If grieving were as easy as three simple steps! But somehow, in its madness, having a life vest to ride the wave, an understanding that there is a sequence, we might feel more grounded in a groundless reality. I have broken down the grief stages into a metaphor of the seasons of the year. As I have shared this theory with folks over the years, some have asked me “where is summer?” Summer is life as coasting, life as carefree, life between losses. Not that life is ever problem-free but summer represents those long, slow, languid days when finding a cool spot to enjoy my book and cool drink is enough to offer a moment of contentment. Summer is the space between. It is the time before I am, once again, called to gather my every internal resource and deal with life on life’s terms. The wind blows in, the temperatures drop, frost appears and we hunker down for the dark days ahead.
Autumn is the season of grief when we get the news that something or someone we love is lost. The threat or the certainty of the severed bond hits the airways and becomes reality, our reality. The rug gets pulled out from under our feet and the world as we knew it seconds ago is no longer. It is now a different, unrecognizable world. In this season of grief, autumn begins with the phone call, the email, the pink slip, the medical diagnosis, the “we need to talk” announcement. This season of loss and grief begins with such a bang, some notification that change has either already occurred or is inevitably around the corner.
Physically, we feel like we’ve been hit by a truck. We are under stress-overload to the point that our non-essential physical systems all but shut down. We can’t eat, sleep, think, talk or have sex. We might not be able to stand or walk. The body slows to its bare minimal existence as to halt all else in order to gather and store the resources it needs to survive the next moment.
Cognitively, during this stage, we are in shock and denial. It all feels like one big bad dream. Our external world has just taken a huge hit and our internal cognitive world cannot make the shift so quickly. We don’t believe that this change has taken place. That is why often you hear people scream, “No, no” when news of a loss comes their way. They want the news to go away. A shift of such magnitude cannot be taken in and absorbed at the rate that it is being told to us.
Emotionally, during autumn, there are two primary feelings – shock and panic. Again, the news of the loss brings overwhelm to our systems, which includes our emotional organization. This overload causes an emotional comatose whereby we are so shocked, that we literally feel nothing. Often this sense of numbness is interpreted as strength but the reality is we aren’t strong. We are just surviving. The other primary feeling state during this season is panic. We are often flooded with anxiety as it relates to questions of how are we going to survive without this person or this thing in our life? Our mind races as we are flooded with uncertainties such as how are we going to make it and what the hell do we do now?
The goal of grief in the autumn stage is sheer survival. We need to keep our physical body functioning and our mental/emotional state intact during this period of shock, disorganization and disorientation. Once our physical and emotional safety has been shored up, old man winter sets in for the long haul.
As the image implies, winter is the longest season of grief. It is the darkest, coldest time bringing with it despair, hopelessness and pain. This is our work stage where we actively, consciously and intentionally, work out our grief. More specifically, the work of grief is our removing the active emotional and physical energy that we have been placing into the bond with the loved Object. We yearn, we pine, we grasp, we resist, and we pull away and then reach back again, longing and hoping for our loved one or thing to appear. As we slowly and hesitantly recede the energy from the Object, we transfer that energy to that Object as it is imprinted within me. This is called the psychic double. Although a lifelong work in process, we begin the cementing of who that person is inside of us which influences our future actions and choices.
During this stage of grief, physically, our systems have returned to a more regulated state in that we are no longer in shock. Albeit far from “normal,” our physical function settles into a pace for the long haul as it takes on the process of coping with the chronic stress of the grief process. The primary physical symptom we experience during this stage of grief is absolute exhaustion in that our bodies are being asked to do double-duty. They carry us through the normal demands of the day and they are grieving. Grieving is a 24/7 job that places high demands on our whole self. It is physically taxing to be working and re-working the internal relationship with the lost Object and to be processing the wide range of accompanying emotions. Because of grief’s physical demands and the resulting vulnerability it places on our immune system, it is very important that we care for our bodies. Proper nutrition, sleep and exercise are not luxuries but essential elements to aid the body in its need to hold and process our grief.
Cognitively, we are adjusting to new world, a world where the physical presence of our loved Object is no longer. Who do we talk to? Who is depending on us? Who do we snuggle up to at night? Who will pay the bills? Who am I if not a student, an employee, a mother or a husband? We struggle with the what-ifs, the whys and the regrets. We rack our minds with what we could have done or should have done, if only this or only that. We panic over the future and what we should be doing now to prevent any such similar tragedy from ever happening again all the while fooling ourselves that we have such power.
Emotionally, we are all over the map. Like a pinball that refuses to rest, we too ping from feeling to feeling in a nonsensical, random fashion. One moment we are sad, another angry and yet another despairing and defeated. And then for a moment we rebound, thinking we are actually doing better only to find the solace temporary. We quickly and unexpectedly catapult once again into those feelings of overwhelming pain.
