that first year, a person who has lost a spouse has 25% higher death rate from all causes than those who are not grieving, and even beyond that first year, the bereft seem to have a higher rate of illness since the stress of grief affects the immune system. (Sometimes it even seems as if there could be a bit of body/mind interaction, where the mind gets tired of grieving, and so allows the body to become sick, though that isn’t what happened in my case since I haven’t had a major upsurge of grief in a while, just upswings of sadness.)

The other factor involved in making this day less emotional than expected is that I’m looking after my aged father, who has taken a turn for the worse, and I find myself falling into the same mindset I had when I watched my life mate/soul mate die. In such a case, you take a step back from your emotions, wait to see what happens, do the best you can in any crisis, and bear the burden of helplessness as lightly as possible.

Seeing myself getting into this mental state again makes me realize that I did the best I could three years ago, that so much I regretted or felt guilty about was beyond my control. I’d worked past those concerns, so they haven’t been haunting me lately, but now I have a graphic illustration of truth. I did the best I could for him, just as I will do the best for my father.

The thing I regretted most about my mate’s death is that I took it for granted. He was ill for a long time, and after a while, his dying became a way of life. I see that happening again, that my father’s aging and inevitable dying is becoming a way of life. My life.

The odd thing for me is that I’ve spent the last three years trying to embrace life again, to get away from the stasis of dying and grief, but now, willy nilly, I am back in neutral. Not looking forward. Not looking back. Just taking life each day as it comes, even if the day marks the thirty-fifth month of my grief.

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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+

“Golly gee what have you done to me?”

As part of my quest to refigure the pathways in my mind and open myself up to more light, I’ve been doing my version of dance therapy — dancing to a peppy song or two every day. I hop a bit, wave my arms around, and surrender to the rhythm. It generally works to lighten my mood, but today, Saturday, my sadder day, the song had the opposite effect and I ended up pummeling the air instead of bopping to the beat.

The song? Buddy Holly’s “It Doesn’t Matter Any More.

Cripes. As if I really needed to hear Buddy singing, “There you go and baby here am I / Well you left me here so I could sit and cry / Golly gee what have you done to me?”

Someone told me that grief over the death of a mate is like a relationship gone bad, and sometimes it does feel that way. I talk to him, and he says nothing in return. I beg for a hug, and he ignores me. I yearn for him, and he remains remote. I ask what happened to us, what did I do that was so terrible he had to leave me, and he doesn’t answer.

And then I remember — he didn’t leave me, he died. Now he is there and I am here with no way to bridge the gap. We don’t even have the opportunity to get together to fight about who gets what — I ended up with everything by default. If he were here, he could have everything. I’d even let him have the silly dishes we argued about that last year. (I received a set of Melmac dishes for Christmas when I was young. It was some sort of giveaway, and my mother got the whole set and saved them for my hope chest — though it wasn’t a chest, just a shelf in the kitchen cabinet. I still use those dishes occasionally — they are a wonderful size, and so very light.)

He and I shared everything during our years together, but for some reason I got very protective of those vintage dishes the last year of his dying. We’d started cutting up beets and other colorful vegetables for salads and I asked him not to use those plates — they were white and the beet juice stained them — but he kept using them anyway. (I should have known something was dreadfully wrong with him — he was the most considerate person I’d ever met.) I don’t know why my frustration over his continued decline focused on those dishes, but it did. I don’t even know why it  mattered. It sure doesn’t matter any more.

The song (“It Doesn’t Matter Anymore” written by Paul Anka) continues, “Now you go your way baby and I’ll go mine / Now and forever till the end of time.” Yeah. A real spirit lightener.

The song ends with the words, “baby / We’ll say we’re through / And you won’t matter any more.”

We might be through — my life mate and I — and I wish I could say he doesn’t matter any more, but he does. And he always will.