Grief. Only a select few are ever spared from the experience, so you'd think we would be more prepared. A quick search on Amazon reveals nearly 62,000 books on the subject, but I have yet to encounter someone who has read Grief For Dummies (yes, there is such a manual) or any other guidebook before they are fully immersed in the situation.
The only one-size-fits-all premise regarding grief is that everyone encounters, digests, and processes it uniquely. It is a highly personal process and the progression continually fluctuates depending on the circumstances of the moment. I, myself, commonly exhibit three different modes of grief. (Although I am sure there are others lurking, waiting to be exposed.) The personalities in the trio take their turns coming and going, sometimes intertwining with one another and at other intervals completely overshadowing a counterpart. They are predictable in their unpredictability. My current triad includes:
- The Neon Sign: This is time I want everyone to take notice of my widowhood. I yearn to have my grief heralded by the town crier with exclamations of "Sympathy for the suffering!" and "Alms for the widow!"
All these types ramp up their intensity when you are about to confront a significant occasion. Birthdays, holidays, and anniversaries will forever be altered once you have lost the person you primarily celebrated them with. My struggle dealing with the date of my 25th wedding anniversary was featured last year on the Huffington Post.
What I didn't disclose, and what nobody warns you about, is the before and after of such monumental events. The prelude and the aftermath are the most grueling of days -- and the ones when you feel the most isolated.
The days before, often weeks, are a gradual crescendo of angst. You become increasingly anxious, making sleep problematic. You're apprehensive about facing the day. You fret about whether or not you should even get dressed or answer the phone. If it's an event that you have to attend -- want to attend -- such as a child's graduation, you are fearful that you might collapse into a puddle of tears at an inopportune moment.
When the date arrives, it is rarely as troubling (or as uplifting) as forecasted. You feel guilty and grateful simultaneously. The sorrow is a deep, sharp ache. The loss is palatable. Yet, the compassionate comments of friends and family are consoling. The cards, flowers, and other reminders of their affection boost your disposition and fortify your resolve to make it through the day. Soon, you experience a delirium of grief that is both euphoric and melancholy.
But, the day after can be the cruelest for the uninitiated. Calls, emails, or presents don't materialize to celebrate, soothe, or mourn this day. Beguiled with sentiment just 24 hours earlier, you feel forgotten -- bereft of comfort and understanding. You're unexpectedly exiled into a solitary, emotional confinement with no provisions. It's up to you to navigate your way back into normality.
Another common assumption among the non-grieving is that the mourner only needs a set period to deal with their sorrow. Somehow, the process of grief has a finite end date, although no one can tell you exactly when that is. I'm 7+ years out and I have yet to to have a complete 24 hours when I don't perceive the absence of my husband. He crosses my mind continually, i.e., when I make a meal I know he would have enjoyed, when one of our sons achieves a major accomplishment, and when I contemplate our unfulfilled dreams for the future. In reality, there is no conclusion to bereavement. You just become more adept at managing (or disguising) your lamentations.
"Time heals all wounds" is hollow consolation to someone who has endured the lacerations of loss. I often hear, "You won't get over it, but you will get through it" -- frequently from my own lips. As if grief is a bad traffic jam of emotions that you just need to suffer through for a period and then leave it behind.
What I have come to realize is that grief assimilates; your character adapts to its presence. It both compromises and strengthens your emotional immune system. It's chronic and haphazard. Sometimes, you may find yourself unexpectedly callous to another's pain; as if you are thoroughly wrung out of empathy. Other times, seemingly innocuous occurrences can incite an over-the-top response. (I recently had a 30-minute crying jag over a car commercial.)
Quoth the Eagles:
You can check out any time you want, but you can never leave.
Comprehending that grief never completely dissipates brings about a peculiar, peaceful acceptance. You learn to tolerate it, master it, even shield and protect it. Sometimes it is ugly, brutal, and raw. Other times, it's oddly soothing and life-affirming. Poignant and bittersweet, it is your and yours alone to both despise and cherish.
For those who are grieving, grant yourself the time you need to contend with your next challenge. Whatever the occasion or trigger, give yourself permission to pause before you return to your customary, post-loss self. Don't agonize if you can't "get over it" in an arbitrary timely manner. To the friends and family members of such individuals, please be wary; be conscious of your loved one's struggles. Grief never leaves. It is never concluded. It simply evolves.