Thus, at this stage of grief, compassion is needed for our grieving self. We need to give ourselves permission to be okay with our not being okay because in fact, we are not okay. We are grieving. We are not present to the moment because we are letting go and cataloging in our hearts the moments of the past that were and will be no longer. A wide berth is in order as we do our thing, allowing every crazy thought and feeling to just be. Like river water that flows over a rock, we need to respect our pain – its presence and its flow – for whatever it is in this moment. All the while trusting that it will not last forever. It is just pain. Terrible and awful, but just pain nonetheless.
Another feature in this stage of the winter of our grief is the paradoxical reality that we are both most in need and we are most alone. People are pretty good about responding in the immediate aftermath of a significant loss. They come aplenty – the flowers, the casseroles, the “call me if you need me’s” and the sappy Hallmark condolence cards. These gestures are all well-intended and supportive to receive; however, it is when the flowers have died and the phone stops ringing that we most need the presence of another human. We are now awake to the painful feelings of grief and the room has vacated. The societal expectation remains that we have healed, we have moved on and that we have gotten back to the business of our lives. But our reality is quite different. We are just now beginning the work of grief. So, to have the require that somehow we are to be “over” this by now magnifies an already overwhelming painful agenda.
After the long and seemingly never-ending cold, we slowly and gradually move into the grief stage of spring. If we have been true to ourselves and have actively worked the process of mourning during winter, without even recognizing it, the ground begins to thaw and give way. We realize, either consciously or unconsciously, that we have survived the pain at its worst and that new life can emerge from what was once frozen and barren ground. Like the ever-hopeful crocuses, green sprouts begin to emerge. At times, these hopeful sprouts get crushed by an early spring frost so we continue to rock back and forth between the briskness of our grief (still needing that coat of insulation) to that ever-brightening afternoon sun that promises warm days ahead.
Spring offers three essential processes to the grief process in its entirety. First, it is during the spring that our grief becomes smaller and smaller, less powerful in its magnitude, less overwhelming and defining to the totality of our lives.
I happed upon one of those dark and depressingly realistic films recently – “Rabbit Hole” with Nicole Kidman. In this melancholic drama, we watch as a couple cycles between avoiding and dealing with the sudden death of their four-year old son in a car accident. In the most poignant moment of the film, we witness Nicole, the mother, have a conversation with her mother, Dianne Wiest. Nicole asks her mom if the bad feelings ever go away. In her understated brilliance, Dianne answers, no, they never go away. One day you crawl out from under the brick that is crushing you and you put the brick in your pocket and you carry it around. Some days, you forget that the brick is there. And then, all of a sudden as if a surprise gust of wind, something comes along and reminds you of the presence of the brick and you have feelings of grief all over again. It gets easier but it never goes away.
Secondly, spring offers an emergence of a new identity. I never return to the “me” before the loss. It is just not possible. My having loved, attached and now lost the Object has permanently changed the tapestry of my heart and the way that I view and experience the world. My experience and its influence on me cannot be erased, denied, replaced or forgotten. Because of this marked change, who I am in the world has to change also. I am now a mother whose child has died. I am now a retiree. I am now a veteran with one less limb to use. I am now an adult with adult choices and responsibilities. The loss gets integrated into my changing identity and it is this forever-changed person who puts his/her feet on the floor in the morning, goes to work each day, makes Thanksgiving dinner, washes the dirty clothes, greets friends and family and crawls into bed each night ready to retire from the day.
Thirdly, it is in the stage of spring that we slowly begin to reach out with energy to form new attachments. Our hearts have been hurt, yet somehow, we have survived. Resilience has won out. And love has proven that it is worth the price of pain. We begin to peruse our options. Where do we want to put our time, attention and energy? Where is the investment of my self-worth making? We realize that we can, need to and want to love again.
In tandem, a common feeling at this stage is guilt. That somehow if I love again, if I invest my heart again, if I no longer grief at such an intense level and pace, then not only am I being disloyal to my lost Object, but I am also putting myself at risk for forgetting him/her/it, as if somehow the grief process becomes the way that I stay attached to his/her memory. Although it is important to name this feeling and what it might mean for us, it is not necessary to hold myself back from life out of loyalty. Remember when we love, we bond … and once we bond, we cannot lose. That loved one remains with us always.
How long does grief last? How high is up? Like the above-mentioned brick in the pocket, grief feelings erupt less often and less painfully, but they never go away. They are mine for the keeping. They are rent for staying. The price we pay for loving. The inevitable journey in this crazy thing called life.