I Didn't Plan For This
It is never easy to experience a loss.
There are no words to describe the overwhelming sense of pain you feel when someone you care about dies. When a significant person you love is in a life threatening situation or when a death occurs, it can be one of the most difficult experiences of life. You are possibly reading these words through tears, and wondering how you are ever going to manage to get through this situation. You may even feel like “it’s over”, as if your own life has ended.
Certainly that is how I felt after my own wife died. Her death was completely unexpected. Who would have thought that a 38-year-old woman with no history of medical problems would die of a heart attack? Sure, we hear of such things happening, but we never expect them to happen to us, or to our loved ones. Tragedies happen to other people, not to us.
Yet one of life’s sad realities is that tragedies do occur, sometimes to good people like you and I. When it happens, other people are sympathetic, of course, but they do not seem to really understand. After a few days, they return to their lives and everything, for them, goes back to normal.
But for you, things will never be the same again. Life will not return to normal, because everything has changed. Life now involves a whole new “normal”. And you are just beginning to realize what that means for you.
People try to comfort you with well-intentioned clichés like:
“Pull yourself together”
“Try not to think about it
“Life must go on”
These sentiments are what I call “fix it” statements. The trouble is that the situation cannot be fixed. All we can do is incorporate and accept what has happened into our life experience.
Some may even suggest that what has come to pass is “for the best” or “a blessing”. People mean well with such expressions, but often do not understand what you are going through. More than likely, your sense is that this is the worst thing that could have happened. It certainly does not fee/like much of a blessing. It may even seem as if your whole world has come crashing down around you.
I remember people encouraging and assisting me after Carolyn’s death, which was very kind. But for many days and weeks, the whole situation felt so unreal. I just couldn’t bring myself to accept that she had really gone. I felt like the whole thing was a bad dream from which I would soon waken up. And so, I busied myself comforting everyone else, and making sure they were OK.
People were impressed with this. They commended me with words like:
“You are doing so well”
“You are really handling this”
“You are coping magnificently”
“You are so strong”
In fact, I wasn’t strong. I was numb. And I would remain in that state of shock for many days.
It was a month or so later when that numbness began to wear off. When it did, I found myself experiencing a virtual explosion of emotions and feelings. I seemed to be getting worse, not better. The situation felt a thousand times more difficult a few weeks after the death than it had at the time it actually occurred.
And what made it even more difficult for me was that many of the people who had congratulated me for “doing so well”, now seemed to be asking:
“What’s wrong with you? We thought you were handling it.”
The implication was that now I wasn’t doing well, I wasn’t being strong. I didn’t seem to be coping. Just when I thought I should be getting it all together, everything seemed to be falling apart.
Sometimes we can be made to feel as if we are not living up to everyone’s expectations of how well we should be doing. The problem is that people confuse numbness with strength, thinking initially we are coping with the situation. Later on, when we may appear to be handling it not so perfectly, they are surprised and even disappointed.
I have since learned that this reaction is not abnormal, or even unusual. This is how grief often works. Grief is a natural human response to any significant loss. Our sorrow is not a sign that we are weak, or that we are “not handling things”.
Grief is the cost of caring. Our reaction signifies that we are missing someone who had an important part in out lives, and that we don’t like the fact that they are gone. While grief is a very difficult and painful process, it is a normal reaction.
Yet often people do not know what reactions to expect when someone dies. You may be thinking, “I didn’t plan for this”. Even though you made wise financial preparations or practical and legal arrangements for such a possibility, the death of someone you care about still seems to hit us like bolt from the blue.
This little e-book is intended to share some of the emotions and reactions that are part of the early days of grieving. I trust it will bring some help and comfort as you struggle to come to terms with what has happened. You may not have planned for this, but let’s see what we can do to help you come to terms with what has occurred.
What You May Experience:
Numbness and Shock:
When you are told that a loved one has died, your first thought is often:
“Oh no! This must be a mistake. You have the wrong person. This cannot be happening.”
There is a reason for this initial reaction. What is really being said is: “I can’t bring myself to believe that this unimaginable thing is possible.”
Yes, you understand in your head that someone has died. But in your heart you resist the fact, allowing yourself time to gather the resources you will need to be able to cope with this unbelievable fact. This disbelief and questioning enables us to keep life tolerable in that unbearable moment of shock.
