There’s a lot about grief that I didn’t expect. The five stages you read about make it seem so simple, predictable. Like you’ll just plod on from one to the next, finally popping out of Acceptance with a whole and happy heart, and carry on with your life as if nothing ever happened.
It’s not like that. It’s not linear. It’s not structured, and it doesn’t make any sense.
These are lessons I learned for the next time I have to stand by a person who is grieving.
The first thing that struck me was the sheer massive physical effect of it. I’m used to the physical effects of standard anxiety – the odd moments of sweatiness or nausea, the occasional insomnia. This was an entirely different level. I have never really been able to sleep during the day – not even as a small child. Suddenly I was sleeping in giant, steady blocks of several hours at a time every afternoon, waking at three o’ clock every morning for no good reason. My appetite frankly disappeared. I think I ate, really ate, a meal for the first time 8 days after it happened. It was scary, but it passed. Your body knows what it has to do to survive. You will eat before you actually starve. In misguided caring, people tried to persuade me to eat or go to bed early, but really there is nothing you can do. Trust me, I would have been eating if I could have.
Another really odd effect was that normally, during anything emotionally difficult, I write incessantly. Either here, in a journal, in fiction, even just a Facebook status, very often a free verse poem on my phone – it’s always been an outlet. This time I could not write at all. I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Even my prayer journal ended up neglected, which is something I almost never skip, even though prayer itself has never been more central to my life. It was less like my soul was silent and more like there was so much that needed to be said that the door had jammed. I still can’t face fiction. The email I wrote to my close Canadian friend explaining what had happened was one of the most difficult pieces of writing I have ever faced.
The second thing I wasn’t expecting was the volume of emotional and cognitive space the whole thing takes up. I was so tired, all of the time – still am, during the aftershocks. I couldn’t focus on anything either for very long or very well. I lost things, forgot things, and zoned out completely even in the middle of conversations or tasks. Here is where a grieving person can be given the most active support, I think. Processing is good, but the continual zoning out is awful. Gently bringing me back down to earth, or encouraging me to talk about where my mind was going instead of just sitting there staring into the middle distance and facing the darkness in my head, was one of the most helpful things anyone could do for me.
The one I hate the most right now is the aftershocks. I did not expect them, at all. I thought grief was a linear graph. Like you could just walk through it and it would be slowly and steadily getting better until one day it was mostly gone, perhaps with a few little setbacks during the milestones (how I hate the milestones). Instead, especially now, there are a lot of days when I can wake up and carry on and be happy and used to this strange new normal. Then there are the days when it hits me all over again, and it all feels as raw and fresh as day one. This is perhaps the most misunderstood by those who haven’t been through it themselves. They expect you to be done with grief by now. I expect me to be done by now. But I’m not.
Possibly one of the most valuable things I take away from this experience is just how much the words and actions of others can impact the grieving process. People flounder – I know I always do – in the face of trying to help someone who has experienced something like this. I think it was especially hard for us because the whole thing was so gruesome, public, and violently dramatic. A lot of people wanted a piece of that sensation, others wanted to try and make sense of the world in which this kind of thing happens at our expense, and the rest want to help and don’t know how.
The best thing you can ever do for a grieving person is to pray for them. The second best is just to allow them to be hurting. People want to make you feel better somehow, they want to say or do something that will pick up the pieces and fix it. It’s impossible. Inevitably, the pain must be faced, it must come, the emotions must flow. You need to be allowed to hurt, you need to be given the space you need to just feel what you need to feel. But not alone – just not alone. The tolerant, patient presence of someone who does not attempt to make you feel better is invaluable in this time. No human being can ever drag you out into the light. But some of them can sit with you in the darkness.
Giving someone the emotional space they need to grieve is invaluable. Even more so is giving someone the physical space – taking over some of their work or responsiblities for a little so that they have the opportunity to grieve. My family is amazing at this. I don’t know how I would be able to survive this without them. ❤
God alone is the only One Who can truly heal me, and He has. Over time, and slowly, and in increments. Nobody understands pain the way He does. Nobody knows the extent of the inner shattering the way He can. Nobody holds, tolerates, loves, accepts, understands as deeply as He does, and nobody else can lay tender hands on the human soul and breathe the life back into it the way He does. He places no blame, He passes no judgment, and He sets no time limit on the hurt. God alone knows, because God alone went through grief from both sides at the same time: the agony of the Father watching His Son die, and the agony of the Son in the dying.
And God alone has the power to soothe the pain, because God both raised up from the dead and has risen up from the dead. He can resurrect everything my heart feels it has lost.
I am grateful for every set of arms that has surrounded me and for every prayer that has risen up to Heaven for me. I have been borne through this in the arms of my family, my medic family, my best friend, and my beloved. And I will be healed, and I will face the darkness, because my God is with me.
Glory to the King.