Making Friends with Grief
I have had my share of experience with grief. My mother’s suicide, the seven year journey of my husband’s terminal cancer, and a lifetime as a therapist working with the bereaved all might be indicators that I am somehow well-seasoned on the topic. But the truth is, when I lost my husband, I was pretty terrible at grieving.
First off, I was impatient with myself: I felt I should know better than to fall into this overwhelming anxiety about the future, this depression where I could not get out of bed. After all, he had been sick for so long. When he had first been diagnosed years earlier we were told that he had 3-6 months to live. How could I not have been better prepared for this?
I was humbled by being so much less adept than I had hoped I might be. Around the 6 month marker of his death, I felt as if everyone else was moving on and I was only just beginning to process what had happened. This coincided with the holidays so I began to feel like everyone around me who was happy was the most insensitive person on the planet, when in fact they were just living in the real world and I was marooned on the island of grief.
Though it was not rational, a part of me had still believed that my well of knowledge was some kind of exit card for actually having to go through the pain of mourning. As it turned out, neither my insight nor my previous experience precluded me from having to feel my own acute despair. Grief may be a universal experience, but it is unique every time we encounter it. Remembering my grief about my mother may have made me feel connected, but it did not mirror my journey of mourning my husband.
My own sense of isolation, so common in grief, was exacerbated by my determination to be better at this. When people asked how I was, I answered with how I felt in my best moments (at peace, glad he was out of his pain, and grateful for our time together) instead of sharing how I was so much of the time (uncertain, vulnerable, and exposed). This made everyone assume I was coming through with flying colors while half the time I was just trying to shift my own perspective in order to get myself through.
What had happened to the tenacious faith I had experienced all through his cancer, that had buoyed me up through the first few months of mourning? It was like I had been on a honeymoon with grief and now we had returned home and had our first big fight. And I was realizing that since grief and I were now married, we were going to be stuck with one another, for better or worse, for a very long time.
Initially, I had been full of faith in the process itself, knowing that each tear brought cleansing and relief, that each moment of uncertainty would pass and be followed by a moment of decisiveness and readiness which would get me through the next tough step to take. Perhaps it was just that the nightmare of watching someone suffer so inexorably and inexhaustably was over, but whatever it was, when he first died, things had seemed a little bit magical. I was surrounded by warmth, caring, and love everywhere I turned. I found 100 heart rocks in 100 days: it seemed that my husband had sent them to me. I kayaked, laid on sun baked rocks on the Maine summer beach for hours, and had a lovely one-on-one yoga session where I was given a new mantra to help me let go of the trauma of caring for a dying man.
When my son went away to school in the fall and I was left living completely by myself for the first time, well, ever, I joined a tennis club, reached out to friends, cleaned out my storage space, and went for walks on the beach with my cat. I ate healthily, focused on getting enough sleep, and started each day with a meditation on the sunrise. In short, I was the perfect mourner.
Then suddenly, things began to feel like they were crumbling. In response to the dwindling numbers in my bank account, I spent more and more time in bed ruminating about the fact that I should not be there but rather out finding a way to support myself and my son, not to mention, pay for his college. And the more I thought about this, the more firmly I became attached to my bed.
Last year at the same time I remembered how it was the last occasion my husband felt okay- could even get out of bed and walk. I recalled his expression as he sat at the beach one sunset looking toward the future with hope and determination. I remembered how we all pictured this miraculous ending to the story, but that in fact things were actually building to an awful crescendo, one that would get so much worse before the end. How was I going to make it through these memories, or the awful flashbacks of the holidays last year? Thanksgiving was this beautiful day as a family. The next day everything disintegrated. We spent a six hour drive home listening to him alternately vomiting and gasping for breath. I tried to manage this while driving and also being present to my 15 year olds’ deep distress. All I could do was breathe through it all, breaking each awful moment down into tiny manageable parts.
In the face of all of these recollections, I took to my bed. I ate junk food, watched terrible TV (Who knew just how many royal shows there were? These poor women, having to sell themselves for the greater good of their families’ social and economic advancement). I brooded. I told myself I was handling this rather poorly, and a voice inside me wondered, what if I wasn’t who I thought I was? What if I had only fooled myself into believing I was pretty whole and centered and now here was the life test that was going to show all that to the light? I began to imagine myself years down the road, still in bed, living alone but with many more cats, hair sticking up on one side, on my way to the grocery store in stained clothes (I had gotten to the point where it was normal for me to leave the house in a 3 day outfit and unbrushed hair).
