Stuck in Grief: Part 2

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Grief is a reaction that helps us cope with loss. When grief is working, different feelings associated with grief guide and motivate changes that help people adjust to the death. Uncomplicated grief is a natural process of grieving that involves “upheaval in life” and great emotional pain, but people progress and come to terms with the finality of their loss. While the grief never really ends, people are able to resume their daily activities and integrate the loss into their lives. People learn to adjust and to find ways to stay connected to the person they lost. MOST importantly they begin to engage in their own lives again. I couldn’t.

Mourning is the process by which people find a way to make some kind of peace with the loss and to restore their own capacity for joy and satisfaction in a world without the person they lost. Grief is always very difficult, but for some people, like me, the process goes awry and they get stuck. Like me, most people with Complicated Grief don’t know what is wrong with them. They are unable to modulate powerful feelings of sadness, anxiety, guilt and anger and they can’t stop yearning and longing for the person who is gone. They have strong urges to touch, hear or smell things to feel close to the person they lost. At the same time, they get so emotionally and physically activated that they want to avoid people, places or things that are reminders of the loss. 

Even though I knew it wasn’t true, I couldn’t shake the feeling that life was empty and meaningless without Eric. I couldn’t shake the disbelief or shock. I was emotionally numb. 

There were many reasons why the grief process went awry in my case. One of the road blocks was the fear that I would somehow lose the memories that connected me to Eric. I seemed unable to remember the good times and instead was constantly tormented by the bad ones. All I could think of was the suffering, the treatments, the body cast and the last few days of his life when he could no longer get out of bed, or speak, when he was gasping for breath because the cancer had metastasized to his lungs. My thoughts frequently turned to self blame and questions. Why hadn’t I known how ill he was? Why hadn’t I made sure he got treatment faster? Had I made the right decisions? These questions had no answers, and they just made the pain worse. I couldn’t do anything for myself—engaging in an activity was a reminder of the fact that he could not. He could not play golf; therefore, I could not permit myself to either. I had lost my way. I had lost faith in other people. I felt that I had to rely on myself, but I had lost faith in myself. I had nowhere to turn.

However, while the death of a loved one is such a personal event, grief needs to be shared with others, perhaps to lessen the burden on the mourners themselves, and to remind us that grief is a universal experience. I couldn’t do that until I finally got the treatment that I needed in a research project at Columbia University. I was helped by a short term therapy that was specifically designed to target Complicated Grief. The first thing that impressed me were the questions that I was asked when I came for the initial interview. No one had ever asked me if I was having trouble accepting the loss, whether I felt angry or bitter about it, or a lot of the other things that they asked that day. The next thing I noticed was that my therapist seemed surprisingly comfortable talking to me about Eric and how grief-stricken I was. She said that she would not pretend to understand how I was feeling but she wanted to hear anything that I wanted to tell her. This was the first time that I felt I did not need to take care of someone else. I began to see a glimmer of hope. What really made the difference, though, were a couple of procedures called imaginable exercises. One involves revisiting the period of the death and another entails having an imaginary conversation with the person who died. By telling the story of Eric’s death repeatedly, I was able to notice things that I had not paid attention to. I started to focus on all the love and support that Eric received from everyone that loved him. These unusual procedures were remarkably effective, transforming my grief and changing my life. There is no one way to transform grief—it is very individual. These imaginable exercises helped me understand the problems that were complicating my grief and finally allowed my grief to progress.

Today I can say that, of course, my life was permanently changed by losing Eric, but I know it is possible to make a new life that is rich and satisfying—though often tinged with sadness.

Now I find myself and my family going and doing and functioning and taking joy in life and its challenges. I never believed that would be possible, but I assure you it is. There are still times, especially good times, where the pain of missing Eric stops me in my tracks. But there are good times. We share joys as a family that he did not live to share and that makes me extremely sad. But we still have joys; that is what Eric would want, and that is how it should be. Sometimes the sadness is predictable and particularly evident, such as when we celebrate a holiday or birthday or an anniversary. At other times it catches me by surprise in the midst of the most routine activities—driving past a baseball field, seeing a boy drive a car, passing his favorite restaurant.

But I believe that I have grown in my ability to be compassionate, to understand the pain that others may be experiencing. Once you know the pain of excruciating, incomprehensible loss, you can’t un-know it. When you endure suffering you also learn empathy. Loving is a risk one takes—you can’t avoid loving and losing. Love doesn’t have to end—my love for Eric hasn’t and it never will.

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