Surprised by grief: Part 2

Dr Bill Webster

“Grief caught me completely by surprise,” Ruth recounted. “You read books on grief that suggest how the journey will go. And then you experience it yourself, and it’s never as easy or predictable as it is often described.”

In the last issue I shared some of the aspects of grief that surprised ‘Ruth’, and we continue with her insights here.

Surprise 4: “Ambushed by Grief”

“There are certain days that you know are going to be a challenge. Birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas, the list goes on. I anticipated those. Then I would be having a pretty good day, but suddenly out of the blue, ‘bam’, a song, memory or conversation triggers some deep emotion and you’re slammed with sadness, hurt and anger!

“Unexpected grief is always the hardest to handle because it comes as a surprise. When anniversaries or special occasions appear on the calendar, I can brace myself for what I expect will come. But when it’s unplanned, it hits you suddenly, as if you are being punched in the stomach.

“And since I thought I should be past all that by now, I would get discouraged, thinking I’d just gone right back to square one, starting over again.

“I began to think of it as ‘getting ambushed with emotions’ because the unexpected secondary losses continue to mount as well. We can’t possibly be aware of all the losses we will experience at the beginning. They keep coming at us in waves or as a trickle of new losses to come to terms with.

“Every time a wave of grief crashed in, it knocked me off my feet. As I sink into it, I feel like I’ve failed.”

Surprise 5: “I laughed at something then felt so guilty”

“It was some time after my loss that I attended a reception and was actually enjoying myself. In fact during one conversation with a group of friends, I suddenly realised I was laughing. For some strange reason, I actually felt an overwhelming sense of guilt, as if me being there, having a good time, enjoying myself was actually being disrespectful to my grandson, or I was living my life and leaving him behind. That was a surprise.

“I realised that often people may feel guilty, as if the person who died is being forgotten or somehow moving on with your life is disrespectful to their memory. I talked it over with my pastor, and I have come to believe it is more dishonouring not to move on. I was surprised to find that I could still laugh and take pleasure in life.

“Laughter and tears are valid in grief after the loss of a loved one. Our attitude towards death is often one of strict seriousness, but a sense of humour can help you overlook the unattractive, tolerate the unpleasant, cope with the unexpected, and smile through the unbearable. As Roger Rabbit said: “Sometimes a laugh is the only weapon we have.”

Surprise 6. “I actually learned about life from grief”

“So what did I learn through all this? I learned to expect that grief would surprise me over and over again, and in these moments to just stop, take a deep breath, and remind myself that it is normal to have grief tap me on the shoulder from time to time. Even after I felt I had ‘moved on’ after my loss, and adjusted my new situation, something unexpected could trigger all the old feelings.

“I learned these ‘grief ambushes’ were actually an opportunity for me to heal in a new or different way. I began to understand these surprises were actually raising grief issues that represented another complex layer of my own self that needed to be healed.

“I learned this was best accomplished by sharing my feelings in my support group, which helped me work through the painful feelings I was experiencing.

“I have also learned that I must take care of myself, and not rush myself through those painful feelings. Just because a certain length of time has elapsed since your loss does not mean that you should be ‘over it’. Grief is something that you may never get ‘over’ completely, but you adjust. So I had to learn to be patient with myself.

“Finally, I learned that my life had been irrevocably changed because of my loss. But I also came to realise that I was going to be okay, I would survive, I would find the courage to face a new future, and I had the resources within myself to make the most of the life that I have left. Surprise!”

Thank you, ‘Ruth’.

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