I was talking to the wisest person I know (my sister) about it, and she pointed out that in the six months since my husband had died, I had moved, set up a promising rental business with some property we had bought right before he died, joined a book group and a bereavement group, had a book published, continued writing, seen some clients, and been there for my teenage son. Hearing her rational voice, a part of me woke up. I thought, wait, that is right. I have done all those things. It was like in the fog of my despair I had forgotten who I was aside from it.
Anxiety, which we are particularly susceptible to when grieving, is like that. It can overwhelm your perspective and erode your sense of well-being. It confuses your sense of time: you may be feeling it for a week and feel like it has been your whole world for months. And if you follow it, it leads you into the most unlikely scenarios. It begins with thoughts like, it’s been 5 months and I should be doing better than this. Then it leads to worse.
My sister assures me that this will pass, and that she has no doubt I will get through this. I take great comfort in the fact that she believes this, because she has the best judgment of anyone I know. Still, a tiny voice in my head- the voice of anxiety- says, what if she’s wrong? And there is the voice of self-denigration again, this wholly American head trip about how we should always be doing just a bit better than we already are so we can never relax into the moment. So I try not to listen. Life is hard enough on its own- we don’t need to make it worse for ourselves.
I wonder about the nagging voice- if we give it too much leeway, it will grow, containing new, more corrosive messages. Is this what happened to my mother? Eleven years ago, she walked out to the end of a dock on a bright Indian summer morning and ended her life. I am sure I will never stop wondering how this came to pass and what little things along the way could have been done to prevent it. One thing I am certain about: it was the result of a very deluded thought process. And she had never let anyone in on the worst of it, or we might have done even more to help her. How had her messages gotten so distorted? How had she come to believe them so strongly?
How do any of us insure ourselves against the destructive thoughts that anxiety, grief, depression, and, to a certain, degree, every day life all contain? Certainly one way is by sharing the thoughts, so someone can help us put them into perspective. We can also give more space around the thoughts through meditation (see the guided meditation at the end of this article). And we can choose not to believe everything we think. It is not the thoughts themselves, but our belief in the thoughts that lead to tragedy. We would be prudent to remember this, especially during difficult times. In the words of someone who may even be wiser than my sister (Pema Chodron), “Many of the most difficult times are the ones we give ourselves. It is never too late or too early to practice lovingkindness” .
The day my sister leaves to return to her home state I cannot speak when we are saying goodbye- I am too full of tears, and a kind of panic at the thought of being alone again. I pull over to the side of the road and let the tears fall for awhile, waiting for the oxytocin release that a good cry can bring, and then heave a big sigh and take myself home. When the nagging thoughts come, I try to turn my attention toward something else. I drive myself straight to the beach and sit and watch the sunset. It makes me cry, that my husband is not here to witness this beauty (or that if he is I cannot feel him), and that my heart is so touched by things that I can no longer share with him. The next day, I try and focus on the space in between my sad or negative thoughts, and I feel a bit more peace. And I vow to make friends with my grief. After all, it is going to be with me a long time. And, I concede, it has brought some beautiful, and unexpected things with it, too.
SURRENDER CONTEMPLATION: MAKING FRIENDS WITH GRIEF
Sit back comfortably and allow yourself to be cradled by the chair holding you. Feel the lifegiving energy at work in your body. Notice the health at work in it. Notice your heart with gratitude. It’s wonderful to have a heart that works so relentlessly and consistently. Breathing in and out from the heart center, begin by accessing a basic kindness toward yourself. Feel any areas of mental blockage or numbness, self-judgment, self-hatred. Then drop beneath that to the place where you find care for yourself, where you want strength and health and safety for yourself.
Allow yourself to be cradled by your own basic goodness as if you were an infant being cradled by your loving mother. Bask and nourish yourself in this energy of gentleness, peace, and acceptance. Invite images of love and solicitude to radiate into your whole being. Let this awareness, this tender care expand the heart, and travel out into the room to others in your life to the planet and beyond. Let it expand to encompass your grief. Reach out your soft attention toward the toughness of your grief. Radiate kindness and peace toward your own struggle with it. Imagine holding hands with your grief in friendship. Allow your bereavement to ease itself from your soft awareness. Your awareness, a part of this greater loving field, can support you, can hold everything. Allow this greater intelligence to watch over you, and everything, offering comfort, peace, and solace to you and everything that you encounter. Before you get up, list three things that you are grateful for that arrived with your grief, allowing yourself to feel this gratitude in your inner energy field.