Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Real Stages of Grief

Here is a fun little fact most people don't know: The "Stages of Grief" (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) were actually written about someone coming to terms with their own death, not the death of someone they loved.

How do I know this?

1) A rather reliable shrink told me.

2) Because I've grieved.

Which means, if you are dealing with the loss of a loved one, you can throw that list right out the window. In fact, please do.

Grief is actually not a linear path. It has no set sequence, no list you check off as you make your way along.

The truth is, it looks rather like the picture above - a jumbled mess.

And, as many times as you've heard me say it, no two paths are the same.

Today I want to talk about those emotional "stages" in grief because someone chose to point out on the anniversary of my husband's death that we should not get "caught up in anger" about the loss of our loved ones. This strikes a particular chord with me for three reasons:

1) It made me angry.

2) Anger is an emotion - it is neither right nor wrong and, thus, morally neutral (i.e. neither something we "should" or "should not" do).

3) Anger is a perfectly natural, normal, and healthy part of grieving.

Today I thought I'd look back on the last four years without Craig and give you a bit of a rundown of my own personal "stages" of grief, to show you what my own emotional journey looked like. It goes a little something like this:

1) SHOCK. Complete and utter, mind-numbing shock. Like everything happening around me had a sort of dream-like quality, as if it wasn't real but rather something I was watching on television. If I reached out and touched it, the set would just turn off. Only it didn't.

2) Horror. So much horror. Imagining the details, the breaking of bones, the blood, the violence, the pain and suffering Craig went through. That this could happen to anyone. That this could happen to the person that I loved so dearly.

3) Anger. At God, at myself, at everyone around me. At fate, at the other driver, at bad luck, and bad timing. And the police, at the investigators, at the court system, at the lawyers, and the insurance companies. At that bank and every other institution who made it as hard for me as possible, for no reason at all. All out, blood boiling, rage. Seeing spots.

4) Total despair. Lying on the floor, clutching Craig's clothing, unable to get up for days, despair. A despair so deep and so big I felt it in every part of me. My wrists ached with it. My teeth throbbed. My ribs heaved. My ankles, my toes, my heart, my shoulders, my head... every single part of me felt that despair.

5) Stages 1 - 4 on repeat, back and forth, switching places, for weeks and weeks and months and months.

6) Loneliness. Not, gosh-I-hate-having-no-plans-on-a-Friday-night loneliness. But the kind of loneliness that comes from having a friend so connected and so close that every thought that bounced around in your head all day was sent over to them. Every action, every breath was in anticipation of telling them, showing them, laughing with them. Then coming home, walking in the door, and feeling an emptiness so complete and so thick the very walls around you felt menacing.

7) Fear. Fear down to your very bones. That this is it. That you will never see them again, hear them again, touch them again. That all the pain and the despair and the loneliness and the anger will never end. That there is no reprieve. That this is not an injury that heals or a wound that will get better... that all these things will stay with you forever and ever. That every step outside your front door could be your last. That it never happened at all.

8) Confusion. About everything. Who am I now? What do I do next? What would he want? What does everyone else want? What are they expecting from me? How am I supposed to do this? Where did I put my keys? Why is my milk in the pantry and my shoes in the fridge?

9) Stages 1 - 8 on repeat, back and forth, switching places, for weeks and weeks and months and months.

10) Grim determination. It is time to lug around that boulder. It is chained to you forever, so you'd better get used to dragging it. Bend at the knees, put your weight into it, and start struggling inch by miserable inch. Often accompanied by: misery, angst, despair, more anger, and even more fear.

11) Even more anger. The more details that emerge, the more cliches you hear, the more the unfairness settles in.

12) Emptiness. The feeling of being gutted. Of watching everyone around you carry on with their lives, as though nothing had happened at all. It is just you who struggles to get out of bed in the morning. Just you who cries at stop lights or in the candy aisle at grocery stores. It is just you flipping through worn memories at night and looking longingly for hours at photographs that will never, ever be the real thing. Not even close. There is nothing left. Nothing.

13) Sprinklings of joy. Here and there. Very, very tiny at first. Mustard seed tiny. A split second. Maybe the feeling of sunshine on your face after months of forgetting "outside" was a real thing. Suddenly waking up and discovering you can taste your food for a second - it isn't all made of sawdust. A hug that feels good instead of just sad.

14) Guilt. Because how can you smile and forget for even one second? Because you can go on living, even against your own will. Because no matter what you know logically, inside your worn, aching heart and wrists and bones and eyes there is a yearning for a life beyond this and an understanding that you did not earn it.

15) Still anger. Because it hasn't gotten any fairer, any righter, any less permanent.

16) Stages 1 - 15, on repeat, back and forth, switching places, for weeks and weeks and months and months. Eventually years and years.

17) Calm. Not an acceptance, no. Because you can never really accept that this is it, that it is over, that a person so alive can just suddenly cease to exist. But calm that comes from dragging the weight of it with you, learning to live with it rather than just survive it.

18) And, yes, still sometimes anger.

19) Still despair, still loneliness, still shock. Less often, further apart. But still very much there.

20) Stages 1 - 20, on repeat, back and forth, switching places, forever.

You can choose to live after you lose someone. You can choose to move forward (though not "on") with your life. You can choose to seek out new experiences, new wonder, new joy.

You cannot choose your feelings. Feelings are something you experience, uninvited. If you could choose them, wouldn't we all simply choose bliss at all times? Pain happens to us. Anger. Fear. Sadness. Despair. Loneliness. We can channel these feelings into something, propelling us forward. We can ride the wave, experiencing them, choosing not to fight it. We can reflect on them, analyze them, attempt to understand. But ultimately, they come at us against our will.

To imply otherwise, is not only unkind, it is wrong.

We are entitled to feel grief.

For most, grief will include all the feelings I outlined above.

Yes, this includes anger. It is okay to be angry your loved one is gone.

It is okay to be angry about how and why it happened. It is okay to feel that anger on day 1 as well as day 1,460.

I know this because I have. And I do.

Even still.

If you are grieving, be gentle with yourself. Let yourself feel. You are allowed to. If you know someone who is grieving, try to understand, they will feel what they will feel, whether you approve or not. It is their journey, not yours. They are entitled to it.

Without your "should-ing".