There are times it’s hard to grasp the fact that I’ve been a widow for as long as I have been. My grandmother was widowed at the age of 46, just a year older than I was. She was left with twice as many children. She was also disabled, although she was ambulatory; she was an amputee, I have multiple sclerosis and my disability is actually more incapacitating. Most people in my life don’t realize how often she and I spoke, and how well she understood my situation after the death of my husband. To the outside world she was a rock, the epitome of strength and resilience. But she grieved for my grandfather tremendously and she understood my shock better than anybody else did.
When the police detective stood in my living room and told me that my husband “didn’t survive his injuries” after being broadsided by a drunk driver, time froze for a long moment. I couldn’t hear anything but my pulse in my own ears. I remember my daughter crying and asking me questions because she was terrified and confused. I vividly remember the room darkening and telling myself I couldn’t pass out because the kids needed me to be awake. I was breathing hard and trying not to hyperventilate. For so many months that followed, it sometimes took concentrated effort to just breathe.
Today, I usually have pretty good control over my grief. I do still occasionally cry when something unexpectedly triggers the excruciating pain of his loss. I have made it to the point where I can often think of him without crying, and that’s a good thing because he pops into my mind at some point every day.
I’ve read a lot about grief – books written by psychiatrists, psychologists, clergy people, philosophers and other deep thinkers. Grief is often described as a journey. The most common belief many people seem to have is that those who are grieving go through a series of stages, and once each stage takes place, it’s finished. Somewhere in the back of your mind you believe that when you get to the last stage and finish it, grief is over and life can get back to normal.
In reality going back to normal is not a realistic expectation, at least not for everybody. The truth is, there are no very precise stages when it comes to grief, and there’s definitely no definitive timeline. In my personal opinion, the ‘five stages of grief’ mindset is inherently dangerous. Why? It makes it seem like there is some kind of checklist for grieving. There isn’t.
Grief doesn’t care about logic. It has no rule book, no playbook. It’s not a measure of how much we loved or didn’t love the departed. It isn’t something that’s quantifiable or somehow measurable.
Sometimes, no matter how much time has passed since the death of someone important in your life, you may be going through your life without consciously grieving and then suddenly experience a raw, intense feeling of grief as if the loss had just happened. Any major life event or experience can remind you of what was lost … lost by you, lost by the deceased, lost by your children, or even lost by the world.
It makes perfect sense if you really think about it. I am who I am today, because my husband lived. I am who I am today, because my husband died, and the way he died. I don’t know who I would have been if I hadn’t met him. The children I love wouldn’t exist if it were not for him. I don’t know what my life would be like today if acute stress caused by his death hadn’t dramatically accelerated the progression of my multiple sclerosis.
I still sometimes get a visceral, overwhelming attack of grief and it agitates me so badly I end up nauseous. I found out there’s a name for it – it’s called STUG. Sudden Temporary Upsurge of Grief is a term created by grief expert Dr. Therese Rando back in the early 1990s. It’s a powerful and unexpected wave of emotion that occasionally happens to someone who experienced the loss of a loved one. It can be triggered by an event in your own or somebody else’s life, a sound, a song, a scent, or any other seemingly random thing.
Roadmap of Grief
As I’ve already mentioned, I’m not a fan of the idea of the five stages of grief because it makes people think that upon experiencing those stages, the grief will be resolved. When you’re surviving the death of somebody very important in your life, you have to try and figure out a way to live in a world that no longer includes the physical presence of that person. you need to compensate and adjust for the absence of that person.
Surviving a STUG
What can you do if you experience a STUG?
- Recognize that what happened is a real thing. It’s not a weakness or defect on your part. You might temporarily feel out of control of your emotions, but you’re still in charge of your life.
- Remember that the T in STUG stands for Temporary. No matter how bad the experience makes you feel, it is going to pass.
- Research I’ve done indicates that the most effective way to deal with a STUG is to try to remember it’s going to end and that you just have to breathe through it. It isn’t something you need to fight.
- I’ve read that when you’re experiencing a STUG, your body releases endorphins because of the ‘fight or flight’ response perceiving the president of some kind of danger.
- After the STUG has ended, your body may need several hours to absorb the hormones and brain chemicals that were released, and return to your usual baseline levels.
- After a STUG, your usual cognitive abilities will return to normal. You can try to figure out what brought on the experience. You may not even be able to figure it out, and that’s OK too.
- Try to remember that it’s not fair for you to expect you’re going to have a complete and final end to feelings of grief. Maybe you will and maybe you won’t. Either way, it doesn’t reflect on the quality of the relationship you had with the person who’s no longer here.
Grief is a normal reaction to loss. You can feel grief about the death of a person. You can also feel legitimate grief over loss of an ability you used to have, but no longer do. Don’t let yourself be made to believe that your grief is too much or not enough. Whatever your feelings are, you’re entitled to them.
The exception to this is if the feelings of sadness are making it impossible for you to eat or to sleep for more than a couple of days at a time. It’s also a problem if you want to do either of those things much more than you normally do, for more than a couple of days at a time. You don’t want to let yourself be pulled into serious depression.
If that’s what you think is happening, reach out to someone. Even if you don’t think it’s all that bad yet, it’s perfectly fine to reach out to somebody. If you don’t want to share your innermost thoughts and feelings with someone who knows you personally, you can talk to a professional or to a clergyperson. Unable or unwilling to speak with someone in person? There are plenty of people who will talk to you over the phone or on zoom. You can even call a local hotline. Don’t suffer through the pain alone. Reach out to me and I will send you some information for resources in your area.
Has anything you’ve ever done worked well in helping you deal with grief? I truly would like to know, if you don’t mind sharing with me. Please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.