Using writing, and meditation, and ice cream, and reading, and dreams,

and a whole lot of other tools to rediscover who I am,

after six years living with a man with OCPD.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Damn the Hankies, Full Speed Ahead!
Practicing Grief

Recently I realized I will probably be grieving someone or something, every day for the rest of my life. This makes me sound like some kind of Victorian novel heroine, swathed in black, sobbing melodramatically into my lace-edged hanky.

Uh, no.  One of the ways I decided to express grief over a recent loss was getting a tattoo.  Ain't it pretty?

 My getting a tat horrified my more conservative friends, who didn't feel this was The Right Way to grieve this particular loss.  (Or any losses, actually.)

There really isn't a wrong way to grieve - as long as we allow ourselves to grieve.  Grief is something people resist talking about, or even thinking about.  We treat grief like a bowel movement - it's gross and stinky and most people would prefer pretending they never have to deal with it.

Yet it's something we don't want to bottle up inside, because it'll make us ill.  We don't necessarily have to let it rip at the Thanksgiving dinner table, but sooner or later, it's going to come out.  In some form, or another.

There are many more things to grieve than the loss of a loved one, rough though that is.

When good things happen, we grieve, too.  Take graduating from college.  People assume, yippee, all that hard work behind you, you're done, you should be happy!!  And you probably are.

And yet... there will be friends you've become accustomed to seeing every day, that you may not see for a long time - possibly never again.  Certainly not on a daily basis.  You won't have the structure you're accustomed to: this class, that class, coffee over at this place, party over at that one.  There may be places at your college where you felt especially happy or comfortable: the library, the track, the dorm, a particular classroom.  You may be scared about the future: getting a job, finding somewhere to live, paying off your student loans.  You are losing the identity you've had for XX many years, as a college student.

Is it any wonder that many people graduate from college and find themselves in a blue funk?  I'm not bagging on college - college is a great thing, but if young people are not taught to expect grief as well as joy and relief upon graduating, they may be confused and unready to cope with the very mixed emotions they may experience.

There are all kinds of happy events, that also mean the loss of the person/identity/lifestyle we had before: marriage, promotions, the birth of a child, the publication of our first novel.  If we want to cope with life's joys, we need to learn about grief.

Of course, there are all the extremely crappy events of life we need to grieve, too: death of loved ones, getting laid off or fired from work, loss of friendships, divorce or break-up of relationships.

And if we are in a relationship with a mentally ill or disordered person, we need to grieve the fact that the relationship will never be "normal."

From Elisabeth Kübler-Ross & David Kessler - On Grief and Grieving - about the five stages of grief:

They were never meant to help tuck messy emotions into neat packages.  They are responses to loss that many people have, but there is not a typical response to loss, as there is no typical loss.  Our grief is as individual as our lives.

The five stages - denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance - are part of the framework that makes up our learning to live with the one we lost.  They are tools to help us frame and identify what we may be feeling.  But they are not stops on some linear timeline in grief.  Not everyone goes through all of them or goes in a prescribed order.
I think the point above is vital, and one that many people don't realize.  They think, okay, grief, first you feel A, then B, then C, and after you go through all five stages, you're done, fini!  Like taking the train on the California coast: start in Los Angeles, travel north to Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Salinas, San Jose, and end in San Francisco/Oakland.

We may experience grief in a linear fashion - and we may not.  We may bounce all around, get stuck in one place, never feel another. 

Another way of looking at the stages/areas of grief.

One thing is certain - we never truly get off the train.  I lost my mother to breast cancer many years ago.  Mostly, I am at the stage where I feel acceptance/resignation about her death, but even though it has been decades, there are still times when I feel angry, when I don't want to believe it (denial), where I play the what if game (bargaining), or when I am truly, deeply sad (depression).

We get into trouble over grief because we try to stuff it down.  We tell ourselves, "I shouldn't be feeling this, because..." [it's been so long, I should be happy, I don't have time to grieve]

Instead, we should give ourselves permission to grieve, to simply be with our feelings, instead of  trying to change them into something else.  To educate ourselves about grief and fear and all the stinky, unpleasant feelings, and let them have their time and space in our lives, too.

Transformation will happen... in its own time.  You can't rush a caterpillar into becoming a butterfly.

Here's a very abbreviated version of the five stages/areas of grief:

Denial - Because we are overwhelmed, because our mind may not be ready to process it, we may literally deny that the death or loss may be so.  We may play little mind games and pretend everything is just fine.  That we are fine, not hurting, we are great!

Anger - We may be angry at the person who died/left or at ourselves, for not being to control the situation or prevent it from happening.  We may blame others (doctors) who failed to prevent the death or who misdiagnosed the illness.  We may be angry at God or however we perceive the Divine.

Bargaining - So many Hollywood movies allow the main character to go back in time and the person won't have died or left after all, but real life doesn't work that way. Kübler-Ross refers to Guilt as bargaining's companion.  If we can only figure out what went wrong, we can prevent it from happening again.  This is very tempting, especially for those with OCPD, but the scary truth is, death and loss and unexpected things happen to everyone, no matter how fit or prepared we are, no matter what precautions we take.

Depression - Recently someone told my sister, that after she experienced the loss of her baby seven weeks after his birth, that the pain was so intense she wouldn't have been able to breathe, if her body hadn't done it automatically.  Sometimes "things" keep a person going - a memorial service to plan, children to care for, and when those tasks are accomplished, the grief and pain knock a person down and sit on our chests like a sumo wrestler.  We feel like not only can we not get up, but that we will never, ever be able to, and we don't want to.

There is such a critter as clinical depression, which may include a biological/hormonal imbalance in our bodies that truly needs medical intervention.  While we should not dismiss the concern of loved ones who express that we are "too depressed," or that our mourning has gone on "too long," we need to allow ourselves time and space to experience depression.  When in doubt, always consult appropriate psychiatric and medical professionals.

Acceptance/Resignation - this does not mean that we "feel okay" that our loved one is gone.  It does mean that we are learning to live with the new reality.  This is how it is, our world does not include the physical presence of this person, or these things.  We must negotiate a new life without him/her.

As I grieve two recent losses to death (my father and my grandbaby-to-be, for whom I got the tattoo), the loss of my relationship with my ex, due to his untreated OCPD, the old (but still painful, at times) loss of my mother, and the loss of other beloved people, relationships, identities, and dreams, I invite you to join me on this journey, and to share your own.

Recommended books on Loss and Grief:

Elisabeth Kübler-Ross & David Kessler - On Grief and Grieving
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross - On Death and Dying
Therese A. Rando - How To Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies
Ted Menten - Gentle Closings - How To Sat Goodbye To Someone You Love

Got more books to recommend?
Please share in the comments, below.