Blah, blah, blah.
Everyone is driving you crazy. Or you are doing a pretty good job making yourself crazy. Your parent died yesterday. Two months ago. Two years ago. Even twenty years ago, and everyone gives your their dumb opinions (notice how later on I assume my opinion to be the only smart one, ha!) about how you should be feeling, how you should be grieving. And either you—or somebody else—thinks that you are not grieving the right. Like, you should be over it by now (don't you love that line?); or, if you are not sad, then you are in denial and really you haven't started grieving yet (oh yeah? So now it's dysfunctional to be happy?)
So what's the scoop on grieving? On what shanah rishonah is like (oops, isn't that for newlyweds? Whatever). What's right? What's wrong? What's normal? What's not?
You are asking the absolutely wrong person.
People look at me funny lately because I don't look or act depressed since my son was niftar this past summer. These people are sure that secretly I am depressed and I am just pretending. Hey, if I would know how to act, I would have gotten a normal part in my school play instead of Beggar #1 in the third scene that had exactly 2 lines, one of which I promptly forgot as soon as I got on stage with stage fright. Whatever.
My mother said, “And if you tell me one more time how beautiful the trees and grass were on the day Hillel died, I will kill you.” (They were. I did. And I am still alive.)
So we don't like anyone telling us how to grieve, when to grieve, or for how long. This article is for those of you who want to know you are normal for grieving—or not—any which way you choose to. And if there's anyone reading this who does want to know, then this article is for you too.
We are going to specifically focus on the first year of grief; and on normal grief rather than abnormal grief. Abnormal grief is when the natural grieving process seems arrested, stuck; the grief feels as fresh and terrible as when it first happened; or, the grief seems unbearable in ways that don't make sense. Either in functioning or the years away from the actual death.
In a nutshell, support is what you need when there is normal grief; therapy is what you need when there is abnormal grief. And after a year or so, you can tell the difference.
There are some different stuff that affect the grief process.
The relationship with the parent who died definitely affects the grief. An enmeshed relationship or a bad one that has stuff like co-dependence, anger, hate, or disgust complicates grief in a way that a positive relationship does not. Believe it or not, if a person had a healthy relationship with the parent that died, the grief process is usually best.
It also matters how much vicarious trauma is associated with the dying and death. What I mean by that is that when a child is involved in the nitty gritty of a parent's illness and death, enmeshed in the pain and despair the parent feels, worried sick (awful pun, I know; but not on purpose!) about the parent as she or he is sick and feeling responsible, there is vicarious trauma that affects the normal grief of loss.
Unresolved issues in the relationship with a parent who died really messes up a grief. What I often tell clients is that death seriously messes up a relationship. Long life gives a lot of opportunities to work stuff out. It's pretty awful when a teenager going through the normal bratty teen stage, having that awful relationship that many teens have with their mothers, loses the parent she's spends quite a bit of time fighting with about curfew, friends, her hairstyle, and how embarrassing her mother's mere existence when her friends come over to their house. Because if that parent would have lived into her 80's, by that time, her daughter would be a mother to her own bratty teenager, and totally in sync with her mother, apologizing for her own teenage years of mega brat-hood. Get what I mean about unresolved relationships?
A person's role in the aftermath of the death also affects grieving. If a child is involved, sits shiva properly, is able to cook their mother's Shabbos food, and stuff like that; then grieving is quite different than if a stepmother walks into the house barely a month after their mother dies and the kitchen becomes a foreign country.
And yes, actively avoiding mention of the death, of one's feelings, the room where the parent slept, the foods the parent ate, or shutting down emotions of sadness and pain, definitely impacts the grieving process negatively. It's one thing if there is a balance of loving life and missing mother; it's another if there is a denial of the pain and loss by avoidance.
What's normal the first year?
As long as you don't shut down, you are able to talk about your parent, laugh about your parent, share happy or sad memories, and allow for tears, then anything is normal. Loads of pain and sadness. Loads of anger and frustration. Loads of crying and misery. All normal. It's true that for many people a year is about the average for intense grief, but longer is also normal as long as there is a continuous change in the grief. To evaluate that continuous change I sometime ask clients not to focus on their grief to asses how they are doing, but rather on the length of the hard times, the intensity of the grief, and the lengthening intervals between bad days. What I mean by this for example is how long is the bout of misery lasting today versus last month? How terrible from 1-10 does this bout of misery feel like today versus last month? And finally, how long of a good period of time do you get now between those bouts of misery?