In fact, throughout the early stages of surviving a loss, belief and disbelief are often experienced simultaneously. One moment you may feel overwhelmed by a sense of loss, and the next find yourself expecting them to walk into the room. You might even imagine seeing the dead person, even though another part of you knows it is not so. The disbelief you experience is produced by the part of your mind that enables you to endure the unendurable.
So, throughout the days of the funeral and even for weeks after, you may experience many seemingly strange symptoms:
You may feel confused.
You may find it difficult to concentrate.
Your mind wanders, usually returning to thoughts and memories of the deceased.
You may be forgetful.
You may find it difficult making decisions.
You have no energy, constantly feeling fatigued.
You feel apathetic, not able to get excited about anything.
Sometimes, it feels like you are losing your mind. You may wonder if you are going crazy. But there is a reason why all these things happen.
This is your defense mechanism at work, protecting you from the full devastating impact of your loss. When someone dies, it can be overwhelming. We find ourselves struggling to accept what is unacceptable; to believe what is unbelievable; to come to terms with what seems incomprehensible.
Your mind decides it needs time to take all this in, so it seems to “shut down”. You are trying to come to terms with something that is devastating, and it takes all the mind power you can muster to do that. That is why you may feel confused, forgetful, or unable to concentrate.
You are not losing your mind. Your system is just taking it’s time and using all it’s power to come to terms with this overwhelmingly inconceivable “thing” that has occurred. Your loved one has died. It takes your mind quite some time to believe, far less accept that sad reality. That incidentally is also why you may feel so fatigued. You may not feel like you are doing much, but grief takes every ounce of energy just to allow you to survive. After a loss, mere survival is a major accomplishment, taking every ounce of your physical, emotional and mental energy to attain.
This experience of numbness is often called denial, and that is a good description. Sometimes, however, some well intentioned but misguided souls think that denial is a bad thing. ‘You are in denial,” they may say, “but you have to face reality.”
Please understand that denial is not the opposite of facing reality. Denial is the path that gently leads people to reality, when they are ready. To try to prematurely break down this defense mechanism of numbness/denial is unhelpful. This is what actually protects us from the more destructive elements that loss can create.
The period of time you remain numb, and the degree to which you are affected may be different from person to person, and can even vary among family members. Some may find that occasional bouts of disbelief can resurface for many months, often at significant times or events.
If, especially in the first few months, you find yourself hanging on to the idea that the dead person is still alive, or may be coming back, this is not unusual. Let’s face it, there are still many who want to believe that Elvis is still alive and well!!
Sometimes we hold on to personal possessions such as clothing or a car in the hope the dead person will return to use them. We may feel reluctant to change anything in their room, so they can find it as they left it if they come back.
What this does is provide a temporary comfort. Admittedly, it is not normal to hold on to this idea for an extended period of time and indeed it may actually hinder the process of grief and hold back your ability to function.
Fear and Anxiety:
Some days you may possibly feel numb, and others the pain of your loss might seem to overwhelm you. Grief can be an emotional pendulum, swinging from one extreme to another. One day you seem to be feeling nothing, the next you experience over sensitivity with a veritable explosion of emotions and feelings assailing you.
On such occasions everything seems to touch you on a raw nerve. People say and do things and every single· occurrence seems to touch you right on the sore spot. Everything bothers you. Little things that you would normally take in stride suddenly become a major concern. Everything seems like a big deal. You get upset and irritable over things that would not have bothered you before. Even familiar daily tasks or chores loom like Herculean labors.
While many words can describe your emotions, I think the following “umbrella” word is appropriate: It’s the word “over-reacting”. While all the emotions of grief may be considered normal, what makes them seem unusual is their severity. We are often over-anxious, over-irritable, over-emotional, more or less “over-everything”. Our reaction may seem unusual, or “over the top” but there is a reason for it.
Anxiety is a very common response to a significant loss. There are reasons why you feel the way you do. You are a victim of circumstances that are beyond your control. This situation has made you less sure of yourself and of your environment than you once were. While this uncertainty and fear may be even more pronounced if you lost someone suddenly or unexpectedly, every situation can be troublesome.
We all like to believe that we have some semblance of control over our own lives and circumstances. When someone dies, that impression is often shaken. We realize, sadly, that we do not have power over death, because if we did, and had been able to change the outcome, we probably would have.
Now you may feel that because you could not change that situation, you have little or no command over what happens or does not happen in any situation. This feeling of powerlessness, coupled with a sense of vulnerability that “if this can happen, what else can happen”, can produce anxiety in any grieving heart.
