Researching on the topic of grief, I read in an article that stated that we study our pain. That statement promptly landed me squarely in the middle of my sometimes insufferable grief and the desire to study my grief, and to study my own pain.
A little over five years ago my family, I, lost a very important person in my life. My daughter, Kelligar. She was 11 years old. After 5 years, one could argue that I should be over it. But the truth is I am not. In fact, I could give you the five year figure in years, months and days (5, 6, and 17, respectively). You see, the day she died is never too far from my current thoughts, regardless of how many times each and every day I push them backwards.
Thoughts of her surround me because her very being, and the memory of her is in everything. Not just the memories of us doing things together, but everything. Like the trips to the grocery store, or school, to the mall, to the park, to Michaels, even my car where she died. A fragrant flower, a piece of knitting yarn, entire CD collections, a single song, a color or just simply a sunny day. I miss her humor. She was freaking hilarious. She was engaging and animated and super fun to speak to. I even miss her hot-headed temper and the fights we had. I miss the way her skin and hair smelled. I miss her hand in mine and her sweet kiss. We could giggle and cry together. There were so many good and bad times in her short life that we did plenty of both. Just writing these memories -- chokes me up.
So now that it has been five terribly long years since our daughter died, I decided to study my grief.
What people outside of this terrible club do not understand, is that the only way a parent could "get over" a tragedy such as this is by literally having a frontal lobotomy or by dying yourself. Neither option seems particularly wholesome or popular. Believe me, at one point I seriously thought about both,
Truly what I have learned about grief, by living with and through the sometimes insufferable grief I have felt, is that the Five Stages of Grief is a sham (see Grief, Grades & Shams-The Sham of the 5 Stages of Grief) Like so many things written and then adopted as Gospel, this was simply one woman's paper, written for a grade. Yes, folks, that is the truth. I certainly hope she got an "A"!
I agree that some of these stages occur but so do about 25 others. When I think of grief personally, this is what I feel or have felt and speaking with other people who have lost children or a spouse, I have received some agreeance.
Grief is sticky. Relentlessly sticky and incredibly hard to shake off. Grief is not linear in nature; it is circular in nature and often circles back on itself. It is not uncommon to experience every emotion you can think of all at once. Or simply just one - bleakness. Sometimes you just cannot cry anymore, you cannot eat, you cannot sleep, you cannot feel, you cannot even think--of anything. And in a blink of an eye it can change 100%.
Intense sadness. There is no way one can explain how intensely that sadness can penetrate your heart until you experience it. For me, I felt like I was drowning in it. I felt like my heart was literally cut open and I was bleeding out. I often imagined that one of the four chambers in my heart was dead. In fact, if I'm being honest, I will tell you I still feel that way. Sometimes the pain I feel in my chest is palpable and literally affects my breathing.
Inner dialogue. My inner dialogue in the days following the death of our daughter is WAY different from my inner dialogue five years later. In the beginning, the sound of my own frantic voice reverberated off the walls of my brain. I can remember one time (the day of or the day after Kelli died), I was sitting at my dining room table with tons of family milling about. I could hear them speaking but I could not make out one word anyone was saying. I just remember saying to myself, "I really should shower and change my clothes or something." But I all I did was sit and listen to numbing chatter and continually examined the padded cushion on the chair, thinking to myself that they were in such sad shape that I really should replace them. Still, I just sat there. Kelli came in and out of my mind in waves. How could I possibly ever eat or drink another thing, EVER? She certainly wouldn't be and somehow I felt that was fitting for me as well. Those conversations with myself went on day in and day out. I remember a lot of them. In fact, I still have them.
But something changed. Sometime after the sixth or seventh month I realized my memory was damaged by Kelli's death. Attention to detail has always been my thing. Even now, I can remember very few conversations, events, people who attended Kelli's funeral, even movies and television shows. I can, however, remember most of the conversations I had with myself. Sadly for me, it appears this memory damage is irreparable. If you have experienced this, I would love to hear from you.
The only decisions I could make for the longest times were, no, I do not want to go anywhere and yes, I'll have another drink. I did start back to work shortly after Kelli's death, but it was way too early and done out of necessity due to issues at the office, but I could not wait to get back home. Luckily for me, I have very good friends and a couple of them correctly identified that I was suffering with Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) and helped me to get the help I truly needed. Thankfully, they could see what I could not because I was too close to the situation. My advice, if six or seven months have gone by and you are still feeling the same as you did the first month after loss, you need to seek some help.
Duty and responsibility. For a very long time, there was little sense of joy but a huge sense of duty. I have a huge sense of duty anyway, but its force increased during this period of time for me. It was a protection mechanism aimed at helping my two boys and my husband crawl out of their own inner turmoil. In a way, this "duty" helped me because it gave me some purpose above my own grief. Honestly, in the beginning I was aware the three men in my life knew that I was just going through the motions and could see I found little joy in anything I did. I tried to fake it, but they are intuitive. They knew. But duty, I think is what ultimately helped me slowly move from terrorizing grief to manageable grief. And, yes, I do experience honest to goodness joy on most days. I still feel sadness but I also feel joy. Guess what? Humans are complex creatures and we can experience many things sometimes even simultaneously.
My galvanizing moment arrived when "I" realized something had changed within. I am still not quite sure when it happened and could not place a month or a year to it even now, but one day I woke up and the true realization that Kelli was gone and not ever coming back, and it was just a matter of fact that I must remain among the living (without really thinking about it), that I did not cry every single time I heard her name or thought of her, and I could be happy without somehow defiling her memory. The reason I could not name a date is simple. Each of these things happened little by little with each waking day.
Studying my grief, I have learned that I am not a pretty mourner. Literally, I cry ugly. But I also treated so many people around me so poorly because I was so broken. My ugliness was unforgiveable, yet people forgave me (thank goodness!) It is okay to be happy and find joy and it does not take away anything from the person I loved and lost. Not every day is a great and joyful day. Some days just suck. There are days when too many memories flood the emotional bank making it too hard to have a great day. And that is okay. I learned to stop being the pacifier. I was the person in the family who tried to make every situation work. Kelli's death freed me from that. I know at first everyone thought I was cracking up but in fact, it took this tragedy for me to say no and really mean it. I have the very best of family and friends. When tragedy struck twice with Kelli - when she was born dying and when she died at 11 years old, family and friends took really great care of our sons, my husband and me. Speaking of boys, I have the best. I do not know how these two kids could lose their beloved sister and move on to be such genuine well-adjusted people, but they did. And my husband is a rock. Without him serving as my ballast I am quite sure I would have sunk.
What has studying my grief done for me? It has given me a first-hand account of the progress I have made handling the overwhelming grief I experienced following the death of my daughter. In truth, it damn near killed me or more realistically wished that it would have. I have come through the drowning tunnel of darkness, through the dizzying waves of cascading emotions, often repeating the same emotions and patterns over and over, to finally seeing the clichéd, light at the end of the tunnel. And, yes, there is hope for a better tomorrow. How you get there and how long it takes you personally to get there is unique to you, nay, unique to all of us. If you find yourself just barely treading water and you feel, and/or say out loud, that your grief is the same as first weeks following the death of your loved one, then you need to seek help.
I was once just barely treading water with no one to help. Getting help was the very best thing I ever did. It helped me move from destructive to constructive behaviors and formulate a new version of me. The version who had loved, lost, and is now living and loving again. I offer grief coaching for exactly these reasons. Please contact me at 602-400-4423 or Ursula@CompassReset.com if you need help treading water - I'll give you my life raft.