Several years ago, someone shared their philosophy on grieving. “If you aren’t over it in three months, there’s something wrong with you.”
Interesting perspective. I didn’t know there was an actual time limit on feeling the pain of something lost — a person, an experience, a pet, an opportunity — so I decided to check. And guess what?
No one knows when the pain of losing someone or something becomes manageable. In reality, you never stop missing the thing that is now gone but your heart learns to manage it, deal with it, and move on. The time it takes is unique to each individual and experienced differently for every person.
Over half-a-century ago — you probably know where I’m going with this — a far wiser person than I wrote a book that laid out what she called the “Five Stages of Grief.” This was the Swiss-American psychiatrist, Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, and the book was On Death and Dying. These stages have since been glommed onto by every person and media outlet known to man, featured prominently in television shows and movies, and is the focal point of one of my favorite Bob Fosse films of all time, All That Jazz, starring an exceedingly slim and unbelievably cool goatee-wearing Roy Scheider.
But… but… what do these stages mean? Do you really go through them in order? Can you get lost in grief? Why is it that once you go through it, you’ll look up and it feels as fresh as the day you lost whatever it was? Can grief overwhelm you?
And a big one, why do people feel the need to tell you to “just get over it” when you continue grieving beyond their self-imposed time limit?
All good questions and with many of us looking at our present through glazed eyes of what has been lost over these last couple of years — and may never be regained again — we’d like to share some insights that may lead to answers.
Denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance — not in that order
Kübler-Ross may have presented the stages, but how you experience them was never meant to be in any particular order. Something is gone, we feel the loss, and our hearts and minds look for ways to process it. Even preparing for the losing includes these phases and, again, there is no set and fast rule for when we hit each stage. All the good doctor was pointing out was that these, in her vast research, were how we take in and go through grief, and each one is a healthy expression.
Maybe you start with denial in the form of healthy, hurting shock and awe — not literally negating the truth of the situation. Perhaps the anger kicks in right away, creating a space to release pain and point it at something or someone to alleviate guilt, hurt and loss. You could be caught up in bargaining as you drop off your kids to spend the weekend with your former spouse for the first time, running through those, “If only I could go back and change blank” as you experience momentary divorce regret. A wave of deep, acute sadness — depression — can hit you before anything else, to such an extreme that you feel like you’ll never get over it. And what about that acceptance? No, this isn’t a suggestion that you move on as if everything’s perfect. This is an acceptance of reality and that even though life as you know it has changed forever and that loss will stay with you always, you accept it and shift your life to embrace the now, not the then.
These stages are guidelines, not rules. How we hit them is based on where we are in our personal grieving process, how we take in the information and deal with it. Whichever way you move through these stages is your journey. We all have our way. Embrace yours.
Losing sleep and breaking hearts over loss
When we lose someone or experience deep, intense grief, it can manifest not only mentally and emotionally, but physically. It becomes hard to sleep and insomnia kicks in, exacerbating your sadness and leaving you feeling exhausted on top of it.
That pain you feel in your chest, that hurt of a broken heart, is a true, real physical ailment brought on by loss and grief. Called takotsubo cardiomyopathy, it is also known as “broken heart syndrome.”
Your stomach hurts, you can’t eat, you eat too much, you turn to a drink or two “just to take the edge off,” you OVER-sleep, and on and on. Grief hurts and it throws us off our game. Getting back into the swing of our life when a devastating incident hits us takes time.
I’m going to repeat that. Getting on with your life takes time. This does not mean forgetting what you have lost or what you have gone through — as mentioned, we continue loving, feeling, remembering. But finding a rhythm that works best for you in this new normal is possible after a period. We, ourselves, need to understand these things don't happen overnight, as do those around us, and while we are going through the pain, that feeling of loss can manifest itself in physical ways.
Recognize it, don’t fight it. Reach out to health professionals when you are feeling lost in it. We all need a little help sometimes and when we are in the throes of such deep hurt, grabbing onto a lifeline is necessary.
“Just when I thought…”
“I was over you,” “I was over it,” “I was done with the past…” BOOM! CRASH! As Air Supply sings, “Oh, baby, those memories come crashing through, and I just can’t go on without…” you, us, it, whatever.
Or so it feels. The number of songs written about missing something or someone is beyond count but they all come down to this — grief and loss.
It is, yes, a process. Yeah, I know I’ve said it but I’ll say it again. Remember that “three months, there’s something wrong with you” comment? No one can tell you how long or how hard you will grieve because you will have moved on, gone through the five stages, accepted the new normal and are doing pretty damn well. Then…
A song comes on the radio.
You come across a picture.
Filling out paperwork and you come to the section that asks your marital status and you check, “Divorced” or “Widowed”
Something special happens and you pick up the phone to call that person who no longer is part of your life.
“Oh, baby, those memories come crashing through…”
We all have experienced loss in some form, some more deeply than others. Something has left our life and we miss it. It lingers in our heart, our bones, our very being. But there are times when we are going through this pain, when it is fresh, when it is healing and when it is now a scar that opens when hit by a wave of memories, that we will realize there are others in our lives who do not understand. It can be hard for those who have never gone through something or their perspective on the “how” of going through that something is not as emotionally available as you need to give you the support and care to help you through. Those are the moments that make us feel the most alone in our grief and we feel guilty for not “getting over it” sooner. We question ourselves because, after all, shouldn’t we be over it by now? It’s been however long and when we are hit with the emotion of the memory, it feels as fresh as the day our loss became reality.
Well… here are two final thoughts on that.
When “loss” feels like “losing”
We do not just grieve over the loss of people, we grieve over roads not taken, opportunities missed, things left unsaid, and more. Regret and grief go hand in hand and sometimes, these weigh on us with such intensity we get lost, stuck, and truly cannot move on. There seems to be no light at the end of the tunnel and we replay every little thing we did or didn’t do over and over and over again.
Our crew are not experts or psychologists over here, so everything we share is what we learn, live, discover, and then wish to pass along in hopes it is helpful. If you cannot move out of where you are and those feelings of loss overwhelm you to the point that you are frozen in it, there are trauma and grief counselors as well as groups out there to help you through. Being able to engage with like minded folks who are experiencing exactly what you are — even if the situation that got them there is different — and knowing you are not alone will help alleviate that burden.
No expiration date
“The reality is that you will grieve forever. You will not ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one; you’ll learn to live with it. You will heal and you will rebuild yourself around the loss you have suffered. You will be whole again but you will never be the same. Nor should you be the same nor would you want to.” So Dr. Kübler-Ross said, and while she speaks specifically on the loss of a loved one, in our experience a loss of any kind affects us the same way.
I have experienced my share of loss. I have loved and lost people, pets, and I have missed opportunities. All that I am is because of everything and everyone that has come through my life. And here is what I realize —
I grieve for them all the time. I know now I will never “get over” losing them. I have learned to live with it, however. I have healed and I have rebuilt myself around the loss I suffered. I am whole again but I will never be the same. Nor should I be…
Nor do I want to.