The fact of your being separated from the deceased is enough to produce anxiety. The two of you were close. You had a relationship, and now one of you has gone and the other is left to try to adjust to a life in which the other is missing. That is never easy. Even difficult relationships are missed. I knew a couple that were always arguing and bickering with each other, and after his wife died, the man said, “I really miss having someone to argue with.”
The death of someone loved can knock the foundation out from under you. Now you do not have this person to support and help you, and that is a difficult adjustment, which understandably causes anxiety.
Understanding our Emotions:
It is important to remind yourself of several important facts in such anxious moments. First we need to recognize that there are some things in life we cannot control, and circumstances that we cannot change. Accepting this reality is crucial.
You should also realize that these feelings of anxiety are not permanent. We sometimes regard feelings as the enemy, something to be resisted and subdued. But our emotions are actually friends, not foes, and as such we need to try to understand what they are teaching us about our situation and ourselves. Anxiety is the result of the changes that have occurred in your life; usually ones you would not have chosen and wish would have not affected you.
One of the biggest challenges of the grief process is finding the confidence to go on. While this may seem pretty basic to some, for grieving people it is a major issue. Remember as kids when we would fall off our bicycles? Skinned knees and bruises made us pretty cautious and apprehensive for a while till we got our confidence back. Similarly after a loss, you may feel you are not able to make anything work. This is not a reflection on your ability as much as your confidence.
We must acknowledge the smallest victory as a major triumph. What are some of the tasks or the challenges that seem most daunting? For many it will be relatively simple things: getting out of bed; tidying the house; going out; getting back to work. These things, which you seemed to be able to take in stride before your loss, suddenly seem enormously complex or even impossible.
A Helpful Strategy;
A practical strategy is to select one thing that needs doing, but which is currently proving very difficult. The smaller the task, the better. It could be going for groceries, tidying a room, or writing thank you cards. The key requirements are that this task needs to be done, and it is hard for you to do.
Take a sheet of paper and write down the names of the next five days, such as Monday to Friday. Now alongside each day, write one action you will attempt. The list may look embarrassingly easy to anyone else. Under other circumstances, it would be simple for you, but this is where you need to start. Put the least demanding tasks first on the list and make the goals progressively more challenging.
At the beginning of each day, look at the task you set for that day, and give yourself a time limit. For example, “By 2.00pm, I will have gone to the store and done my shopping.” Allow yourself lots of time to do it, and when you have, cross it off your list. At the end of the fifth day you will have done five things, and you should commend yourself. The smallest victory is a major accomplishment.
Now, what’s next? For the next five days, make another list of challenges that would be even more rewarding to achieve. This time, however, identify TWO mini challenges for each day. But keep it simple and avoid tasks that could overwhelm you. The next week, you may manage three, four or five tasks a day. Maybe some of the more difficult challenges are ones where you could request the assistance of all those wonderful yet often invisible people who said, “Now if there’s anything I can do, don’t hesitate to call” So call, and ask if they would go with you to this, or assist you with that. Most people like being able to DO something to help. The others aren’t great friends anyway so don’t sweat it.
I think I hear some of you saying, ‘Yes, that sounds great. But what if I don’t do the task well? Or what if I break down in the store, or cry while making that phone call?”
Don’t worry about it. Hopefully people will understand if you cry, for you have had a devastating loss. Anything less would be a reflection on them, not on you. And even if you don’t do the task perfectly, scratch it off your list anyway. The fact that you made the effort and attempted it is more important than faultless execution. Some things will undoubtedly go more smoothly than others, but that is not the criteria.
The object of this exercise is to help you regain your sense of control by taking charge over circumstances in your life. Even if it takes every ounce of energy to accomplish something seemingly basic, keep in mind you will have demonstrated capability and a degree of power over your situation.
By setting yourself these mini-challenges, and being able to handle them one by one, you begin to build the confidence that will enable you to return to the flow of usual life and living. Remember, success in the small things is no small thing, and is usually the prelude to greater things.
It often surprises people that grief comes and goes. Some think the first few weeks of grief will be intensely painful, but that the awful aching will gradually fade and eventually disappear. But this is not how it works. In fact, for the first little while, we could feel numb and our grief might not seem as intense as it may be later on when the shock wears off.
Even then, grief does not come all at once. After a little while, you may think you are coping very well with your loss and have the situation well under control. Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere comes an overwhelming sense of grief. You may have a few good days, and then suddenly be besieged by intense feelings of loss. These are often known as “grief attacks”.
