The journey through grief is so distinctly personal that it is like a fingerprint or a snowflake. No two are alike. In this one precious lifetime people face losses of all kinds and whether we want them or not, these losses create opportunities to meet our deeper, darker selves and to become acquainted with how our own grief looks and feels.
There is no right or wrong, proscribed way to grieve and there is a VERY wide range of normal when it comes to grief. Visiting the cemetery every day is normal. Wearing a deceased mothers neck scarf in order to smell her and continue to feel close to her is normal. Curling up in a ball on the couch for days is normal. Not feeling anything at all is normal.
I fell into the category of ‘not feeling anything at all’ after my mother died when I was 20. In the days that followed her passing I felt like I was floating in a dream. I was completely numb and I didn’t cry at all which made my college boyfriend Brad angry and doubtful about me as a feeling person. My grief felt damp and raw and earthy and very very personal and not to be discussed with anyone. When I was 57 my father died and there is was once again - the raw damp feeling. But what had changed was how I expressed my grief with more fullness and openness and clarity of purpose. The age that the person is when someone dies is significant and childhood grief looks very different from adolescent and adult grief.
Several other factors influence the grieving process in individuals. In addition to the age of the bereaved as mentioned above, the manner that the person died and the depth of the relationship to that person also affect the grief experience. Sudden death can lead to a prolonged period of numbness and disbelief whereas grief following an expected death from a prolonged illness has a more predictable trajectory. The closer the ties to the deceased, the deeper the experience will be. Another factor is the age of the person who died. Grieving the death of a child is very different than grieving the death of an older adult.
Grief can be accompanied by physical sensations which include tightness in the throat and chest, breathlessness, hollowness in the stomach, lack of energy, dry mouth and a sense that nothing seems real. Cognitive changes are common in the early stages of grieving and are marked by confusion, disbelief and preoccupation and sense of presence of the deceased. There are a number of specific behaviors associated with normal grief reactions and these can consist of sleep and appetite changes, absentmindedness, social withdrawal, dreaming about the deceased, avoiding reminders of the deceased, searching for the deceased, sighing, and crying. These are examples of changes that may occur but do not necessarily have to be part of the grief experience.
Contrary to popular belief there is no timetable for grief. The expression of grief takes place in a continuum that exists over a lifetime. This does NOT mean that you will feel awful forever! This does mean that the grief will deepen and change into something new and then subside and then suddenly reappear when least expected and then dissipate and reappear again - all with forward movement towards acceptance of the loss. The unpredictability of the grief experience can be disconcerting and it forces the bereaved to remain in a state of living in the present moment which can be an unfamiliar and challenging place to be.
Even though it is true that grief does NOT take a year, there is something to be said about the first year following a death as it is a year of remembering and forgetting. There are four seasons to go through the first calendar year and each new season brings a host of memories that include the deceased- birthdays, holidays, anniversaries, vacations. Going through these time periods can be sad as these memories are recalled. For me, the fourth of July has always been a triggering holiday oddly enough as it was the last holiday I spent with my mother. I can still picture her, bird boned thin, shivering and wrapped up in a blanket while we watched the fireworks as a family in Nichols, Connecticut. The next day she was admitted to the Bridgeport hospital where she died 6 weeks later. The second calendar year after the death involves a more intimate relationship with the pain as the year of remembering and forgetting ends. It is almost as if that is when the deeper journey of grief begins. The years that follow are like the unfolding of a mystery as you experience the unique manifestation of your own grief.
Be aware of something I call ‘grief attacks’ which can actually momentarily take your breath away. These are sudden upsurges of grief that catch you at a time when you are least suspecting. They can triggered by music or an olfactory or visual cue. The smell of allspice during baking always reminds me of my Nana who was a favorite kitchen companion of mine. A song on the radio by a musician that the deceased loved can be a trigger. Seeing someone who looks like the deceased can be a trigger. Grief attacks are brief and go away almost as fast as they appear but they can continue for quite awhile, occurring less frequently as time goes on. I like to think of them as reminders of the person who died or a ‘visitation’ of sorts.
There are some indicators that movement toward the accepting the reality of the loss is occurring. These include regaining the ability to concentrate, not crying all the time, reviewing both pleasant and unpleasant memories of the deceased, disappearance of fatigue and returning to a daily routine. Clinical aspects aside, the journey of grief can be a deeply powerful and transformational one. Grief can be a great teacher and although the lessons are not asked for, they are received when a loss is experienced. It takes courage to face these lessons and allow them deep into the soul where indelible change resides.