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.

I Am a Seven-Month Grief Survivor

Grief is so encompassing that for months my thoughts focused entirely on my dead mate — my soul mate — reinforcing my idea that falling in love and experiencing grief are the bookends of a shared life. When we were together, he was so often by my side as we ran errands, fixed meals, watched movies, talked for hours on end, that I didn’t need to focus on him — he was there. And then he wasn’t.

In the movie The Butcher’s Wife, Demi Moore talks about searching for her split apart. Very romantic this idea of finding your split apart, but what happens when your split apart is split apart from you once more? I can tell you — it releases such a storm of emotion that you feel as if you will never find yourself again, that you will be forever swept away in the tsunami/hurricane/soulquake that is new grief.

I’ve weathered seven months of grief, from the first global storm to the more isolated mists that beset me now. I’m settling back into myself, letting go of the incredible tension that grief brings. We bereft are so focused on our lost one, so tensed against hurtful memories and mementoes, that it can bring on a host of physical problems, including Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome.

I am lucky. I’ve been able to release this tension through walks, through tears, and — at the beginning — through screaming. I have not passed all the landmarks of grief — some people experience their worst pain at eight months, others need two years just to regain their equilibrium, and of course, there are all those firsts that are yet to come: the first Thanksgiving, first Christmas, first anniversary of his death — but perhaps the worst of the storms have passed. Or I could be fooling myself. This sad but not terribly painful stage I am going through could be just a hiatus, the eye of a storm, and the forces of grief are gathering themselves for a new onslaught. These months of grief survival, however, have taught me that I will be able to endure whatever comes.

I thought I’d be different after going through such storms of grief, (shouldn’t I be?) but I feel as if I am still myself, or rather, I feel as if I am myself again. I am sadder, of course, and that sadness will probably always shadow any future happiness, which is as it should be. One can never unknow such trauma. It will always be part of me.

He will always be part of me.

In many ways, he gave me life. He made me feel that life was worth living because he was in it. I have to learn to feel that life is worth living because I am in it, and that will be a long time coming. I am still at the stage where I don’t care if I live. NO, I am not suicidal. I am not stockpiling pills or thinking suicidal thoughts. This not caring is perhaps one of the longest-lived stages of grief, one that we bereft only talk about to each other — or our counselors — because it is so often misunderstood by those who have not been in a similar situation. One thing that keeps me going is curiosity about where life will take me now that he is not here for me to love.

Where does that love go when it is no longer needed? I don’t know. I do know that you love someone, their well-being is as important to you as your own, and then suddenly that someone is gone, leaving behind those unfulfilled feelings of wanting to help. Of caring. Of empathy. I still think of him almost all the time, still wish I could put my arms around him and make him well. When I hear a noise, sometimes I think it is he, and my first inclination is to go to him. When I hear or see something that would amuse or outrage him, sometimes I get up to go tell him. But these thoughts and actions are not as painful as they once were.

I have survived seven months of grief. I will continue to survive.

On Writing: Characters and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

When writing a novel, there are so many different elements to think about, that the only way I can get them in my head in order to concentrate on the story and not the underpinnings, is to write them down. My story problem today is whether Chip, my hero, goes through some sort of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He probably has to — everyone he knows has disappeared along with most of Colorado. That’s enough to give anyone stress. And, of course, I kept him in constant peril in order to force him to choose safety over freedom. Now that he is safe, he has time to relax and reflect. The horrors of what he endured would have to haunt him and torment him. Just because he’s safe, it doesn’t mean the poor guy gets an easy time of it.

I already established in On Writing: Characters and Grief that Chip will be going through a spot of depression, and depression and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder share many of the same traits. In both cases, people can feel helpless and hopeless, isolated and detached, fatigued and drained. They can lose interest in daily activities, and they can have trouble sleeping.

But Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is not simply depression under another name. A person who suffers PTSD can also experience flashbacks, terrible dreams, loss of memory around the specifics of the event, diminished feelings, impaired personal relationships. The company of others can be painful. They might become hypervigilant, always watchful and alert. In addition, sights, sounds, or smells can trigger reactions or jog a memory of the trauma.

Chip is already becoming vigilant, but he needs to become hypervigilant; not only is it one of the symptoms of PTSD, it will become a survival necessity.

Until now, Chip has responded to all his problems by sleeping; he seemed to sleep all time. Of course, part of that was because of me — whenever I couldn’t figure out a way for time to pass, I’d put the poor guy to sleep. But I do think that’s a realistic reaction — too much happened too fast, that it wore him out. So, to show the change in him, he should have trouble sleeping — I like the idea of his roaming around at night while others are asleep. And when he does sleep, he should have appalling dreams.

His feelings of isolation, his inability to connect to others and the pain of being around them, will all help me keep him and his love interest apart. They have to hate each other until they fall in love toward the end of the book, though they will be thrown together much of the time. (One purpose for their hatred is that she will need to choose his way over the crowd’s way, and to make it more forceful, she has to do it despite her dislike for him rather than because of love.)

Thank you for bearing with me. I think I have a better grasp of where Chip needs to go in the story, and I know where I need to go — to write it.

See you later.

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