This quote comes from Joe Primo who specializes in education about children's grief. I've often wondered what grief's work is. Does grief have a purpose? I am in several online grief groups and once posted, "How do you nurture your grief?" I was shocked that over 50% of the respondents said, "I can't because ...." They felt that work or having children, or their fear that they would be overwhelmed by it was a reason that they couldn't take the time to grieve. This notion that grief is somehow optional or can be mitigated is interesting to me. Obviously it is deeply personal but the idea that people are consciously avoiding it is what intrigues me. Is there a price to pay for this? and if so what is it?
I think it is very normal to keep your grief at bay during the illness when you are the caretaker. I remember meeting a friend who had come from out of town. I think she was amazed at how I was managing. I had two kids and a household to manage and I was taking care of my dying 50 year old husband. This is the norm for every single one of us soon to be widows. My friend was asking probing questions one after another. I finally said "Are you trying to crack me open?" She said, "Yes I am worried that you are in some sort of denial." I told her that I had to be and I couldn't afford to crack open just yet. To do what you have to do day after day you have to get up every morning and put on a suit of armor. You are doing the work of holding it all together for everyone. I think that there are a lot of people out there who are stronger than is good for them. They can push themselves farther than they should. When their loved one dies it is the time to take off the armor and be vulnerable and fall apart. But sometimes they have been doing it for so long that they just carry on.
I took my own grief very seriously. I refer to it as my own personal grief camp. I would go to yoga, come home and watch memorial videos, or read old love letters from Rob or sympathy cards, or look at photos anything that was guaranteed to make me cry. Then I would cry for as long as I felt like it. This was not a pleasant experience. The crying one does while grieving feels like you are being turned inside out. It is violent and gut wrenching and exhausting. Because of this, the rest of the day I would follow the path of least resistance. I would avoid going out at all costs. No grocery stores, no restaurants, no loud places, no bright lights. No chance to come across some random stranger who would ask how Rob was. We ordered out a lot. I stayed home and went to my best friend's house, that was it. For a whole year.
But what if I had denied my grief? What if I had held it at arms length? What if I had kept busy instead? Would I have had to pay a price down the line? I often wonder this. I have many friends who are widows. There are a fair number of them that say they can't cry. That they never cried. They describe it like a lead apron separating their head from their bodies. Emotions can not penetrate it. Even if they wanted it to. I believe that the emotions are stored in our bodies. Grief lives in our bodies. I think when you love someone you have all these links inside of you that connect to them. Grief is the breaking or transformation of these links from the physical world to memory and spiritual connections instead. When Rob died I felt like he had been ripped out of my side. The image I had of myself was of someone who had been cleaved in half. Those links inside us to the people we love are made of all the ways your life is intertwined with that other person. For me it started with opening my ears in the morning. I used to lie in bed while Rob got dressed, he had to leave an hour before I did. I would lie there in my cozy warm bed surrounded by the dark outside the windows. I could hear him going thru the closet and the hangers sliding along the metal bar as he selected his shirt. Then it was the sounds in the bathroom as he brushed his teeth and shaved. Later I could hear the muffled coffee grinder. He used to wrap the grinder in a towel and go to the basement so it wouldn't wake me up. And finally the door closing as he left for school. Waking up to a quiet house is a grief event because the silence is so lonesome. There are other links made of how we co parented together, how he took care of me. How he labored to make the perfect cup of coffee for me. How he was the only one who knew how to rub my head when I had a migraine. All the million things that the person did for you. Grief is the breaking of those links. I believe this is how we forge a new identity.
What happens if you don't do this work?
One man wrote in on the message board in response to the question of how he nurtures his grief. He said, "I denied my grief for 27 years and it wrecked two marriages. Please please don't make this same mistake." I think part of the price we pay is that we can't really love another person, because that space is occupied by connections to ghosts. I think it also may be an inability to be vulnerable again. It is a whole different experience falling in love after the death of a spouse. For me it felt like standing on the edge of a big abyss and really feeling that it was a choice if I wanted to jump in. I could see so clearly that I was setting myself up for the same devastating heart break. There was something attractive in shying away from that kind of vulnerability. But ultimately I believe we are here to love. To take risks in love. Grief is the process by which we renew ourselves. I think this Emily Dickinson's poem speaks to this.
Something's odd-- within-- That person that I was--And this One--do not feel the same--Could it be Madness--this? To gain distance from that person--and avoid losing my mind--I had to let my old self recede into the past. I had to make a new, healing self that would stumble into the future.
I believe this is grief's work.
I am a trained end-of-life doula. I provide guidance and support for individuals and families during the end-of-life process.