The Journey of Grieving
Our society does not deal well with grief. Often when people have suffered a loss, they are given a few weeks of close support, getting them through the funeral and a short time after. Then society expects them to be fine and get back to life. But grief doesn't respond to society's time line and schedule. Often grieving people are left feeling alone, guilty that they are not “getting it together” or that they are not strong enough, since they still feel all these difficult emotions. Adding to that feeling is having to try and sort it all out by themselves, without any knowledge of what is normal.
While we tend to think of grief in term of death, grief is a natural and normal reaction to any kind of loss. Death is the most obvious example, but a job change, a move, or a break-up in a relationship can all cause a similar kind of reaction. The term “grief” is used to describe that reaction. The word “bereavement” means to have suffered a loss, and “mourning” is the term used to describe the way people express their grief.
Grief is a process that encompasses many stages:
The first stage of grief has traditionally been referred to as denial, but as anyone who has lived through it will agree, there is no denying what has happened. This stage is one of disbelief and follows the initial learning of the loss. Most often it is felt as emotional numbness or “shock.” This is nature's way of making us go on autopilot for the first few days or weeks after a loss, allowing us to get through those first horrible days and all that needs to be done in funeral preparations and phone calls. Others will sometimes say a grieving person is “so strong” or “handling this all so well.” I heard that from quite a few people after Nicholas died. “You are such a strong person! I don't think I could get through that.” What else am I supposed to do, I would think.
At the same time, grieving people may feel as if they can't think clearly, as if they are in a fog. This is usually the phase in which we receive the most support. People call, offer to bring meals, ask how we are doing. It is assumed that the person is in an active phase of grieving and needs support. In reality, however, the person is still feeling numb, unable to really begin to process all the emotional factors that are yet to come. When asked, they will answer that they can't think of anything someone else can do to help. This stage, unfortunately, often wears off at the point at which society expects people to begin to adjust and move on.
Anger is a very strong emotion and a part of every grief process. It can be directed at your spouse, kids, other pregnant women, other drivers on the highway, God, or even your unborn baby. You may find yourself snapping at your children or your spouse and later thinking “I blew that way out of proportion! What is wrong with me?” You may find yourself angry at a friend who is experiencing a normal pregnancy—why her and not me? You might find yourself angry at God for allowing such a thing to happen to you. It may even come out at your unborn baby: “How could you leave me like this?”
Anger can also surface in other ways:
Irritability: Instead of anger, you might feel grouchy, edgy, or out of sorts. You may find you have no patience for things, however small. Little things your kids do may have you yelling at them. I remember losing my patience with Matthew almost daily after Victoria died. Three year old boys can drive a normally patient adult to distraction with pushing limits and being defiant, and Matthew was no exception. Even though, with my child psychology background, I knew that the behaviors were normal for his age, I had no patience with which to deal with them. And I felt awful afterwards for angrily sending him to time out instead of calmly correcting his transgressions. I found myself snapping at Aaron, also, about stupid things like leaving the cap off the toothpaste or not pulling the covers up on his side of the bed in the morning. Must I do everything around here?
Irritability may surface outside of your family as well. Stupid things other drivers do may make you shake your fists instead of shaking your head. You may feel burdened by previous commitments that now seem trivial. Why on earth did I say I'd bring cookies to the bake sale? Is my contribution really going to raise that much extra money?
Anxiety/Guilt: Grieving people often think “if only I had/had not..., perhaps things might have been different.” A feeling of guilt is actually anger turned inward on yourself. This is especially true for a woman who has had an unexplained miscarriage. “If only I hadn't lifted that box,” “I never should have had that glass of wine.” The “what if” game can drive you crazy. What if I had done things differently? What if we hadn't gone out, if I had gotten more sleep, if I hadn't eaten that spicy meal? Would things be better now?
Despite the fact that, in most cases, there is no reason to connect an outside action to a miscarriage, many women will tell themselves things might have been different “if only,” looking for answers where there aren't any. If the pregnancy was not planned or if the parent was feeling ambivalent about this big change, they may think that their lack of excitement in some way contributed to the loss. It is important to remember that this is not your fault!
