What’s It Like to Grieve
I didn’t know a human could hurt that much.
The hole in my soul was huge and indescribable after Ruth died. No one had ever taught me how to mourn or even what to expect. Of course, mourning was not high on my ‘things to learn’ list. Like many, I avoided it as some sort of weakness I didn’t want anything to do with. The various “stages” I went through were surprises to me which often caught me off guard. I eventually had the presence of mind to seek out others who had gone through similar loss to talk about my experiences and pain. It really helped me understand and process my journey.
The previous chapters have been meant to help those who are aiding the bereaved with information and suggestions. However, I want to offer some suggestions here directly to those who are grieving.
UNDERSTANDING THE PROCESS
Although many authors have tried to categorize the grieving process, it really can’t be done to perfection. I notice that any list of “stages” or experiences in print may not all apply to every person. Each person mourns a bit differently. However, just because one comes across something that does not apply to their situation they should not discount being made aware of the many options one may experience.
In an article published in Tabletalk Magazine entitled “Mourning with Those Who Mourn” Dr. Archie Parrish explains mourning:
Mourning is one of life’s universal experiences. To mourn means to feel deep grief, sorrow, heartache, anguish, angst, pain, misery, unhappiness, and woe. It is the opposite of joy. Mourning comes from loss that is perceived as irreversible, such as death, terminal illness, and devastating accidents. It is not expressed in the same way in every culture, but no matter where you live on the planet, sooner or later you will face ‘a time to mourn.’ In spite of the fact that all human beings mourn, each person’s experience of grief is always unique. (2007)
HOW IT FEELS
If you feel like you are losing your grip on reality, you might be a perfectly sane person enduring the confusion of grief. Perhaps you suffer irrational fear, dread or even paranoia. You may feel empty or numb like you are in shock. Grief even causes some people to experience trembling, nausea, breathing difficulty, muscle weakness, loss of appetite or insomnia. Feelings of anger can also surface, even if there is nothing in particular to be angry about. Almost everyone tortures themselves with guilt by asking what they did wrong, how they might have prevented the loss, or some other form of self-condemnation. In short, grief makes us feel like our emotions have gone haywire because, in many ways, they have. Over time, however, you will regain a measure of equilibrium.
Having twice mourned the loss of a spouse, I have noticed that I even went through the process differently each time. There were similarities, of course, but the order and severity of some of my experiences differed.
Changes that affected my mourning journeys included the following:
• My level of maturity. I was 41 the first time and 63 the second.
• My knowledge of the mourning process. I was inexperienced the first time.
• The definition of the relationship lost. Ruth and I came from similar backgrounds and grew up together as adults. Judith and I came from different backgrounds and brought years of adulthood into the relationship.
• The level of my life-demands. The first time I still had children at home. The second time I came home to an empty house.
• The amount of mental and emotional preparation for the impending death. Ruth and I never really talked about her death. Judith and I mourned her death together and openly.
• The support group available to me. The first time I only had friends and coworkers near, whereas the second time I had 15 adult kids and spouses to hug me along the way.
• The depth of my faith. I surely had grown in my faith over the years.
• My willingness to embrace the pain. The first time I tended to try to avoid it in the early days.
• My willingness to talk about it. This became a key in both instances to my healing process.
A PROCESS, NOT AN EVENT
My personality tends to be a “fixer.” Consequently, I found it difficult to accept the fact that grieving is a process and not an event. I wanted to do something and get it over with. That is no more possible than it is to put a cast on a broken leg one day and have it completely healed the next. Both take time. Time and pain became my constant companions. Grieving has no quick fix.
I also felt obligated to be strong and right at all times. It was a challenge for me to realize that my deep, erroneous opinion that mourning was a weakness or even a sin, needed to change. It would have been better for me early in my journey had I believed that grieving is normal and necessary for emotional and physical health. Through searching for relief of my inner pain, I did find others who helped me know that for the deepest, long-term healing I needed to “embrace” the pain fully. I liken it to a festering sore that needs continuous draining till complete healing has occurred.
One of the people in my support group circle was a nurse. Early on she gave me counsel on points to help my sleeping. At first I didn’t know why she even suggested that, but soon I realized why. This was a bigger issue for me after Judith’s death. It took me months to return to somewhat of a normal sleeping pattern. Being intentional about taking care of my health had been overshadowed by taking care of my wife. I needed to change that and begin considering my own health. Research has proven the grieving process to be a physical condition as well as an emotional one. To ignore this would be jeopardizing one’s health. Stories abound of grievers who themselves experienced a physical decline in their health within two years of the loss of someone close to them such as a spouse.
