The Massive Mission of Grief

Now that my own sorrow has considerably lessened, there have been many times when I have felt strange continuing to talk about grief. But despite the long years that have passed since the death of my life mate/soul mate, I am still bound by my grief. What I do, think, hope, even dream or not dream are because he is dead. Interestingly, I am discovering that these latter posts are perhaps as important as the early ones. Friends, relatives, and coworkers of the bereft are a lot more understanding those first months and even that first year of grief, but long before the end of the second year, they get impatient with any signs of continued grief. Most bereft stop talking about what they are feeling long before they are ready (and in way, I did, too. I spewed out my thoughts on this blog and mostly kept my mouth shut in real life).

And yet, grief is a life-long thing. And how can it not be? The pain might diminish, the hole might be filled to an extent with the gold of new relationships and new experiences, but the loved one is still dead. Even for those who believe their mate is in a better place, even for those who believe they will see them again, life is long and lonely without that special person.

If it were only about emotion and loneliness, grief would still be a massive mission, but all the physical, mental, chemical, hormonal upheavals change us and leave us feeling . . . not like us. Like some alien who no longer fits in this earthly environment.

But over the years, we do change and adapt. For this, I am glad to have continued these grief posts — people need to know they are not alone. They need to know that grief isn’t something you get over. They need to know that, unlike what some people believe, grieving long after others think you should stop is not a sign you lack resilience. Although people seldom admit it, there are gradations of grief. The death of a total stranger is not the same as the death of a soul mate. The death of a pet is not the same as the death of a child. (Yes, I understand that one grieves the loss of a beloved pet, but it is not the same, and I will delete any comment that says it is.) It’s easy to get over grief for a person you seldom saw, but grief for a person who shared your every waking moment is something you never get over. Everything that happens reminds you they are gone. Even after the pain has diminished, every moment of their not being with you makes you want to twitch with the feeling that something is not right.

But life — and grief — do go on, just maybe not the way we would prefer.

I am far enough away from those first horrendous years that I can start to see a pattern, and when I get a comment from someone who wails, “when will it be over?” I can give them an estimate. When they ask when life will get back to normal, I can safely say it will never get back to the old normal, but will eventually feel normal, though it will be a lot different from the normalcy of their shared life.

Although there is a pattern to dealing with grief after the death of a long-time spouse (or even a short time partner because you not only grieve what you lost but also what you will never have), all grief is different because all relationships are different.

I can’t, of course, tell people when it is time to find a new love — that is dependent on the person. I do know that those who manage to incorporate their first spouse’s memory into their new marriage are a lot happier than those who marry someone who feels injured by that grief, or who urges you to forget that previous marriage. I know one woman who incorporated her grief for her first husband into her marriage vows. Though she cried as she talked about her first husband, and her voice shook with emotion as she vowed to love the man she was marrying, she radiantly straddled those two worlds. It was beautiful to see.

So, if you know someone who is still grieving the loss of a spouse (or a child), please be kind; the bereft don’t live according to your timetable but according to the timetable of grief. And if you are the one who is still grieving long after others think you should have “moved on,” know that you are doing exactly the right thing, and someday you will get to where you need to be.

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See also: What Do You Say to Someone Who is Grieving at Christmas? And if by chance you know someone who is grieving, either of my books about grief — Grief: The Great Yearning or the novel Unfinished would make a nice gift.

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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.

Validating Grief

I’ve been corresponding with a fan of my book Grief: The Great Yearning who is dealing with the loss of a life mate/soul mate.

In my last response to an email from this griever I wrote:

I understand. I really do. I remember thinking I’d never make it through . . . well, any of it. His death. Clearing out our home. Going to stay with my father. Jeff’s birthday, then all the holidays. (I was lucky, if there is such a thing when it comes to grief, but I didn’t have to deal with the holidays for several months. You’re getting everything all at once.) The couplehoodness (for lack of a better word) of our society about did me in. Everywhere I went were couples. Couples walking. Couples eating. Couples doing things together. And there I was. Alone. It seemed such an affront. As if grief itself wasn’t enough to bear.

It truly is hard, especially since for every step towards some sort of light (or lightness of being) you fall back two, three, ten steps. There is no other thing you can do when faced with the Sisyphean task of grief but to pause to cry or scream, and then to take a deep breath and keep on going. It takes years longer than you can ever imagine, but eventually, I promise, it does get better. You just have to keep going one minute at a time. There is no way to handle more than that.

After I sent the email, I felt a bit guilty because there was no real comfort, nothing to hang on to, just the bitter truth that grief is hard and lasts a long time. To my surprise, the response I got in return for this harsh email was a warm message telling me how much my words help.

On reflection, it makes sense that those stark words describing the bleak reality of grief would be a help. I think what grievers most want from others is acknowledgement of their pain, maybe even validation of their grief. Oddly, even though everyone dies, not everyone goes through profound grief. (The math explains it — when one of a couple dies, only one is left to experience the grief.) And when you lose a partner at a relatively young age, there aren’t many people around who understand.

