Grief Delayed Is Not Grief Denied
It all seems pretty straightforward – almost formulaic in a way.
You lose someone you love. It feels terrible. You cope with the shock. You mourn and you grieve. You wait patiently…and subsequently impatiently…for the time to arrive when life will resume some semblance of normalcy. The time arrives, the pain finally “disappears”…and you continue forward.
If only grief were that simple; that linear in nature.
Reality is just a bit different.
What happens when grief is not immediately addressed, confronted and “gone through” in the ways that can bring healing? What if your grief was inadvertently put on a back-burner (for numerous reasons) or even absent altogether? Does a delay of the grieving process mean that you are denied the opportunity and / or the right to grieving process?
The questions loom large and often:
** “My husband died three years ago and I’m in more pain now than I was the first week after he died.”
** “I have been a widow for many years now and it is still very devastating.”
** “I am just ‘going through the motions.’ It has been years and I still can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
** “I’m not even sure I liked my husband when he died. I know I wasn’t in love with him anymore. So why does his dying hurt so much?”
** “We’ve been divorced for decades. People keep asking me why I’m upset [at his passing] and I don’t have an answer because I don’t know.
Let’s first look at the complexion of grief by using a physical example. Have you ever had any kind of dental work; even just a filling? The answer is likely yes. After the dentist is finished drilling or pounding or extracting, you leave the dental office; still numb, probably talking funny and trying to appear normal. Now, fast forward a few hours when the dental anesthetic begins to slowly wear off. What happens? It hurts—a lot.
Similarly, one of the most common reasons that people may feel worse as time passes post-loss or feel as if they are “going backward” in their grief recovery, is that the emotional “anesthetic” – the “fog” that grief mercifully provides in order to cushion you against the shock of your loss—has begun to wear off. Just as happens when the dental anesthetic begins to diminish, the emotional anesthetic that has numbed you against your loss begins to lift as life gradually begins to resume. As the fog of loss lessens, the pain becomes more acute and more real. Factor in that things like legal and financial matters, transitioning children who have lost a parent and / or returning to work can also serve to postpone confronting your own grief, with which you may just now be starting to cope.
Another reason that you may be feeling your emotional pain more acutely with the passage of time is that you did not allow yourself adequate time to heal initially. There is no shame in that of course, but as my mother used to tell me, “If you skip over any part of your life, at some point in time, you will go back to retrieve it”…and the fact is that grief is a part of your life that, painful though it may be, you cannot simply circumvent.
For whatever reasons — it was too difficult for you to be alone and you re-involved in a relationship just a bit prematurely; a friend or relative told you that you should be “over it” and you believed them; you busied yourself to distraction with work, children or both — at the time of your loss, you were not permitted to truly grieve and accept that which had happened to you. Now, all of the shut-away and pushed-down grief has finally bubbled to the surface of your soul and like it or not, it is time to pay attention.
Still another very common grief delay / grief discovery scenario involves those who were estranged, divorced or otherwise had some sort of animosity toward and with the person lost. Many people (both the bereaved and those who surround them) somehow get it into their heads that there is no “entitlement“ to bereavement when there may have been bitterness, ill will or hostility involved at the end of a relationship.
There are several inaccuracies with this line of thinking:
- Telling someone how they are feeling or how they should be feeling is like telling that same person that they are or should be left-handed when they are right-handed or vice-versa. People are who they are. People feel how they feel. People feel what they feel, exactly when they feel it.
You cannot permit someone to tell you how you are feeling or worse, how you “should be” feeling. You cannot allow anyone to infer that, “Your feelings aren’t hurt” if you are indeed hurting. You cannot listen to statements like, “It’s been “x” amount of time since So-and-So died, you shouldn’t be crying anymore”, if you are moved to cry. You cannot deny your entitlement to mourning; nor can you listen to anyone who insists otherwise.
- Next, there is a plurality of loss involved with this particular scenario. There is the physical loss itself – but you have lost more than the physical presence itself. Though there may have been a history of hostility (perhaps even at the time of the loss), your relationship with the person lost was not always in that place. Relationships do not generally start out in an acrimonious place. Oftentimes, there are also warm and lovely memories and / or the promise of bright futures involved as well. During a time of grief, we drift back to the good, the warm, the lovely, the promising and at least momentarily allow the animus to fall to the wayside.
And that’s OK.
- Still many others ensconce in the belief that “time heals all wounds” and that with the mere passage of time, the grief entirely disappears; just as in our linear illustration earlier. This is truly one of the biggest myths within the bereaved community and one that must be dispelled. There are many reasons why time simply does not heal all wounds as one might hope, but the primary reason is that a bereaved person’s “loss clock” function a bit differently from everyone else. For the bereaved, time…stops…at the moment of the loss. The life that you once knew…stops. The world that you once knew…stops. The anticipation of the future that you had carefully planned…stops. It takes a great deal of time to figure out how to even start up your life-clock again, since everything you once knew your life to be has been turned upside-down.
