The Loosening Spiral of Grief

Yesterday I wrote about The Unchanging Face of Grief, and how a journal entry I wrote exactly three years ago mirrored what I was feeling — Just drifting. Marking time. Hoping . . .

But the truth is, there is a vast difference between yesterday’s feelings and those of three years ago. Three years ago, when I wrote that entry, I had accomplished most of what I needed to do immediately after the death of my life mate/soul mate. I had him cremated as he wished, opened a new checking account, disposed of most of his effects and a lot of “our” things that weren’t desert knollsworth storing, got myself to my father’s house to look after him since he could no longer live alone. There was nothing I needed to do, that day three years ago, and the great pain of grief provided insulation from the normal irritations and aggravations of life, offering me the illusion of freedom. I just drifted in a fog of pain, spending hours in the desert, thinking not much of anything. Just wandering. Marking time. Hoping my life was actually going somewhere and wouldn’t always feel so stagnant.

People often talk about the “stages” of grief, as if grief were a staircase you ascend, step by agonizing step, until you climb out of the pit, but grief is more like a spiral that slowly unrolls, returning you over and over to the same places, each time with a bit less pain and emotion. At the beginning, these changes from vast pain to numbness, from despair to hope, from determination to helplessness come so quickly, it’s as if you’re inside a slinky that some over-active child keeps tossing around. You don’t even have time to acknowledge one state of mind before you’re in a different state.

My spiral of grief is still unrolling, but now, after more than three years, the changes come slowly and have little power. And the upsurges of angst are over quickly. But this feeling of waiting, of stagnation, seems to be ever present.

I don’t seem to be going anywhere with my life. I remember at the beginning, I was anxious to be done with my grief so I could embrace my new life with arms outstretched. I expected wonderful things to happen, and why shouldn’t they? Doesn’t it make sense that great happiness should come to balance out such great pain? But here I am, long past the worst of my pain, and I still seem to be running in place.

Admittedly, I am stuck in place geographically, unable to make plans except for a few days in advance since my father’s health takes precedence, but my life has more often been a life of the mind instead of action, and that mental life seems stuck too. Even worse, the waning pain of grief no longer protects me from the aggravations of life. (And right now there seem to be more aggravations than normal.)

I have had a couple of revelations out walking in the desert though, so perhaps I am not stagnating as much as I think I am. A few days ago, I was talking to my deceased mate, complaining about all the aggravations I have to deal with, and telling him that when I was free to live my own life, I still wouldn’t be free since I have other commitments to consider. A few minutes after I shut up and the walking lulled my mind, the thought entered my head, “Don’t consider other people. Do what you want.”

(I’m pretending this thought came from him in response to my complaints, but more probably it came from my subconscious.) Doing what I want is easy. Figuring out what I want is hard, but maybe someday it will come to me as I wander.

Another revelation, that I’m not sure I understand, is that life is a tool that we write with, much as we write with a pen. I’m still thinking about that one.

Despite the feelings of going nowhere, I am still trying to keep open to “somewhere.” Still trying to embrace life. Still trying . . .

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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.” Follow Pat on Google+. Like Pat on Facebook.

I Am a Four-Month Grief Survivor

People who have not suffered a devastating loss don’t understand grief, and those who have suffered such a loss often cannot describe what they are going through. No wonder few writers are able to accurately portray a grieving person.

I read a novel the other day about a woman who lost her husband, and the only acknowledgment of her grief was a single sentence: She went through all five of the Kubler-Ross stages of grief. I wish grief were that simple, that clinical, but grief is one of the most complicated — and agonizing — states a person will ever suffer. There are not just five stages of grief, or even seven. There seems to be an infinite shading of emotions in the process we call grief, and Kubler-Ross’s stages form the merest scaffolding.

We bereft feel do feel shock, denial, anger, guilt, sadness, depression, and perhaps acceptance (I say perhaps because I can’t vouch for acceptance since I have not yet reached such a stage. In fact, I fight it — what right do I have to say it’s acceptable for my life mate to have died?). We also feel anxiety, frustration, loneliness, confusion, despair, helplessness, panic, questioning (both as a need to know why and as a cry of pain), loss or gain of faith, loss of identity, loss of self-esteem, identifying with the deceased (taking on their characteristics or wearing their clothes), resentment, bitterness, isolation,  inability to focus, suspended animation, waiting for we know not what, envy of those who are still coupled or who have yet to suffer a loss. And we suffer myriad physical symptoms such as queasiness, dizziness, sleep problems (too much or too little), eating problems (too much or too little), bone-deep pain, inability at times to breath or swallow, exhaustion, lack of energy, restlessness, and seemingly endless bouts of tears.

Even worse, we do not move through these stages one at a time as if it were a checklist, but we experience several emotions and ailments at once. Worst of all, we visit each of these states again and again. I suppose there is an end to this spiral of grief, but I am so far from seeing the closing stages that I have to put my head down and endure however I can.

If there were a market for tears, I would be a very rich woman.

Every time I think I’m getting on solid footing, something happens to slam me back into the black hole of grief. The hardest times to get through are the day of the week he died (Saturday) and the day of the month (the 27th). Sometimes unexpectedly coming across a note in his handwriting reminds me of all I am missing. Other times such a find makes me feel close to him. There is no logic to grief. It has its own timetable, its own method, and whenever I think I understand the process, grief changes its tactics.

I am a private person (at least I was until grief turned my life inside out) and not a joiner. But after he died, I was in such unbearable pain I didn’t know what to do, so I went to a bereavement group sponsored by Hospice. When I relocated, I started in with a new group. It’s good to be with people who understand, who have suffered what I am suffering. It’s good to know that one can survive. It’s good to see a bit of life growing in the cracks of grief.

You’d think that after all this, I would know what to say to someone who has suffered a loss similar to mine, but I am as tongue-tied as the uninitiated. A friend recently lost her mate of two decades, and all I had to offer her were my tears.

So much sadness. So much anguish. I still don’t know how any of us get through this, but we do.

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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+. Like Pat on Facebook.