There is a lot I wish I had known about grief before having to learn the hard way.
Everyone has experienced different degrees of loss in their lives, whether it is a significant relationship that ended via divorce/break-up/death, a dream job that turned out to be not so dreamy, or having to sell the house you always wanted because of a personal financial downturn. One of the most significant lessons I have learned in my life is that every change is a loss, and every loss brings grief. Grief is not an experience reserved for the loss of human life, though this is of course what society normally associates with grief. This also seems to be the only experience that we are given some latitude to grieve, and even then, we place arbitrary timelines and "stages" on the experience so that we can wrap it all in a nice little bow and put it away when we decide that the boxes have been checked.
Before losing my husband Patrick to brain cancer, I had gone through various losses in my life, like we all do - grandparents, family friends, etc. Based on those experiences, I believed in the American model of grieving, namely that you go through five distinct stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance) for about a year, after which you move on with your life. I had very little else to base my knowledge of grief on. I don't know about you, but growing up no one talked about grief, except in those hushed conversations next to the tuna casserole at a memorial service where people speculated about how the immediate family was doing. The idea of actually discussing grief with those family members was considered taboo and inappropriate. I learned that talking about it would just make it worse for them, and I didn't want to be the jerk who was causing someone even more pain. So, when in those situations I would just awkwardly hug the grieving person, spout platitudes like "I'm sorry for your loss," and hurry back to my paper plate of hors d'oeuvres.
Naturally, when Patrick died, I expected to go through approximately one year of hell before emerging and getting "back to normal." As anticipated, every event of that first year was painful and draining, but it was survivable based on my belief that all the firsts would be the hardest and then I would be okay. I was able to continue working as a litigator because the law firm was tolerant of my inability to hit my billable hour quota. People looked at me with concern, squeezed my arm, and told me everything happened for a reason. (I could get into an entire post on how much I hate those overused, B.S. statements, but I'll leave it for now.) I knew that it was okay to feel terrible, that this was "normal," and that it would all be over soon.
I mentally approached the one-year anniversary of Patrick's death with both dread and hope, almost like I was about to graduate from grieving school. I had done everything that had been asked of me in therapy. I had continued to show up in my recovery support groups and stayed sober. I was convinced that fearlessly facing my pain would be the price of admission back to my life before everything went so horribly wrong. It was as bad as I had ever felt in my life, but the relief I was praying for would come soon, right?
Wrong. So, so wrong.
That first anniversary came and went. The anticipation of a respite from the agonizing emotional and spiritual pain was almost palpable at times. I waited for it to come. And waited. And waited some more. About a month later, I finally learned the truth: grief looks nothing like what I thought it would. It is not linear. There are not distinct stages. Even if we do experience each "stage," which I did, passing through them once does not mean we can simply check them off our list and move on to the next. And we definitely do not graduate from the experience because a year, or any other made-up time frame, has passed.
Finding out that my outline for grieving was completely false was terrifying. I began to fear that since I missed my self-imposed deadline for getting better, I would simply live in that pain forever. I would never be okay. As a result, that second year was, in a lot of ways, even worse than the first. In addition to the feelings of depression, angst, fury, and every other negative emotion you can imagine, I no longer had hope that it would change. As a result, this was when my behavior became really self-destructive. Although I maintained my sobriety, I tried to anesthetize myself in any way I could, including spending a ton of money I didn't have, alternating between eating ALL. THE. THINGS. and strict "discipline" (read: deprivation) which ignited my long history of disordered eating, and numbing out binge watching terrible reality shows instead of interacting with other human beings. It was bad.
It wasn't just me, though, who thought I should be "better" after a year. My bosses lost patience with my inability to keep up with the minimum billable hour requirements, evidenced by the passive aggressive sad faced emoji which began to regularly appear on my monthly billing report. I started feeling like the people in my life were done hearing about my grief, which may or may not have been the case, but it was enough that I started answering "I'm fine" when people asked if I was okay rather than telling the truth. I could not stand feeling like I was being inauthentic, so I withdrew more and more from my relationships rather than lying about what was really going on. I thought I was protecting myself from getting hurt, or hurting the people I loved, by closing off my heart. I did not want to make anyone uncomfortable with the fact that I was not okay.
