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The Grief Bucket

blog2-grief“There is no way around the pain that you naturally feel when someone you love dies.  You can’t go over it, under it or around it. Going through it is what will help you heal.” 

~ Therese Rando 

So there I was on my knees, clutching the toilet bowl in the pristine bathroom stall at San Diego Hospice.  Two months after Brent’s death, I dragged myself to the first of many “grief groups”.  And although the term “hospice” didn’t initially resonate with my personal “sudden death situation”, I thought the people there would understand.  G~ Group Support was a tool I would come to rely upon.

I had arrived early to give myself enough time to use the bathroom. And I HAD gone to the bathroom, but when I went to the sink afterwards to wash my hands I made the terrible mistake of looking up and into the mirror in front of me. Who was this person staring back at me? Gaunt face. Dark circles. Heavy bags. Sunken eyes. EMPTY eyes. The lights were out.  I looked dead.  I AM dead.  I am walking, but dead.  Is that ME in this reflection?  Who I am anymore?  What is happening to me?  What am I doing here?  Oh, yeah. I am here because Brent is dead.  Brent.  Is.  Dead.  BRENT is dead?  Brent is DEAD?  BRENT IS DEAD?  Oh my God. Back into the stall.  Heart racing.  Chest heaving.  Mind spinning.  Sweating.  Vomiting.

Sometime the week after Brent died, a good friend handed me a book. Neither of us had ever heard of the author, but Jerry Sittser and his words in A Grace Disguised: How the Soul Grows Through Loss became my best friends as I threw myself into D~ Do Your Homework. I began reading, researching, absorbing the many facets of grief and loss. I needed to understand what was happening to me and my life. Of course Jerry Sittser got it. Of course he would. This theology professor lost his mother, wife and youngest daughter in a horrendous car accident one evening as the family was returning from a home schooling field trip. He utilized J-Journal as one coping tool in his attempt to remember, recollect, reorganize, readjust, reintegrate, rebuild a new life. Just a few chapter titles in his Table of Contents let me know that this man understood personal destruction:

The End and the Beginning
Whose Loss is Worse?
Darkness Closes In
The Silent Scream of Pain
Sailing on a Sea of Nothingness
The Amputation of the Familiar Self
A Sudden Halt to Business as Usual
The Terror of Randomness

grace-disguised

I also devoured anything by Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the famous guru of On Death and Dying and the researcher who brought us “The Five Stages of Loss”- Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance. What I didn’t realize about Kubler-Ross, however, is that she and David Kessler also co-wrote another helpful book, On Grief and Grieving, for those of us struggling to live after our loved one has died.

“An unimaginable, indescribable loss has taken place. It has inflicted a wound so deep that numbness and excruciating pain are the material of which it is made. Everyone experiences many losses throughout life, but the death of a loved one is unmatched for its emptiness and profound sadness. Your world stops. You know the exact time your loved one died- or the exact moment you were told. It is marked in your mind. Your world takes on a slowness, a surrealness. It seems strange that the clocks in the world continue when your inner clock does not. Your life continues, but you are not sure why… you will survive, though you may not be sure how or even if you want to.” 

on-grief-grievingI was drawn to simplicity too. My mind couldn’t retain much information at once – and almost four years later it still doesn’t operate as it used to. I came across this graphic in the GriefShare group manual (www.griefshare.org). I call it “Your Brain on Grief”. I photocopied and taped this brain image to the fridge, bathroom mirror, kitchen cupboard, closet door, garage bulletin board, and car dashboard all in an effort to remind myself that my crazed feelings were actually “normal” and that in fact, I wasn’t going absolutely insane. This unfamiliar cocktail of intense mixed emotions swirled through my whole being 24 hours a day:

brain-denial

Yet although this brain image explained what my EMOTIONAL self was going through, it didn’t explain the havoc being wreaked on the rest of me.

There was massive internal shifting. Like not wanting to speak to anyone else unless they also had a 43 year old musical surfing husband with brown hair who died in a car accident. Like wanting to haul off and punch the elderly lady at the gym who complained about her live husband snoring next to her in bed. Like screaming obscenities at God while driving around the perfectly manicured suburbs. Like the inability to put a coherent sentence together. Like discovering one evening (because your son points it out at the dinner table) that you have been walking around town all day- elementary school, grocery store, medical appointments, teacher conference- with a smashed green earplug embedded in your hair, remnants from last night’s failed attempt to sleep. And you don’t even care. You are up and breathing. Isn’t that enough?

One of my young widowed peers, Kelley Lynn (www.ripthelifeiknew.com), does a hilarious bit in her stand-up comedy routine at the Soaring Spirits International (www.sslf.org) yearly conferences. One of her healing tools is definitely L~ Laughter. She talks about going to work one day and wondering why so many people were staring at her as she walked from her apartment to the parking garage. It was a typical busy morning in New York. Kelley crosses the busy street, goes through the parking garage, unlocks her car door, and takes a seat. As she leans over to buckle up, she realizes that she has forgotten something. Her pants. She has totally forgotten to put on her pants! And now, embarrassed and knowing, she must retrace her steps out of the parking garage, past all of the same people on the street, and back into her apartment complex- to find some pants. I wonder if Shel Silverstein had “Grief Brain” in mind when he wrote “Something Missing”?

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Maybe… check out some of the common grief reactions in adults (below) to determine what’s in your own GRIEF BUCKET.

Understand… that no one’s grief bucket will ever look exactly the same.

Realize… you are still in very good company.

Finally… move through the A2Z Healing Toolbox to see which tools might assist you in managing your grief. If we can move through the pain of grief in single small steps, eventually the bucket won’t be so heavy. And there are tools and resources to support us along the way.

EMOTIONAL

shock, numbness, sadness, sorrow, guilt, regret, anger, rage, emptiness, relief, irritability, restlessness, anxiety, increased arousal, listlessness, insecurity, betrayal, resentment, desire to join loved one, feeling helpless, feeling out of control

BEHAVIORAL

crying, sobbing, wailing, difficulty crying, sitting quietly, staying busy to avoid emotion, avoiding situations that provoke grief, talking aloud to loved one, looking at photos and videos of loved one, keeping a home altar, carrying loved one’s belongings, wearing loved one’s clothes, repeatedly visiting cemetery, repeatedly visiting ash site, acting with loved one’s mannerisms, energy is channeled into activities, sharing feelings with others, sharing problems rather than feelings

PHYSICAL

upset stomach, pain, exhaustion, sleep changes, appetite changes, dry mouth, muscle tension, clumsiness, low energy, shortness of breath, tightness in chest, tightness in throat, agitation, sensitivity to light, smells, sounds

SOCIAL

difficulty relating to old friends, making new friends, isolation, alienation, shifting roles, new responsibilities, not wanting to burden others, withdrawing from activities, low desire for conversation, holding grief in to help others, difficulty relatiing to those who aren’t grieving

MENTAL

denial, disbelief, forgetfulness, confusion, disorientation, difficulty concentrating, shortened attention span, minimal motivation, retelling story of death, memories of past losses, dreams or images of loved one, expecting to hear from loved one, thoughts are more dominant than emotions, grief is experienced as more of an intellectual activity, disorganized thought,

SPIRITUAL

mystery & wonder, questions about afterlife & mortality, questions about God & higher power, affirmation of spiritual/religious beliefs, doubting spiritual/religious beliefs, anger at God, questions about the whereabouts of loved one, sensing the presence of loved one