I intentionally made goals to develop a regular time to go to bed, schedule in deliberate exercise, and to pay attention to eating balanced, regular meals. There were benefits to these and the results gave me sparks of hope for the future when grief tried to steal it. Slowly I began to feel the renewing of energy, which mourning had robbed from me. My weight began to return to a safer level. Others noticed, which encouraged me. After experiencing death so closely, it was uplifting to feel so alive again.
One of the wise things I did was to schedule a doctor’s visit shortly after my wife’s funeral for a checkup and advice. This was helpful to me in as much as I openly acknowledged the physical part of grieving and received some good pointers from the doctor as well.
DESPAIR VS. PURPOSE
The feeling of despair during grief could easily drag my thinking and feelings down. To combat this, I found it necessary to intentionally, and daily find and cling to purposes for my life. It was easy to let the grieving process define and totally control me. After Ruth’s death I still had four teens in the house to care for and guide. My job at the college soon continued and speaking engagements began to come in. However, I still had to choose to see those events as meaningful purposes for my life in order to overshadow the periods of despair when blindsided by grief.
Many grievers have shared with me that they found diversion from their own despair when they reached out to help others. I also found that to be true. During Judith’s decline and after her death, I found my concern for how my children and grandchildren were processing their own sorrow as a helpful release from my own despair in bouts of grief. Others have orchestrated grief relief groups, while still others volunteer at the hospital or retirement centers.
“Am I going crazy?” “Why am I so tired all the time?” “Who really cares about me now?” “Why can’t I think clearly anymore?” “Why is it so hard to make decisions?” “Will this ever end?” “Why am I the one that is still alive?” “Why has everyone forgotten my loved one?” “Why has everyone pulled away from me?” “What if I had handled things differently?”
If you find yourself asking any of the above questions you are going through a normal experience in the grieving process. Grieving requires a huge amount of physical and emotional energy. It is draining. You are the focal person who is experiencing grief in a concerted way. Your friends and relatives have gone back to their lives; that dominates their attention. It does not mean they have forgotten you or your loved one. In fact, often times they will mourn longer than you because they are so distracted with life that they only mourn in short remembrances and therefore spread out their mourning process over a longer period of time.
RELEASE THROUGH EXPRESSION
Many of my friends have said they were hesitant to bring up the subject of my grief and my wife because “they didn’t want to make me feel bad or cry.” Of course, what many don’t realize is that talking about things can’t make my grief worse. It helps to release it. So, in essence they were thinking about their own comfort. You can, therefore, help them and yourself by bringing up your journey and memories of your loved one. A friend who had gone through the loss of his wife while in a leadership position like me offered some wise advice. He said, “You need to embrace the process of grief. Don’t avoid or stuff it. Your objective is to be healed and whole on the other side.”
The sense of abandonment crept over me as I experienced the loneliness that swelled up on every side. Without realizing it, I began to associate my feelings of abandonment from my wife’s death to my friends and coworkers. Soon, thoughts that no one really cared about me any more opened up doubts about my social associations. This gave way to ideas of having to find new friends and even coworkers. It is true that a couple of friends pulled away from me because our relationship was primarily through my wife. However, transferring my sense of abandonment to my friends and coworkers was unfounded and misdirected. It became important to me to realize that my feelings of abandonment came from the loss of the intimate relationship I had with my wife. It left a big hole.
As soon as my wife died, I began the process of experiencing all the “firsts” in life for me. The first time I talked to someone after she died. The first time I showed up in a familiar public place as a widower. The first time I went out with friends as a single. The first time I broke down emotionally in public. The first time I talked to someone who didn’t know my wife died though her passing had been weeks or months before. The first time of going through each major holiday without her. The first time any anniversary came around. The first season change without her to enjoy it with. The first family gathering other than her funeral and she was not there. The first time I got news of a friend or event and she was not there to tell it to.
There is no best way to experience these “firsts” in life. I handled them in different ways. Some of them I literally “leaned” into by making a point to “get it over with.” One of those “firsts” was the family gatherings without Judith. I purposely made it a point to go see my relatives even though I knew it would be difficult. Some of the holidays, however, I tended to avoid a bit by doing something totally different the first time after my wife died. The Christmas after Ruth died I accepted an invitation to join a friend for a special holiday out of the country. However, for the Christmas day after Judith died, I stayed home alone in the morning and cried most of that time. Then, in the afternoon, I joined in a community potluck and enjoyed it.