No one told me that once I had worked through the initial grief of losing Patrick, there would be a separate, equally painful grieving process for the life I thought I was going to have. I had to say goodbye to the idea of me and Patrick as a power couple, buying a great house, starting a family, and taking on the world together. We will never go on that trip we planned to tour his family’s roots in Ireland and where I lived in Italy. We will not walk hand-in-hand down Cannery Row in Monterey each year on our anniversary. I had to acknowledge the reality that not only is Patrick gone but so, too, is each of these plans for our lives. Sometimes I will go for weeks feeling okay until some previously repressed memory, or plan, or whatever will pop up that feels like I’ve just been punched in the stomach. Every time this happens, I have to allow more space to grieve.
One of the most shocking lessons I have learned about grief is that feeling good can be just as difficult as feeling bad. There was a part of me that felt extremely guilty when I started feeling better. I kept hearing that the pain of grief was the price paid for love, so it seemed like a betrayal of that love to feel anything other than agony. I watched myself take steps forward only to sabotage my own efforts because it felt wrong to be happy. I didn’t know that was “normal,” too. I just thought I was going crazy.
The experience I have with grief has repeatedly led me back to this question: Why is it so hard for us to talk about death and grieving when it is literally one of the only human experiences that we all have in common? The facts of our lives will vary person to person, but we will all deal with death and dying. Why do we pretend like we are somehow going to be immune? Do we ostracize people who are grieving, either intentionally or unintentionally, for no better reason than to deny our own mortality?
I have concluded that, in general, our culture sucks at dealing with death and dying. I don't see the point in trying to make it sound more elegant than that. As a result, we cause problems in all kinds of ways. We don't get wills or trusts drawn up because we think we are too young, or we don't have any money to worry about. We don't talk about our wishes should something happen, so when (not if) something does, the burden of difficult decisions is placed on the shoulders of our loved ones. This often leads to fighting among the decision makers who cannot separate what they would want for themselves from what they think we would want. It can lead to nasty arguments about who the decision maker should actually be which can, and in our case did, increase the trauma of an already painful situation.
I am not naive. I know it would require a major cultural shift to start talking about death and dying openly. That does not mean, however, that I have to perpetuate the custom of silence on this issue. I believe the process of grieving Patrick, while it would have always been terrible, would have been less frightening if someone had told me that the journey would be entirely unique to me, and that no one could accurately predict its course or duration.
It should be noted, too, that it might be the case that a year actually is what you need to grieve a loss in your life. Or maybe it's less. That doesn't mean you're not doing it right, or that something is wrong with you. The point is that grief is so deeply personal that no one can tell you what it's going to look like. The best thing that we can do is allow ourselves to feel exactly how we feel. We can give ourselves permission to completely ignore the well-intentioned people in our lives who tell us how to "feel better." We don't have to feel guilty and compare our situation to others, qualifying every one of our feelings with "Yeah, but it could be worse." It can always be worse - that does not mean that our feelings aren't valid and worthy of giving them the time to process.
If you have suffered a loss, I hereby give you permission to take whatever time you need, by whatever means necessary, to grieve. Be angry. Allow yourself to feel pain and joy simultaneously. Scream. Eat the sheet cake. Just please, keep going, because it will change. I cannot promise that life will ever look like it used to before your loss – mine doesn’t. But it won’t always be so dark.
If someone in your life is grieving, tell them you love them instead of telling them what to do.
Lisa O'Leary is a lawyer, cat mom, widow, sports enthusiast, truth seeker, soul searcher, meditator, and consciousness practitioner who is actively engaged in quieting down the mind to allow the song to play.