Thoughts about the length and breadth of grief – “zones”.
John (my husband) and I recently went on an enjoyable short holiday to the island of Malta. It’s a nice place for a winter break, a good deal warmer and sunnier than home here in the UK.
It’s not a big place and one week was plenty to explore, sightsee, and have some great walks. One day we took the ferry over to the smaller island of Gozo, and then got the hop-on hop-off open-top sightseeing bus. It took us to the Azure Window, a famous limestone arch. We wandered around, took a few photos, had a cup of tea. The next bus was due, and we tossed about the choice of whether to take that next bus or stick around longer, so that we could go to the inland sea and take a small boat trip out through the rocks and under the Window. We might never come back this way again, we concluded, and took the boat trip. The weather was perfect; sunshine, blue sky, calm water, and it was an interesting short ride.
I was quite astonished to read the news just a couple of weeks later that the Azure Window was no more. A big storm and whoosh, it had collapsed unexpectedly into the sea. (Read more about it here, videos included) It’s no longer a question of whether we will ever go back there but the fact that there is no longer there! So glad we took the opportunity to visit it properly while we had the chance.
You might be wondering what this little true story is doing here on my bereavement blog, and how this relates to loss in general or to my children. I could write that some people are mourning the loss of this much-loved nature structure, but while that’s true, it’s not why I’m posting it here. What I actually want to draw attention to is the length and breadth of grief, the time frame. (I will come to my children, but in a minute.)
Whenever bereavement and grief is discussed, there tends to be lots of questions and comments about “how long it lasts”. When I talk to people about grief, it is not uncommon to hear comments like, “it’s been a year since they lost XXX, but they’re still upset”. Maybe their friend hasn’t cleared out XXX’s cupboards yet, or given their clothes to charity, or maybe they’re holding on to their ashes in a small urn. Maybe it’s been 3 years since the elderly husband died, and his widow is shuffling around aimlessly, and her family is uncomfortable and doesn’t know what to do about it. Maybe there’s a parent who lost their adult child 15 years ago, and they’re “still” talking about him or her.
The first zone is “immediate grief”. That’s the acute early period; the death has been discovered, the funeral is arranged and taken care of. You walk around in a dazed state of shock and disbelief. You may cry or you may be numb, or probably some of both. Raw agony is how I would describe it.
I call the next zone “early grief”. This is when it’s still new, but it’s hasn’t just happened. It’s when the raw agony starts to dissipate, but returns on and off. You wake up in the morning and it hits you first thing; your loved one is really and truly gone. You replay events in your mind over and over. Some days the grief feels unbearable, other times you can manage it. You start by having mostly bad days, then some good days, and gradually you have more good days than bad. But in the midst of those manageable days, you can have some really tough times.
How long do you spend in the “early grief” zone? How long is a piece of string? Early grief could last months or it could last years – 2 years, 3 years, 5 years – it depends on who you lost, your relationship with them, and a host of other factors (which I discuss in the training). As much as we might wish not to feel that bad for so long, it lasts as long as it lasts.
The final zone is “life grief”. You are now living with your loss, although you still have times and occasions when it hurts a lot. Of course you still think about your loved one – you always will! However, you are less likely to wake up every morning thinking about how they died. The person you lost is still important to you and always will be, but you are able to focus on other interests, and are not so absorbed in your loss. You will still have ups and downs, waves of grief that come crashing on you, but mostly you are coping with your life as it is now.
And this brings me back to the Azure Window. The fact that I could visit this location, enjoy the day, take pictures and focus on it, means I’m in a different zone than I have been over much of the past six years since my daughter died. I still included my children in the trip, lighting candles for them in the chapel next to the cavern where (the Apostle) Paul lived after the shipwreck; I took pictures of them at the hotel so I’d have some new photos. Pax and Catherine were always with me, but they weren’t foremost in my thoughts all of the time. I guess I’m in the life grief zone now.
I’ve got a few conclusions here to this story.
First of all, if you’re in the immediate or early grief zones, you might be wondering how you’re going to survive your heartbreak. I was like that for years, and what I’d like to encourage you is that you won’t always feel quite like this. The agony will lessen. It is possible to live with loss. Take a deep breath, take things a day at a time, face your grief, accept your emotions, commemorate your loved one in the ways that feel right to you, and just gradually, you’ll find yourself in a better zone.
The other conclusion is for friends, family, colleagues and anybody else reading this who is concerned about someone they know who is grieving. There is no timetable for grief. Whatever that person is going through, that’s what they’re going through. Be a friend to them by listening, by recalling their loved one, and not being impatient. You will never know exactly what they’re going through. Be kind to them, as you would like someone else to be kind to you in your own difficult zones.