As I said before, a very important first for me was the first time I had a conversation with a stranger and did not feel like I had to make sure they knew I was recently widowed. That helped show me the grieving process does not always have to define who I am. So not all “firsts” are negative and hard. Some of the firsts can be steps in the direction of healing and freedom from deep pain.
You may find it helpful to identify your firsts. Please keep in mind that often these firsts are difficult for your friends and relatives as well as for you. Getting past them can be points in your journey of grief that will lead to victory.
HEAD-BASED VS. HEART-BASED
One of the potential grieving methods I found could be called “head-based vs. heart-based” grieving. The head-based part would be during times when I would use simple logic to deal with my loss. “She’s in a better place.” “I am strong and can get through this.” “I know things will get better for me.” The use of head knowledge and reason has its place. In fact, studies show that many men often use this style of mourning quite successfully. They tend to act or do something in memory of their loved one that “makes sense” in their grieving days. If you find this style helpful, don’t feel guilty about it.
The heart-based part of the grieving process is often what folks tend to expect. Studies again, show that this method is common among many women; however, many men include this in their mourning process as well. Guilt can creep in when sessions of “heart-based” grieving seem either excessive or totally lacking. These are times when your emotions seem out of control and all-consuming. The only thing that really matters to you is your own emotions and grieving. Your pain grips your very soul and swells up on the inside. It feels inconsolable at times.
I have examples during my mourning months where I was misunderstood because I demonstrated one or the other of these methods. During my first wife’s loss I tended to only use the head-based style in public and kept my emotional outburst sessions to myself. Her father later told me that he thought I did not cry at all for her loss. He was relieved to learn differently.
In contrast, after Judith’s death I had the freedom to weep openly at church social gatherings. A couple weeks later, one of the people of the church told a pastor that I was not handling the mourning process well and that I needed counseling.
I say all that to give you freedom to apply whichever method of grieving suits you and your personality — It is okay.
WAVES OF EMOTIONS
The emotional waves during my grieving periods did not always follow logic but were real nonetheless. I could be thinking about circumstances or people, when guilt, anger, relief, regret, stress and jealousy and the like would pop up in my heart in ways that did not necessarily make sense. Because emotions don’t always follow reason, it can be disconcerting to deal with. Time, talking and identification are often aids in dealing with these feelings. Again, not everyone experiences all these emotions the same way. I am just admitting that I had at least short struggles with these.
Learning to cope with my emotions was a new experience for me. Not being known for open expression of feelings, I was suddenly thrust into a reality I had only observed in others. Writing down lessons I was learning through my pain helped me. Finding a safe place to express my emotions was another benefit I learned to seek after. Acceptance, expression and time can be some of your best approaches to dealing with your out-of-control emotions.
Connecting the grieving process to the adjustment of life without my wife helped me understand some of my aches. The day-to-day chores and role responsibilities changed. Suddenly I was doing EVERYTHING by myself, whereas before my wife and I shared what needed to be done. I had to not only do all I had been doing in our daily life routine, but now I had to do her’s as well, which included regular communication with our large family. Developing a new routine I could cope with took time. I found it helpful to not make any other major decisions for a while, until I got used to her simply being gone.
Part of this adjustment was relearning who I was. I was no longer Ruth’s or Judith’s husband. I was now single; a different person but still me. So, in addition to the grief and loneliness, I was going through an identity crisis. This adjustment included simple things such as the style of music I had playing in the house, what type of movies I watched, how often I went out in the evenings and what social events I chose to attend. I took advantage of this time to sort some of our things in storage and reassess their value and relevance in my life with her gone.
BEING SINGLE AGAIN
Being single again and the struggle with loneliness became bigger hurdles than the deep mourning. The deep mourning and grief is understandable, and there’s the hope it will subside. Being single again and lonely looked endless.
Much of our society revolves around couples. The majority of our friends were couples. The challenge for both those couples and me was to reach beyond viewing me as half of a couple, to seeing me as a whole single. It was quite the process before I was able to think of myself that way. For me to even have a conversation with someone and not be constantly referring to something about my wife was a battle.
Loneliness was harder to cope with than grieving. At first I was lonely for Judith. I wanted HER back. I missed HER. As I worked through that sense of loss, a deeper empty feeling began to haunt me. I remembered this phase from my grief for Ruth (at about the six month point) and remembered thinking I was going crazy or something. I had come to grips with losing Ruth (and Judith) and wondered if that was okay, but at the same time I felt even more empty.
This general loneliness is hollow. There was no one who really noticed — or really cared if I came home at six or seven at night. If something unique happened in my day, I had no one to share it with. No one would call me after an important meeting to see how it went. I always came home to a silent house. I had no one close to validate my life or share it with and so on. It was this phase that drove me back to the Lord for answers. Missing Judith was logical and made sense. THIS felt hopeless.