And of course, when you are finally feeling better, it's normal to get those horrible, yucky relapses of crying and sadness and general life-is-really-horrible moods when there is a specific trigger of the grief: a birthday, a holiday, a milestone of some sort or another.
There was this famous woman, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross who was an obviously very cheerful woman who made it her life's work to study death and dying (yes, I am being sarcastic here, do you mind?). She talked about the five stages of bereavement, and even though people don't realize she was actually talking about the five stages in context of the actual dying person who is grieving their own dying, these stages are adaptive to anyone who experienced a loss; whether a death, job, dream, or even object.
Here they are. Apply them as you please to yourself.
Shock and denial. That feels like there is a glass wall between you and your feelings. You may not even be able to cry. This is usually right after the death. Even during shiva and shortly after. A numbness. Alienation, feeling separate from others. Bereft. Like suddenly the rug has been pulled out from underneath you and you have no idea where to put yourself or what to do without your parent. Really, really weird feelings. You might have memory gaps, feeling spacey, feeling really out of touch with your body or feelings.
But then come pain and guilt. It hits you like a ton of bricks. Missing your parent. Going crazy with the finality of the death; like, oh-my-gosh I am never going to see him again for the rest of my life. Guilt for not doing more, for not doing enough, for ever not being a perfect daughter. Even relief that the parent is dead and not suffering, not turning your home anymore into a hospital, all those stupid strangers finally out of your house so you can have your privacy again. You know that stuff. Guilt is a killer (another awful pun, I'm sorry!). You might feel exhausted with all this, physically and emotionally. Get nutty mood swings. Negative thoughts about yourself. Obsessing about what could have been done; should or should not have been done. This is a really dark time of grief.
But then along comes anger, bitterness, and frustration. The it's-not-fair syndrome (it's not) why-me complaint (yeah, me too), and those wonderful attacks of self pity. You may notice yourself avoiding social situations, mistrusting others, being sarcastic, or being constantly irritated for no reason (or for good reason). Not a fun person to be around. You will get to see your real friends now, the ones who will stick it out through this very unpleasant behavior.
And then finally, somewhere down the line, there will be acceptance. It will feel like waking up out of a deep sleep or a trance. Moments of time in which you can laugh and really find something funny again. Wake up and look forward—even for a moment—to something or other that is coming up that day. Pockets of joy and satisfaction that take you by surprise. Noticing the smell when you pass the bakery, how cute your nephew or little brother is. New strength and determination, of I-can-do-this; if only for an hour, a moment. Feeling for one rapid second like your old self again.
It is not like these stages are very nicely in order. Nope. That would be waaaay too easy. What they are like is one on top of the other. In a single hour you can cycle between anger and guilt, pain and numbness, bitterness and acceptance. It is a free-for-all out there and these stages keep tumbling all over.
Hang in there. Unless there is abnormal grief (which it usually isn't, unless you go back to the beginning and notice the stuff that interferes with normal grief), you will cycle through these stages and come out on the other side. Imagine a Ferris Wheel. Sometimes you are on top, sometimes on the bottom; and wherever you are there is a different view of things. And your stomach may feel queasy one moment, and you can lose your breath in another, and sometimes you will feel like you are on top of the world, or far away, and sometimes you will feel like you are at rock bottom, or grounded.
What is the best way to go through these stages?
Expect to feel a multitude of emotions. Recognize the impact of the death on each individual in your family and even in your broader circles. Reach out for support from your family, from friends, from mentors, teachers, and Links. Be tolerant of your physical and emotional limitations during this time. Treasure your memories and relationship. Exercise. Talk. Engage in creative pursuits. Allow yourself to search for meaning in context of death, and deepen your spirituality and relationship with Hashem. Give yourself permission to grieve in whichever way works for you, not allowing others to dictate what is the wrong or right way.
It is your grief. Own it.
Blah. Blah. Blah.
NOTE: This was originally published in LINKS Magazine, a division of LINKS, an organization for children, teens, and young adults who have been orphaned of a parent.
NOTE: I will be away for the next two weeks and will not be posting again until August 3. Mindy
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