The Awesome and Awesomely Terrible State of Grief

Whenever I hear that one of my sisters (or brothers) in sorrow is being cajoled into taking drugs to overcome her grief, I want to lash out, and this is how I lash out — I write a blog about it.

Grief is not a medical disorder. If the bereft has sunk into a severe depression, if she can’t sleep, if she is suffering symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome, perhaps pharmacopeia can help. But if the bereft is taking care of herself and her family, if she is connecting to people in a real way (or as real as is possible considering how isolating grief is), if she is not endangering herself or anyone else, then the last thing she needs is to be badgered into solving her problems by taking a pill.

Grief is not a problem to be solved. It is not an abnormality that needs to be corrected. Daily bursts of grief during the first two years are normal. In fact, for many bereft, the second year is worse than the first. The original shock of losing the most significant person in your life and the shock of confronting death on a visceral level do not begin to wane until after the first year. As that protective shroud begins to unwind, the truth is shown in all its stark horror. He is dead, and there is nothing you can do about it. Of course, you knew that, but during the second year, the knowledge seeps into your soul, and you feel the truth of it.

All during my first year of grief, I kept listening for the phone, hoping he would call and tell me I could come home, that he forgave me for whatever it was I did that made him reject me. I do not know where that thought came from. I never did anything (except small inconsideratenesses) for which I needed forgiveness. And he didn’t reject me. He died. But somehow, that is the way my mind made sense of the situation.

About fourteen months into my grief, the truth sunk in that he will never call to tell me I can come home. This set off an upsurge of grief that stayed with me for weeks. Now I’ve regained my equilibrium, but I still have bursts of grief every day. Sometimes they last seconds, sometimes they last minutes, sometimes they last longer. This is normal. Truly. (Not having bursts of grief everyday is normal, too, but that is not the issue here.)

All grief is not the same. I lost my brother and my mother a few years ago. I was sad at their deaths, but felt no great life-altering grief. Then my life mate/soul mate died, and his death caused such a soul quake that I am still reeling from the effects. (Recently, another layer of the shroud has unwound, and I can think more clearly now than I have for many years. I must have been more numb during the last years of his dying than I thought I’d been.)

Grief is not just a state of sadness. Grief is a regulator, rewiring our brains to accept the enormity of life and death. Grief is a prism, focusing our attention on the big picture, forcing us to ask the important questions of why we are here, where we are going, and how we connect with each other and the universe. Grief is a teacher, helping us to grow, to become more than we ever thought possible. (At least I think it does — I am not yet the person I hope to be.) Grief is also a gift, perhaps even a privilege. Not everyone has the opportunity (or the ability) to connect so deeply with another person that the death of that person changes the whole universe.

I make grief sound like a good thing, don’t I? And maybe it is. Why do all good things have to be happy things? Given a choice, of course, I’d rather him than having to deal with the pain of his absence, but it’s only by feeling the pain and processing it that I can see what it does and how it works. Sometimes I think my whole life has led to this very moment, to this place where I can separate the myriad feelings of grief and translate them, to explain the truth of this awesome and awesomely terrible state.

This normal state.

Grief Bursts

From the beginning (the beginning of my grief, that is) I’ve talked about various aspects of grief, even the parts I thought made me look weak. Today’s topic — grief bursts — is one I was going to keep to myself, but it’s an important one so I’m going to risk seeming weak once more.

I’ve often said that the trouble with grief is that it doesn’t stay gone. You think you’re doing well, settling into your new life, accepting your situation, and then zap! It hits you, generally when you’re least expecting it. One of the worst of these zaps occurred after my life mate had been dead for five months. I dreamed that he died, and in the dream I woke to discover that he was alive and getting better. I could feel the tension of grief draining out of me, and it felt good to just be . . . me. I awoke for real with a smile on my face, glad he was still alive, and then I was sucker punched by the truth. I felt the way I did the first time I realized he was dead, and it set off an upsurge of grief that lasted several months.

Then last spring, at about the fourteen month mark, I was walking, collected and serene, down a suburban street carved out of the desert,  and I was blindsided by lilacs. He loved lilacs, and we’d planted lilacs all around our property. The year before he died, the plants were tall enough to create an oasis of privacy, and when they bloomed, we’d go outside and bask in the heavenly scent. When I came to the desert, I  never expected to encounter lilacs, but there they were, growing wildly in a vacant lot. That familiar scent, coming toward me when I was unsteeled against a grief upsurge, did me in for a couple of weeks.

The last big upsurge of grief that stayed with me for more than a day or two came at the eighteen month mark. I still don’t know why — there was nothing in particular that set it off, and a year and a half doesn’t seem like a special anniversary, not like the first year anniversary or the second. Eighteen months just sort of hangs innocuously in the middle. Or it should have, but it didn’t. Well, I got through that grief upsurge like I did all the others. (How? Glad you asked that. The only way to get through a grief upsurge is to feel it, process it, and when it begins to abate, let go.)

Mostly now, I’ve settled into uncoupled life. I miss him, of course, and yearn desperately at times to talk with him, but I’ve accepted as well as is possible that I have to continue on with my life. I feel like myself again (meaning I don’t feel weighted down with grief all the time, nor do I hold myself tensed against possible upsurges of pain).

What I do experience are grief bursts — brief bursts of grief, with all the angst I felt at the beginning, that last but a minute or two. These bursts come a couple of times a day, generally after I’ve been concentrating on a project (such as writing a blog or reading a book), and in the moment when my mind is not otherwise engaged, I remember that he’s dead, and grief bursts over me. I cry for a minute or two as if my heart will break (though I know it won’t. It’s already been shattered and glued back together, stronger than before). And then I’m fine again with no lingering aftereffects.

Of all the strange stages of grief I’ve experienced, these grief bursts are the strangest. Like being skewered with a burning poker and then healed a second later. This particular stage, or so I’ve been told, can last a long time. Even decades after a significant death, you can experience bursts of grief. I’m sure, like all the other phases of grief I’ve gone through, these bursts will diminish in frequency, perhaps even diminish in intensity, but oddly, this is one stage of grief I don’t mind. It reminds me that he was worth grieving for, that his absence from this world matters, that he once was part of my life.


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.