Why grief isn’t a linear process
November is one of my favorite months — what with autumn color skittering across the sidewalks, and chillier temps that beg for scarves and mittens and boots, and the promise of upcoming family holidays.
It’s also the month my husband, Gary, died.
I’m in Tucson on a sabbatical, of sorts. A last-minute change of plans, I hurriedly packed a few knitting projects, and six books and found myself on an airplane hurtling toward Tucson to granddog-sit while son Jeremy and DIL Denise visit Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand.
Here’s the oddest thing about how this favorite month started out: with an unexpected waterfall of tears.
A friend suggested that maybe my tears were to settle the dust. What a striking word picture. It speaks to me of grief sometimes setting dormant, gathering dust, and then rising up on a current of unexpected wind, turning on the waterworks.
Levi Lusko, in his book, Through the Eyes of a Lion, wrote this after his young daughter died unexpectedly:
My experience is that [grief doesn’t] come so tidily as moving from one zone to another. It’s messy and muddled. You move in and out of the stages at random. … Then one day you feel good—and you feel bad for feeling good.
Three years ago today, Gary left his cancer-ridden body for a disease-free eternal home. Three years. So what am I doing in the middle of a messy and muddled grief?
Back in 1969, psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote a groundbreaking book about her research on dying patients. From that writing came the belief there are five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
But in a December 2013 piece, “The Secret Life of Grief,” Derek Thompson wrote that Kubler-Ross’s five stages of loss “was shoddy science based on people who were dying, not people who were grieving.”
According to an article by psychology professors Hal Arkowitz and Scott Lilienfeld, “Two Big Myths About Grief,” there are two common misconceptions about the grieving process:
• The bereaved inevitably experience intense symptoms of distress and depression.
• Unless the griever ‘works through’ their feelings about the loss, they will experience delayed grief reactions.
“Neither belief holds up well to scientific scrutiny,” wrote Arkowitz and Lilienfeld. “Reactions to a loss may depend on a person’s relationship to the deceased … as well as whether the death was sudden, violent or drawn out.”
We can confidently say that just as people live their lives in vastly different ways, they cope with the death of others in disparate ways, too.
Grief isn’t a linear, five-stages-and-you’re-finished process. It’s messy and convoluted; it can come out of nowhere and knock you for a loop, long after you thought you were through grieving.
I received text from a friend whose son died of cancer at age sixteen: “I will keep you and Gary extra close to my heart today. Love and hugs.”
I texted back: “I’ve felt Gary’s missing-ness more this year than last. Did you experience that? Two steps forward, one step backwards?”
My friend said yes, and then told me about the previous summer when she went home to see her Dad and visit her Mom’s grave. She said all of a sudden she was that little girl that needed her Dad’s shoulder to cry on, his strong arms to hold her. She said she cried and cried because she was missing her mom and her son so very much:
It was as if I was never going to survive this. But deep in my heart, I knew I would and I needed these tears and this moment of ‘weakness’ to just let happen. Kind of like recharging the batteries.
My friend wrote weakness in quotation marks. Because she and I both know that tears aren’t a sign of weakness; they’re a sign that we have loved and lost something of inestimable value.
Tears are cleansing and dust-settling and life-affirming. They are a sign of courage: I’m not afraid to lose ground and begin again.
No, grief is not a linear process; it’s more like a plate of spaghetti. And here I thought I’d cleaned my plate … only to find a bit of pasta and sauce left.
P.S. If you know someone who needs to know it’s OK if grief shows up out of nowhere, please share, tweet or pin!