Some wisely liken the grief process to a roller coaster ride. One moment you feel up, but the next you are plunged into feelings of despair. You may have a good day and feel you are doing much better. But the very next day seems to bring you back to square one, and you struggle with an intensely emotional or difficult time.
Grief attacks can be triggered by something, indeed almost anything that reminds you of your loved one, or your loss. And, let’s face it, everything reminds you of that. Perhaps you find a photograph or a letter while going through a drawer or closet. Maybe it is a familiar song on the radio or a favorite movie on TV. Possibly the reminder of the person is a fragrance, a make or model of car, or a favorite place. Almost as if you had not realized it before, the sense of loss impacts you again.
Often, grief attacks occur on or around special days such as birthdays, anniversaries, and holidays like Christmas, Thanksgiving, Valentine’s day, Mother’s day, vacations, and many other significant occasions. These days are opportunities for you to miss the person all over again. You think back on other years, better days and happier times, and compare this miserable time to those.
What can we do about such difficult days? Do not regard them as “set-backs” for as tough as they may be, they are actually an invitation to come to terms with our loss a little more.
We really only have two choices with grief. Either we control the grief, or the grief will control us. By trying to ignore these difficult days, we really give control to the grief, for it will sneak up and tap us on the shoulder whether we want it to or not.
But when we ask ourselves, as much as I will miss the person, what can I do on that noteworthy day to commemorate their death and celebrate their life. How can I make that day meaningful though difficult? This gives us some measure of control.
I remember one lady who decided that she wanted to celebrate her late husband’s birthday by going skiing, which is what they would have done together to celebrate the occasion had he lived. She had a wonderful day, even though she missed him, and somehow sensed his presence on the slopes. She took control over the grief and in doing so found some comfort.
Let me make a few suggestions, which I trust will help you in your time of grief:
- Be patient with yourself, remembering that “he who has no time to mourn has no time to mend”. Grief takes time, even though time frames are unique to every individual. How long does it last? I have found it usually takes longer than people who have not been through the experience seem to think. Allow yourself time to grieve, and feel comfortable in your own time frame even though that may not be in tune with someone else’s expectations.
- Give yourself permission to grieve. So often people tell us that we must “Pull ourselves together and get on with life.” Easier said than done! Always remember that your grief is not a sign that you are weak, it shows that you cared. Grief is the cost of caring, and so the fact that you are having a struggle with it is a tribute to how special this person who has died was to you.
- Learn as much as you can about the grief process. Know what to expect and what is normal. Find out some helpful suggestions about what you can do to work through the issues that confront you.
- Look after yourself. Sometimes after a loss, we become careless. We don’t look after ourselves by getting good nutrition, rest or exercise. “Why bother” is often the attitude. Many spent much energy looking after someone while they were alive, and now they are gone, nothing seems worthwhile. Time for a change in mindset, my friend. You are important. You were important to the person you loved, and if they were here, they would be concerned. For their sake, if not for your own, look after yourself.
- Recommit yourself to life. Perhaps the greatest lesson I learned after my wife died had to do with what is really important in life. Tragedy has a way of helping us establish priorities, and teaching us what is truly significant. It reminds us that life is a gift and that we have to make the most of every minute because there are no guarantees. Life is short, so make the most of every day.
Sometimes we spend all our energy grieving what we have lost and forget what we still have. While I would never want to minimize your loss, you have not lost everything, even though I understand you may feel like you have. But even though you have lost someone very special, are there other people in your life who love you and to whom you could give your attention? Are there things that can make life worthwhile and meaningful? Sometimes I am sure it may be difficult to see these things, but they are there if you look for them.
The challenge for the grieving person is how to make the most of what you have left. You have a life, albeit made sadder by the loss of this special person. But it is an act of respect to the deceased person to determine to go on, and to make the most of the life that you have. As Thomas Gray puts it:
“If I should die and leave you here awhile,
Be not like others, soon undone,
who keep long vigil by the silent dust and weep.
For my sake turn again to life and smile,
Nerving thy heart and trembling hand
to do something to comfort weaker hearts than thine. Complete these dear unfinished tasks of mine,
And I perchance, may therein comfort you.”
May I respectfully invite you to consider if these are words your loved one might want you to think about.
I hope this article has been a good introduction to the grief journey, and that it has brought you some comfort. But this is just the beginning of your journey and the help we can offer. In the articles that follow we will be learning more about the grief process, and how we can work through the difficult challenges it can present.