This is a post especially for people who are in the very painful early days following their bereavement. I hope it will give you some hope that as difficult as life is at this moment, it won’t always be like this.
Some people have described the death of a close loved one as like being in an earthquake. The ground underneath us is shaking; we are literally knocked off our feet.
In those early days we are shocked and overwhelmed. Our mind is filled with thoughts of their death. We may feel physical pain. Grief can take our breath away. We might find it hard to sleep, just as we might find it hard to awaken.
This is the raw agony of immediate grief, and it is an agony that continues, first of all continuously, and then intermittently. And then what happens? That’s what I’d like to write about today.
The mystery phone call
I was in the garden on a beautiful sunny afternoon. Out of the blue the phone rang. It wasn’t a number I recognised but I answered anyway. On the other end I heard a voice faint, mumbled and unclear: “Muuum, mum, muuum, mum…” It sounded so much like Catherine did when she was poorly as a child or during difficult times in the latter years of her mental illness. I knew it could not be Catherine. She has died; I saw her after death; I wept at her funeral more than 10 years ago.
I asked tentatively “who is there?” There was no answer, only the continued “muuum muuum muuum” and then silence.
I ended the call. I knew of course that it wasn’t Catherine, but this call was still disturbing. I sat with the phone in my hand as I tried to figure it out. Maybe someone had read my blog and was playing a very unkind trick on me – but who would do such a thing? My mind raced. Then I wondered whether it was someone who was lost and looking for their mother. Out of concern for them, as much as wanting to get to the bottom of this, I dialled the number that had called me. It rang for a couple of moments and then on the other end was the same voice, “muuum, muuum, muuum.”
“Are you looking for your mother?” I asked tentatively. The mumbled answer was enough for me to recognise the voice of the severely learning disabled daughter of some dear friends. Once in a while she has gone walkabout, so I was concerned that she was out on her own and asked her, “where are you, Ella?”*
She responded again with “muuum, muuum,” but then I could hear her dad in the background saying, “it’s okay Ella, mum’s at home, we’re out on a walk.”
I was so relieved. I spoke for a few more minutes with Ella – with whom it is quite challenging to have any kind of a understandable conversation – and ended the call. I’m glad that I had called the number back and the mystery was solved. *(not her real name)
I am quite certain that if I had received a call like this within the first couple of years after Catherine died I would have been completely thrown for the rest of the day, if not longer. I doubt very much whether I would have called the number back to hear a voice saying, “mum, mum, mum.” For me, having no surviving children, to hear these words is poignant and heart-rending. But I did call back and there was a resolution. And this simply illustrates how my grief has a different shape now.
Surprised by grief
Sometimes things come at us during our grief journey that threaten to knock us off our feet. How we deal with these shocks is perhaps an indicator of the resilience we’ve developed in our grief.
Often I interact with people who are fairly new on their grief journeys. I have noticed how desperately unhappy they are. They are sometimes overwhelmed by sadness. Unsurprisingly, they tell me they cannot see how they will survive the rest of their lives in this state.
That’s why I’ve written this post to say: You won’t always feel like this. Your grief pain will not always be so acute. You will develop resilience. You will find ways to survive and eventually to thrive in your in the changed circumstances of your life. At least I hope you will. The majority of people find that this is so.
It doesn’t mean that you’ll never be shaken by unpredictable events even years later. But I think resilience means that when you’re knocked off your feet you get back up again. You find a way to stand up and carry on walking, and that’s really the goal in ‘coping’ with grief.
Acute grief lasts as long as it lasts. It’s different for each individual. Acute grief is when the agony feels overwhelming. It is intense.
When you’ve lost someone in difficult circumstances, such as might be the case now during the pandemic, especially if you weren’t able to see them or care for them in the last days of their life, your grief is going to be intense.
Grief might be intense if you’ve lost someone who is central to your life like your spouse or partner with whom you shared your home for 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years.
Grief might be intense if the last period of your loved one’s life was a time of suffering.
Grief might be intense if their death was sudden with no opportunity to say goodbye.
Grief might be intense if their death could have been avoided through different choices of the people around them or even themselves.
Any and all of these factors – and many others – can mean that the acute time of your grief might be longer and more intense than it will be for someone whose loved one’s death was more or less a natural end.
You hear comments such as, “he lived a good life”; “Their passing was so peaceful”; “it was a life well lived.” If you can say any of this, then there is more likely to be a sense of completion and peace about their death. If you can’t say these things, it’s only natural that your experience of grief will be more intense. But even this difficult, intense and overwhelming grief eventually becomes more manageable.
Hope and resilience
Whatever your situation, please hold on to hope. The intensity of grief does change. Our love and memories remain, but around them we start expanding our life and we discover that the grief doesn’t overwhelm us quite so much. It does seem to be part of nature – or you could say God’s plan if you’re a believer – that life grows around the space.
There comes a day when our first thought on waking isn’t that our loved one is no longer here. There comes a moment when don’t need to keep repeating what happened to them over and over. There comes a moment when our mood lifts. Of course there will still be moments when our mood dips again, but I’m describing how we start to get a bit of relief during what has been an overwhelmingly difficult time.
When those better moments arrive, embrace them. Gradually you will find that the acutely painful days will gradually diminish and be replaced by better days.
And when something happens to send you reeling, you will find your equilibrium again sooner. You will pick up the phone, if that’s what’s needed. You’ll dry your tears and walk on.
That’s the idea – that we live with our loss. With the focus on live rather than the focus on loss.
If you’re not there yet, just keep going. That’s all any of us can do.