All these aspects of grief are normal. Anger must come out, or it will do more damage in the long run. However, we need to be careful at whom it is directed. Kids won't understand why you are yelling at them over little things. Your spouse is going through his or her own version of this process, and angry arguments can erupt over little things. When you find yourself snapping at your family or friends, step back and ask yourself whether you are really angry at this person or it is coming from somewhere else. Then say to that person, “I'm sorry, I'm having a really hard time right now. I didn't mean to take it out on you.” Admitting to others that you are struggling with tough emotions will go a long way toward preventing damage to relationships. Looking back, I know I should have apologized more to my boys for being irritable and snapping at them, and I regret not doing that. But we also need to remember that we are only human, and we do the best we can with each day and each situation we are given. If you do let the anger come out at someone else, try to ask forgiveness, but also cut yourself some slack. You are coping with some pretty big emotions right now.
One of the strongest emotions in the grief process is sadness or depression. Emptiness and solitude are also strong aspects of this stage. Grieving people often say they feel hollow inside, as if a part of them is missing. For a woman who has lost a baby, these feelings can be physical, as well, especially if she had been able to feel the baby move.
There is often a need to be alone with one's feelings and thoughts, and that is okay, and even necessary as a part of this process. It's okay to turn down party invitations if you don't feel like being around other people. However, the need for solitude should not translate into isolating yourself from everyone or everything around you. Getting involved with an activity you enjoy, even if it seems to take a lot of extra effort, can keep you connected and keep the isolation from building to unhealthy levels.
Depression can range from feelings of acute emotional pain accompanied by crying to a general feeling of melancholy or “feeling blue.” Sadness can hang over everything you do during the day, always there but not preventing you from doing things, or be totally all consuming and preventing you from doing anything. It can intrude on your thoughts while you are focusing on something else. It can sap your energy and make you feel tired and listless. It can hang over your head and make you feel as if the sun will never shine on you again. Rest assured, despite the cliché sound of the words, time does heal the wounds. You will begin to smile and laugh again, and you will find over time that the ache in your chest will lessen. Remember that you are not being “disloyal” to your baby if you laugh and begin to enjoy your life again!
This final stage is usually referred to as acceptance or recovery, but many bereaved parents have difficulty with accepting what has happened. “Don't ask me to accept this—I'll never recover from it!” is a common statement. The term healing emphasizes that grieving is a journey, a process that may never feel fully complete.
This part of the process comes gradually and takes different amounts of time for different people. Sometimes people will say “I accepted this right away.” They may mean that they are not pretending it didn't happen. Or, for them, perhaps the grief process moved quickly. Others may take years to get to the point of being able to move forward with their lives.
Acceptance comes from dealing with your feelings, doing the work that is involved in going through them, and coming to the point where you are “at peace” with what happened. This doesn't mean you will never think of it again. It doesn't mean you won't have moments in the future of tears or aches or longing. Even now, several years later, tears still come to my eyes when we visit Nicholas' grave. But acceptance does mean picking up the pieces, finding a new sense of normal, and moving forward with your life.
Grief is a very personal thing. While all human beings will share aspects of the process of grieving, no one can tell you how long it should take or what you should be feeling. Grief takes work, and it is hard to face the strong emotions it elicits. But if it is ignored or pushed aside, it will come back in some form later in life. It is much better to work through the process at the time.
The journey of grief is not a linear one. You will not move through one stage, check it off and be done with it, and then move on to the next. People often are surprised or shocked when they find themselves feeling an emotion they thought was gone weeks before. Grief is a “spiral” process, that moves from numbness to acceptance. A person will move through all these stages over and over again, sometimes feeling aspects of more than one stage at a time (anger and sadness, for instance), sometimes going long periods between the various emotions. You may think it is all behind you and then suddenly find yourself back in the middle of it again, thinking you will never get out.
Milestone dates may bring things back to the surface with surprising strength. The baby's due date fills many women with a strong sense of grief, even when they have been feeling more balanced in recent months. Some may find themselves feeling sad and not realizing why until late in the day. The baby's birth/death date will often have you reliving that horrible day over and over again in your head.
The important thing to note is that over time, each of these passes through each stage of the grief process should be shorter and less intense. The spiral should go up, not down. Over time, the emotional pain should lessen to an ache. The times of solitude should not become isolation where you refuse to be around others. The times of sadness should not become bitterness or resentment. And eventually, you should come to a state of peace about your experience—not that it was okay that it happened, but that you have accepted that it happened and started moving on with your life.
If you find yourself in a spiral that goes downwards into deep sadness and despair, isolation or bitterness, not upwards back into life, it is time to seek help!
© 2009 Kathleen Olowin All rights reserved.