However, even though your clock has momentarily stopped, everyone else’s clock keeps right on ticking along. Time is passing for everyone else but you – because your life-clock stopped the moment that loss brought your world to a stop. How then can anyone say that “time heals all wounds” when each one of our time frames involve completely different time zones?
Time can temper and shift the rawness and intensity of the pain of loss. Time can alter the shape and complexion of loss – but the loss is always there. The grief is always a part of you. It never goes away. It changes shape, form and feature – but it does not disappear.
Think about this for a second. Envision anything that is exposed to nature…mountains, rocks, sand dunes…even Mt. Rushmore. Think about what happens to these things over time. Wind shifts formations. Rain and snow alters shape, appearance and textures – but the mountain remains. The rocks remain. Even the sand dunes are still there. The same can be said about your loss – time shifts the intensity, the shape and the complexion of loss, but the loss itself will always be there.
In other words, a healed wound does not mean a disappearing wound.
No matter the reasons, if you have experienced or are currently experiencing delayed grief, I strongly encourage you to go back to the “basics” of grief recovery. Even though you may be further away from your loss in terms of chronological time, you may very well need to visit the very basic first steps of healing. Establish (or re-establish) your basic routine by paying attention to your health and starting your recovery processes once again::
- Honestly recognize and honor your grief and all of the attendant feelings that it stirs within you; however those feelings manifest.
- Turn a deaf ear and a blind eye to anyone who offers negative opinion, i.e., “Why are you still sad?”; “You weren’t even speaking when he/she died, why do you even care?” A positive path to grief recovery begins by surrounding yourself with positivity and this is not it.
- Eat when your body asks you for food. Minimize fast food and junk food and choose lean proteins, fresh or frozen vegetables and fruits and whole grains; all nutritious, easy to prepare, and easy on the stomach. Rather than worry about sitting down to large meals or overwhelming amounts of food at one time (which can cause you to mentally overwhelm and shut down), concentrate instead on eating several small meals during the day to keep something in your stomach and your blood sugar stabilized.
- Aim for a regular nightly bedtime and a regular rising time in the morning. Do not exercise, do not start cleaning the house, do not start paying the bills, or otherwise engage in any physical or mentally stimulating or stressful activity right before bed. Give yourself a “cut off and calm down” period before bed, sending a message to your body that it is time to go to sleep. Enjoy a cup of herbal (decaffeinated) tea, read quietly, or write in a journal. In other words, use your actions to “tell” your body that the time for rest has arrived.
One of the things that I found very helpful at bedtime was setting a timer and listening to soothing music while I was drifting off. Another wonderful aid that I found was “soundscape” CDs, which are sold at many discount and specialty stores. All I have to do is listen to the sounds of the ocean for ten minutes and I am out like a light.
- Gentle exercise truly does wonders for both your soul and for your grief recovery and can consist something as simple as a brief walk. If it’s cold, bundle up; if it’s hot, wait until dusk, but commit to moving around just a little bit. At this moment in time, it is not about lifting weights or cardio or jumping around to the latest video. It is about moving, changing up your scenery, and giving yourself an opportunity to take a few deep breaths.
If working out is a regular part of your daily routine, and the thought of working out right now is not overwhelming to you, by all means, continue to work out in whatever way(s) you think best. Continuing a regular workout routine will not only keep your body strong, it will help you mentally as well.
- Consider a little extra-special self-attention, which need not be time consuming, expensive, or especially girly, if that’s not your style. Pampering can be twenty minutes in a tub with bath salts that you can get at your local discount store. It can be an afternoon of scent sampling and coffee. If you are not into doing the “girly thing,” that’s fine too – pampering can also consist of a few quiet moments at night or in the morning, perhaps spent with your faith or with other meditative pursuits. The goal is to do something to renew and revive you; making you better equipped to deal with your grieving process.
Most importantly, please remember that delayed grief should not and does not mean denied grief. On the contrary, delayed grief inevitably leads to discovered grief – and it is a grief that deserves to be recognized, honored and attended to as you see fit.
**IMPORTANT NOTE: You do not have to suffer through loss, grief or life-challenge alone. If you are in need of help in coping with loss of any kind, please do not hesitate to seek help from your doctor, a cleric, a mental health professional or anyone who is in a position to help you.
Carole Brody Fleet is the award-winning author of the forthcoming book, “Loss is a Four Letter Word…” (HCI Books, Fall 2018); as well as the #1 ranked release, “When Bad Things Happen to Good Women…” (Viva Editions), “Happily EVEN After… “(Viva Editions); winner of the prestigious Books for a Better Life Award, one of the top national awards in publishing and the critically praised, national bestseller, “Widows Wear Stilettos…” (New Horizon Press). A three-time contributor to the iconic Chicken Soup for the Soul book series and a veteran of over 1,000 radio shows, Ms. Fleet regularly appears as a media expert on numerous television and radio programs nationally and internationally; as well as in national and international print media. To learn more, please visit www.carolefleetspeaker.com and www.widowswearstilettos.com