A few weeks after Judith’s death I was invited by a friend to go with him to a grief support group. At first I was resistant, thinking I had enough pain of my own without going to hear about other people’s hurts. However, since the topic was on losing a spouse, I decided to go. The safety of being with others who were very understanding of my mourning process brought a sense of security to me. It helped me release some of the tension I was feeling. So, I recommend that you seek one out in your area and attend some of the sessions. A very reputable one I have found is called Grief Share.
THE LEGAL STUFF
Especially in the case of losing a spouse, the grieving process can be compounded by all the physical and legal matters that need to be tended to. It seems never-ending. Legal matters such as getting jointly-held property into my name only added to such things as changing names on jointly-held bank accounts. I had to change the beneficiary on my life insurance. Business and individual-held credit card accounts had to be adjusted. Auto and home insurance ownership had to be changed. Dentists’ offices and other doctors’ offices had to be notified so they would stop sending reminders of future appointments for my wife. I even had to make a new will for myself. If these matters are overwhelming, seek out a trusted family member or friend to help you with a list of to-dos in this regard.
One of the ways I “plowed” through the mourning process is by watching for signs of improvement from my deep despair. It took over two months of near-hopeless loss, pain and loneliness before I saw signs of relief. First, I was able to watch the slide show of Judith’s life all the way through without sobbing. Then I found myself able to remember her outside the eulogy mode (only saying positive and glowing things about her). I was able to remember some of her weaknesses without feeling guilty about it. Then on the Sunday before Christmas I felt myself feeling frustrated with the “selfishness of mourning.” Now, that is not a negative because mourning IS all about you and your loss AND it is RIGHT. But for me to feel that way, I realized that in order for me to see that perspective I had to be at least a step outside the bubble of mourning I was trapped in. It became a moment of self-encouragement.
LEAN ON OTHERS
After the third month of my grieving process I felt like I was getting life back together. I even resented people who implied or even outright said that I still had a ways to go before full emotional healing. Looking back now I can see that they were right.
Pastor Rick Warren of California gives wise counsel in his article, “In a Season of Loss, You Need God’s People:”
When you’re going through a season of loss, you need not only the support of other people; you also need the perspective of other people. When you’re in a season of loss, you don’t see the whole picture, your pain narrows your focus, and you need other people who can help you see the big picture. We need each other desperately in the season of loss.
After you release your grief, it’s time to let other people minister to you. Let them help. Let them comfort. Let them offer suggestions. Let them sit with you and grieve with you. And don’t be embarrassed about it! That is one of the reasons God created the Church. We are a family, and we are to care for each other.
So, how do you know if all you’re going through is the “normal” process or that you need professional help? Friends, relatives and other professionals can often give insight to that. Theresa Karn (April 27, 2013) provides some helpful signs to watch for. Signs that grief has become complicated and that someone needs professional help are:
• hyper-sensitivity to loss experiences
• restlessness, agitation and over-sensitivity
• intrusive anxiety about death regarding yourself or others
• rigid, ritualistic and compulsive behavior
• flattened feelings – no emotional expression
• fear of intimacy or impulsive relationships or a lack of basic self-care.
She goes on to recommend the book Treatment of Complicated Mourning by Therese A. Rando.
IT WILL HAPPEN
In the throes of deep grieving, there are times it seems like there is no bottom to the despair. Be encouraged that it will not always be so bad. Life will renew and you will laugh again.
Vice President Joe Biden is no stranger to grief. A week after he was first elected to the Senate in 1972, his wife and daughter were killed in a car accident. Then in May of 2015, his son died from brain cancer. MSN news reporter Ezra Klein reflected on Biden’s losses and a speech he gave to the parents of fallen soldiers on May 25, 2012:
In that 2012 speech, Biden talks about the constant weight of grief. “Just when you think, ‘Maybe I’m going to make it,’ you’re riding down the road and you pass a field, and you see a flower and it reminds you. Or you hear a tune on the radio. Or you just look up in the night. You know, you think, ‘Maybe I’m not going to make it, man.’ Because you feel at that moment the way you felt the day you got the news.
Biden doesn’t end the speech easy. He doesn’t say the grief ever goes away. He just says, eventually, it makes room for other things, too.
“There will come a day – I promise you, and your parents as well – when the thought of your son or daughter, or your husband or wife, brings a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye,” Biden says. “It will happen.”
So, it will happen for you too.