Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Shape of Grief

I've been thinking a lot about grief lately. Back in the days of my psychology training, we learned that grief follows a predictable pattern and happens in progressive stages:
Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance (based on the work of Kubler-Ross.

That's not the tune my grief over my father's recent death dances to. For the first week after he died, I was just plain exhausted. This was a completely physical experience. Being with him in the hospital for ten hours a day for two weeks with all chakras wide open left me empty. Once I got home, I lived on the couch.

I guess I expected that I would cry most of the time. Dramatic meltdowns of wracking sobs eventually tapering down to trickles and sniffles. Or at least an hour's worth of steady tears running down my face. Didn't happen.

What did happen was that I would stumble over some flicker of a memory from his hospitalization at random, incongruous moments. While riding the exercise bike or cooking scrambled eggs. I would suddenly be abducted by this memory - staring into his blue eyes; wiping slow tears from his face; hearing doctors use words like failure and damage; watching his chest rise with his final three breaths.

These snatches of memory would prick open some swollen balloon of sadness, and deep sobs would would burst out. Sobs from the chest, that lasted a minute, maybe two. Then back to pedaling or cooking.

It's been a little over two week since he died, and even though I was by his side, I still don't know how to know that he's dead. I don't know how to let his death change my world. Is this strange?

Thinking about grief has also led me to ask what are the social allowances for grief.

We are expected to grieve over a death or a divorce. But we are not given a mourning period for serious illness or chronic pain. After diagnosis, we are expected to jump on the treatment treadmill and keep running after the magic pill. My father was praised for being such a fighter and for not complaining about his infirmities. Is it ok to cry about losing the pieces of life illness and pain take away? Is it ok to mourn for the trip to Paris you won't get to make or the mountains you'll no longer climb? Is it ok to cry because illness had made you too tired or pained to love your family and friends in the way you want to?

Must we be uncomplaining soldiers fighting the good fight? Or can we make room and rituals for grieving over the losses of illness and pain.


isabella mori said...

hello ... sending good thoughts your way ...

i agree with you. and it's so complicated. i've always found that the social norms around grieving are, well, actually, a little scary. for example, i was not supposed to grieve the breakup of my relationship with my abusive ex husband except maybe in the tucked-away corner of a therapist's office.

on the other hand, it's hard to have accepted rituals if there aren't any social norms, and as soon as there are social norms, there is constriction.

i wish you a way of grieving that works for you. btw, i reviewed a book on the topic the other day, really liked how the author insisted that we need to do it our own way. if you're interested, here it is

colleen said...

Hi Ms. Barbara, I am sending good vibes to you and hope each day you continue to experience new forms of happiness. As far as complaining, it's funny, I was just saying to my kids last night, "Why can't I ever complain?"I thought outloud, "hey! I'm tired too damn it!" so, you know what, let it all hang out. Be bummed one day, then turn on the music!

Anonymous said...

I think grief is a process and it takes whatever form it takes. I'm sorry for your loss. When my mother died, I was relieved at first because it was painful to watch my mother die and not such a good death, not that I think there really is such a thing as a good death. Let me get back on track, yes grief has stages like Kubler-Ross mentions but the stages come when you are ready to experience them and then experience them for how long and how deep, everything is in your own time. DON'T let anyone tell you how long to mourn because there is no set experience.

Let yourself feel everything or nothing.

That fact that you blog is probably a good thing. Be gentle with yourself. Let the mourning take whatever shape it needs to.

In loving kindness,

Anita Fiessi

Anonymous said...

I think that grieving is learning to live the moment and feel the feelings. Our feelings ARE our lives and if we stuff them, we aren't really living. I've grieved big losses and small losses in dealing with my husband's chronic, progressive illness. No one can put restrictions on what, how and for how long we should grieve. Although, we must watch out for "getting stuck" in our grieving. Counseling helps. Here is a caregiving video with Don Gottlieb that has helped me a lot recently:

While given at a conference for frontotemporal dementia, it encompasses so many more areas of life. GREAT video.

Barbara Kivowitz said...

Thank you all for your comments about grief. You are wise people.

kitrona said...

Thank you. Grieving for the life we could have had without chronic pain or illness is a subject rarely brought up.

May you find your way through both griefs.

M. Powers said...

Wow you hit the nail on the head. I am glad I found your blog in my search for "caretaker stress". When my son died after a fourteen year illness I had a very similar experience. Later I thought that because I had to put up the strong front for him to get through it (and maybe even for myself) it was really hard for the truth to break through. As time passed I learned to work with it by purposely playing songs that brought the feelings up. It is very very hard! That said, it is a wonderful quality to bond the way we do, it gives our lives joy and purpose, but oh my how it hurts when we lose them. It has been 15 years since my son died. Eventually I came to understand that our bond had altered me and that I was a different person because of him. That is something I can not lose no matter how much time passes. In that sense he lives on through me.