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

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

Grief: Not One and Done

When I was writing my second grief book, Terry, a blog reader who’d lost her husband (her best friend) and who helped proof the book, did not like my working title and suggested “Not One and Done.” At the time, I had never heard of the saying “one and done” (never even knew where it came from until just now when I Googled it), so I thanked her for the suggestion and acknowledged that she was correct about my original title not being good enough. I eventually decided on Grief: The Inside Story — A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One since it was self-explanatory.

Now, however, I do understand what she meant by her title suggestion. Too often, people have the idea that we go through stages of grief — a simple, straightforward slog toward the first anniversary, and then it’s done, the slate washed clean, and we are ready to start to live as if we’d never been married, never had a soul mate, never had a child, never loved someone who was more important to us than ourselves.

The truth is much murkier than one and done. There are no stages of grief, just a chaotic mess of emotions, physical reactions, and spiritual torments that visit us over and over again in a seemingly unending spiral. The spiral eventually widens enough so that we can see the end to the pain, and sometimes widens so much that we are barely aware of our loss, but the spiral is always there, ready to snap back into place. Even years after we reached the point where we feel we have a handle on our grief, it can come back at us as if our loss had just occurred.

Someone recently asked me if there was something wrong with him. His wife had died years ago, and he was happily remarried, but he went through a bad time at what would have been the twenty-fifth anniversary of his first marriage.

Someone else asked me what was wrong with her because she still couldn’t deal with the loss of her best friend, even though the friend had died in May.

It saddens me that people need to ask such questions. It saddens me that our present grief culture is so out of sync with reality it makes grievers think their feelings aren’t valid.

Grief is normal. Life-long grief is normal. Grief upsurges decades after the death are normal. Still dealing with grief a mere eight months after a significant loss is not only normal but to be expected. Oftentimes the second year after the loss of a spouse or a child is worse than the first because both the shock and the widow/widower’s fog have dissipated, and the truth — that you have to live without them for the rest of your life — slams home with a vengeance. This is normal. It’s all normal.

What isn’t normal is that the experts categorize our grief as to what is normal and is abnormal. Sometimes I just want to tell the experts they should hang their collective heads in shame for filling the heads of bereaved people with their ludicrous nonsense.

Even better, I wish my book Grief: The Inside Story — A Guide to Surviving the Loss of a Loved One was required reading for anyone, especially professionals and so-called experts, who deal with people who are grieving. Grievers have enough angst without having to worry about whether or not they are normal.

Admittedly, we who have lost significant people in our lives do learn to deal with their absence. Most of us eventually find a way to live that accommodates our loss. Many of us thrive. Many of us find happiness. Many of us find new loves. But always, somewhere deep in the recesses of our souls, we are aware of our loss.

Grief is not one and done. Grief is forever undone.

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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 Everyone Should Know About Grief – Part 5

Not long ago a woman wrote to Dear Abby expressing concern about her new friends, a couple who had lost their grown son six months previously. This so-called friend thought it creepy that the couple displayed photos of their son throughout the house.

Attitudes like this make me glad of my efforts to explain grief because the neighbor is so very wrong on so many levels. First, as we discussed in Part 1 of this series, the couple’s grief is not the neighbor’s responsibility. Grief belongs to the griever. Second, as we discussed in Part 3, grief for a life mate takes a long time, and from I have come to understand from fellow grievers, the only thing worse than losing a life mate is losing a child. Six months is barely a blip on the grief spectrum after such a devastating loss. At six months, that couple is still so new to grief that it’s amazing they managed to socialize at all, let alone make new friends.

And third, the subject of this discussion, is that whatever a person does to help get through the shock and horror of losing a life mate or a child is normal. Some behaviors aren’t as healthy as plastering your house with photos, but basically anything one does to get by is normal. When you are standing on the edge of the abyss with the tsunami of grief washing over you, anything you can do to keep from being blown into the abyss is normal.

Many people who have to deal with the onslaught of emotions and the whole chaotic mess of new grief feel as if they’ve gone crazy. They cannot imagine that such sheer breath-stealing agony is normal. And yet, it is.

What isn’t normal is for experts, friends, family, to categorize another’s grief as abnormal. What isn’t normal is for people to make someone else’s grief about them. If the friend thought all those photos depressing, imagine how depressing it must be for the couple who have only photos instead of a living son. Even if the couple removed the photos to satisfy the friend’s sensibilities, it would not change anything. The son would still be gone. And the couple would still be grieving.

So, if you are a griever, know that whatever you feel, others have felt. Whatever you have done to get through the days, others have done.

If you’re a witness to someone’s grief, be compassionate. Don’t judge. Know that your friends are doing the best they can. Whatever they are doing is not creepy. It’s normal.

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Pat Bertram is the author of the suspense novels UnfinishedMadame ZeeZee’s Nightmare, Light BringerMore Deaths Than OneA Spark of Heavenly Fireand Daughter Am IBertram 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.