Your Trauma. Your Grief. Your Timetable.
As I approach the anniversary of the death of one of my dearest friends and my mentor, I have been thinking a lot about trauma and grieving. I recall years ago after the loss of his mother, a dear neighbor, and his beloved pet (a corpulent cat named Max), he told me that the sense of loss was so profound that he often felt alone, a survivor of trauma and grief.
I did not fully understand it then. Sadly, now I do.
His words resonate deep within me and as I think back to his descent into dementia and eventual death, I realize that it is going to take me years to process this loss, atop too many others. Some losses have been through death; some have been breaks with people who are very much alive. Some of these splits have been by my choice; others not so much. Whatever fashion they come in: the losses pile up as the years go by. And it never gets easier to accept. If anything, it is more difficult as time progresses.
Whatever way it comes to you, heartache from grief and loss is difficult, messy, complicated, and completely unavoidable. Even if you read about and understand the seven stages of grief, if you understand the psychology of loss, that knowledge does not make it any easier to live with the painful reality that is grief and mourning.
The acceptance of what grief and loss mean to your life is the most incredibly painful set of emotions we go through.
I now understand and accept trauma and grief as feelings as well as an actual process; one that cannot be rushed, ignored, or dismissed. It is long, quite often gut-wrenching, but the tears must flow. I know that if I try to bury it deep within me it will only delay the acceptance and healing of what cannot be changed. Unfortunately, you have to walk through the painful fire that is grief to restore yourself to some semblance of normal.
All of us experience traumas and losses in a variety of ways. As I grow older, I see that none of us is unscathed by hurt and pain. It is simply, part of life. However, what I have discovered is that on a societal and individual level, we do not allow people the room to experience and express their struggles or grief. We act as if the process of working one’s way through this is somehow a character flaw that must be rushed through and too often, we offer little if any refuge to those who are genuinely hurting.
Whether it is a death, divorce, loss of any friendship or relationship, even the unforeseen ending of a career or job, it is your heart that experiences these events in your unique way, and thus it is your own, individual grief.
Everyone has their own timetable for coming to terms with it and that is where I feel we as a society drop the ball. You can help someone along their journey, offer them love and support, but you have no right to correct, diminish, or demean anyone else’s pain or to tell them in any way to “hurry it up” as they work their way through it.
Comments such as: “It was so long ago”; “Time to move on, don’t you think?”; or my favorite, “You need to get some help” as they roll their eyes, even figuratively, distancing themselves from you at the exact moment when you need a ready ear, a box of tissues, and support.
Far too often, people’s reactions are the opposite of what we need to hear. And I am calling it out because we all deserve better.
Regardless of the pain and difficulty you are working your way through, all of us are entitled to keeping our dignity throughout the time it takes to come to terms with our traumas. If we do not allow ourselves and one another that grace, it is impossible to sift through and process in a way that enables us to fully live again.
And nobody, whether it is family, friends, coworkers, can dictate your timetable to get through your heartache. Yes, we need to process our pain and grief and not let it cast shadows over the rest of our lives, but sometimes that is easier said than done. Full stop, no exceptions: you cannot tell someone else how to experience and circumvent their heartbreak. They are not stuck, they are not wallowing, they are not too sensitive: they are human and entitled to their feelings.
After losing my friend first to dementia then death, I again experienced what it is like to grieve someone who is still alive. It is an awful, demoralizing experience because you find yourself awash in mourning, and yet you feel a sense of guilt because they have not passed away yet. It is a different type of mourning that compounds the process, extending it for a much longer period. I call it “Double Grief” if you will.
Years before my beloved Nana’s death, she also was dealing with dementia. She was lost somewhere in World War II and her ramblings did not make sense to any of us. One thing was clear: she was upset with my grandfather somewhere in her mind, and her angst was centered on that precise period. She was angry at times bordering on despondent. Watching this unfold was sad, confusing, and painful to witness.
Likely, her brain was recalling her trauma and fear of being alone with a five-year-old (my mother) and a three-year-old (my uncle), while my grandfather fought overseas in the Atlantic Theater, atop other pain she had experienced. Would he come home? Would they have a shared future or would she be another war widow? I do not doubt that those thoughts plagued her mind as she attempted to carry on.
We were sixty years past World War II when dementia hit her hard. Somewhere in the recesses of her mind, those events came to the forefront as her brain changed. All that time had gone by and yet the fear and uncertainty remained with her. We tried to reassure her, but the truth is that she was mostly lost to us even though she was still living. It was incredibly painful, and I was in mourning for losing the person I knew and loved while she was still technically present. I used to weep a lot after visiting her and I lived with a great deal of guilt because I knew I was not visiting her enough. It was simply too painful to see her in that state and the anguish was excruciating.
That grief was emotional and then it became physical: I would cry and devolve into panic attacks where it was hard to catch my breath. It would pop up at the darnedest of times: when I was about to teach a class I loved. When I was trying to sleep. When I would share stories of her with my son. I don’t know where the edge is of crying until you can no longer cry anymore, but I certainly reached it. Ironically this unfolded at the precise moment when my marriage was over.
The simultaneous combustion of grief, loss, and pain was almost too much to bear. It was a dose of triple grief and it took years to move comes to terms with it. I am still standing and living well, but if I pause and reflect on that time, I recall my mentor’s words. As I said earlier: now I understand what he was saying.
As in most painful moments, there are glimpses of the sun. I recall one moment when I was visiting my Nana and for an instant, her eyes focused and I saw the recognition and vividly recall the smile it brought to her face. She saw me. I carry that moment with me and my eyes still well up with tears thinking about it even though it simultaneously brings me comfort.
A moment of clarity through the clouds reminded me that she loved me and our bond still mattered, even in her confused, altered state. The person I was shedding tears for ultimately gave me the most comfort. I am forever grateful for that, her final act of love to me.
In the era of increased connectivity, it seems to me that we are less giving in terms of offering space to people expressing their pain. I have a few theories as to why this is, but I have seen this first-hand and I feel it is harmful, to say the least.
At some point or another our traumas, grief, and losses will hit each of us full force. In those moments, I urge you to offer yourself and others grace, dignity, and compassion, recognizing that grief is not only an emotion but also a process. I suggest you focus on healing your heart and head in the best way that works for you.
Tune out the voices of those impatient and unforgiving that you are indeed human for while you do not wish them ill, you should know that they, too, are going to experience their share of grief and loss. It is inevitable.