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My Partnership With Grief

Grief: “keen mental suffering or distress over affliction or loss; sharp sorrow; painful regret,” according to

Grief: “extreme mental, physical and emotional pain that cannot be adequately described with words,” according to me.

I have never before experienced the kind of pain I experienced upon the death of my husband. It was like being in a knife fight and a boxing match all at the same time. It was a sharp stabbing pain and a dull continuous ache in my soul, constantly abusing me. It was inescapable until I became numb — until my heart and my head couldn’t take it anymore, causing both to shut down for a time. Grief comes at you from different angles and in different ways, sometimes blindsiding you and other times numbing you to feeling any emotions. What I learned is, this is normal, because there are no rules for grief. The only rule, let yourself experience it. Whatever that means for you.

The days leading up to my husband’s death were filled with excruciating anticipatory grief and pain at watching him slowly slip away. When he finally left us, my head and my heart were not in agreement. I knew my husband was gone, but my heart refused to accept it. That disagreement prevented me from feeling for a while. There were times of overwhelming breakthrough grief when I felt the pain so intensely, I was sure I could die from it. There was nothing to do but let go and allow my body to release the gut-wrenching tears that would wash my soul. However, those times were brief in the beginning, and afterward, my heart slammed shut. My internal/intellectual battle was raging war, and I was caught in the middle of it.

For a time, I wondered what was wrong with me. Why wasn’t I feeling anything? What must that say about me? “I want to do this the right way,” I told my therapist, over and over again, tears streaming down my face. He told me over and over again that there is no “right way.” There is only my way. “But, what if I’m stuck? What if I never feel anything ever again?” It would be so much easier if there was a guide book, a process, like Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief. But the reality is that not everybody goes through those stages. Some people go through all of them; some people only go through one or two. I didn’t experience any of them. I wasn’t in denial — I knew my husband was gone. I wasn’t angry, and I didn’t feel the need to bargain with God — I knew that wasn’t helpful for me. I wasn’t depressed — but I certainly wasn’t happy. As for acceptance, my head had accepted it, but my heart had a long way to go. I was numb. My therapist assured me that all of my feelings, or lack there of, were quite “normal.” I learned that the definition of “normal” can be very different for each individual.

I also learned grief never really ends. It can hide for a while — sometimes for months at a time, even years for some people — but it can also come back for a visit, especially if it isn’t allowed space to begin with. Sometimes I can hear grief coming, whispering quietly in the background, giving me gentle warnings. Other times it sneaks up from behind like a giant tidal wave, knocking me off my feet, pulling me under. That’s one of the things people don’t talk about. Grief is a partner in life, once you’ve been introduced. At times grief is an ally — it has moments where it’s helpful, bringing a sense of closeness to the one who’s gone. Other times, it’s an adversary — working against you, not consulting you, making choices for you.

It’s been almost four years since my husband died. The old me would have thought that I “should” be “over it” by now. The new me has learned that grieving is a lifelong process; that it’s healthy to grieve; that I can do it any way I need to. I don’t need a rulebook. I only have to allow myself the space to feel. The grief I carry will be with me for the rest of my life — and that’s OK. It’s a reminder of the deep love I shared with my husband and will always have. Grief and love are partners too.

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Thinkstock image by IvanBastien