At the beginning of my grief, I was offered plenty of platitudes, a lot of blank stares, even some wary looks, as if a mournful woman was a bizarrely alien creature. The most helpful comments were from people who had gone through the same thing, people who told me that even ten years later, they still missed their partner. The least helpful comment came from people who said that grief took as long as it took, which contains an underlying feeling of exaggerated patience or that something is wrong with you if you don’t “get over” grief as quickly as others. (Sort of like telling the unathletic kid to take as long as she needs in order to run around the track even though all the athletic kids finished ages ago.) The most bewildering and least welcome comments were from people who told me they wished they could take away my pain. I didn’t want my pain taken away. It was the only thing connecting me to him, and besides, the pain wasn’t the problem. The problem was that he was dead, and no one could fix that.

If you’re one of the bereft, you know what I’m talking about. If you’ve never experienced the death of a life mate/soul mate, a child, or any other profound loss, I hope you will listen when people tell you of their grief, even if you don’t understand. Don’t try to mitigate their pain with words that make you feel better but don’t address their reality at all.

But then, what do I know. The world has managed to struggle along without advice from me for billions of years. Just know that if you are experiencing any sort of grief, profound or not, I understand.

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See also: What Do You Say to Someone Who is Grieving at Christmas? And if by chance you know someone who is grieving, either of my books about grief — Grief: The Great Yearning or the novel Unfinished would make a nice gift.

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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.

Grief and Our Lizard Brain

Last August I posted a couple of bloggeries about the American Psychiatric Association’s decision to consider grief a medical disorder that needs to be treated as major depression. (Grief is Not a Medical Disorder and One Woman’s Grief.) As I explained, there used to be a bereavement exclusion in the description of major depression in the APA’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but they have taken that exclusion away, and now more than a few days of pain after losing even a life mate or a child is considered a crisis. There can be “a few days of acute upset and then a much longer period of the longing, the tearfulness. But typically sleep, appetite, energy, concentration come back to normal more quickly than that.”

A therapist friend who also lost her mate reminded me of this recently. She wrote, “The DSM-V team is still trying to say that someone two weeks after a huge loss of any kind who is still showing symptoms (like depression) is mentally ill. That is the world of Psychiatry. Lots of mental health folks including me are rebelling as that book is the bible and they are desecrating people who grieve. . . .”

After studying grief from both the inside (my grief) and from the outside (communicating with hundreds of others who have suffered grievous losses), I’m not certain that grief is a psychological matter, let alone a medical one. I have suffered a couple of severe depressions in my life, so I am familiar with that black pit, but grief is something completely different (though depression can be a side effect at times).

Grief seems to be more visceral than mental, coming from somewhere far beneath conscious or even subconscious thought, perhaps from a place known informally as our “lizard brain.” The lizard brain is the pre-verbal part of us that communicates with the rest of the body by means of chemical and electrical signals. It automatically controls our bodies and our survival mechanisms, such as breathing, heartbeat, body growth and maintenance, establishing territory and nesting, the fight/flee/freeze response to threats, and the ability to adapt.

Perhaps most grief could be considered emotional or mental distress. When my brother and then my mother died, my “acute upset” lasted a few days, and within a month, I was back to normal, so my grief fell right in line with the American Psychiatric Association’s guidelines. But when my life mate/soul mate died, I felt such grief I had no words for it. (I’ve spent the last two years looking for the words, hence all my writing about grief.) I felt a feral, animalistic pain, from somewhere so deep inside I’d never been there before. I felt as if my psyche was a bloody stump where he had been ripped away.

When you are profoundly connected to another person; when their well-being is as important to you as your own; when the two of you share the air you breathe, the electrical emanations from your hearts and brains, the atoms in the atmosphere, the cell information that gets passed one to the other via viruses, you grow so entwined that in many ways you become a unit. And your lizard brain adapts.

When your loved one dies and the unit is dissolved, your lizard brain goes into a panic. Where is the rest of you? What happened? What do I do? Do I freeze you? Make you run? Make you fight? It sends so many chemical and electrical signals throughout your body, setting off a cascading series of hormonal reactions, that it leaves you feeling bewildered and traumatized. This is all in addition to your so-called “normal” grief. (Since the lizard brain also controls reproduction, this could account for the overwhelming arousal some people feel when dealing with a mate’s dying.)

When your loved one remains dead, the lizard brain comes to understand that it, too, will die. And then it really goes into a panic. Until that moment, it only knew survival. Life. But now it also knows death. It feels what death means. And consequently, so do you. Despite the psychiatric world’s belief that grief needs to be treated as major depression, no amount of drugs or therapy or medical intervention can undo this new knowledge.

So much of grief is about pain, yearning, angst, loneliness, but it is also about panic — that falling-elevator feeling you get when you remember you will never see your loved one again in this life. It is the panic of finding yourself in a suddenly alien world. And it is the panic of a creature who has no words to communicate what it feels. At the beginning, I used to scream. It was the only way I had of giving voice to the realization of my mate’s death, but the screams did not come from my lungs. They were visceral, like the screams of a tormented beast.

Grief has taught me many things. I’ve learned how to bear the unbearable. I’ve discovered that by daring to be vulnerable I can reach out and touch strangers as they touch me. And I know, with utter certainty, that beneath my conscious mind, beneath my subconscious, there lies a creature so primal that until two years ago, it did not know it was finite. And now it grieves.