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By Valerie Willman
Elizabeth Kuebler-Ross broke new ground when she shared the five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance. Most people I’ve talked to believed these stages were linear – one happened after another, though this is not the way Kuebler-Ross herself said it would work. And to top it off, if those crappy stages weren’t enough, there are more. More that she didn’t talk about. Like, shock and guilt. Despite the non-linear approach Kuebler-Ross intended, I still saw the stages as a checklist of sorts. It didn’t matter in what order they happened for me, I was just ready to start crossing them off my list. The faster I could do that, the faster I’d feel better. And that was something I desperately wanted to be in control of. I was in control of nothing else, so this would be my thing. This I would rule over. And I was ready to get down to work. So, denial. Ok, that happened briefly for me when the troopers came to the house. My first words were: Are you kidding? But that only lasted a few moments really. This is great. I cross the first one off my list. Shock, I think, lasted about three or four months. It took awhile to come up for air and to settle into some semblance of a routine. Check. (But remember, this wasn’t one of the original five stages. This one was thrown in for free.) I never did bargaining. I don’t have much to say about that. I do know what it is though, and I watched out for it, but it didn’t make any recognizable appearance. For all intents and purposes – check. Sadness. (Or it’s alter-ego, depression.) Sadness permeates everything for
years. Sorry to be so crass and blatant, but there it is. It isn’t the sadness of sobbing and heartsickness. That took me around a year or so to pass through. But good days bled through them all. So in the midst of the pain, joy would show up, too. But the sadness that lasts for years is more elegant. It shadows your thoughts and activities like the dappled sunshine that survives through a canopy of trees above a summer deck. Soft, nostalgic. Tender, even. The anger was tricky and I’ll tell you why in a little bit. First, I gave myself a freebie. Before I even started crossing them off, I checked off anger. I wouldn’t do that. I’d never been raised with anger displayed in obvious ways. Good Christian girls didn’t get angry. They worked things out calmly. Or in my case, just avoided all confrontation. Growing up, my parents never displayed anger. Sure, there were disappointments and disagreements – maybe even disgust sometimes – but never raised voices. Never slamming doors (except among outraged siblings once in awhile), and never ever ever any physical anger, hitting or throwing plates against the walls or at each other. I wasn’t mad at Rob for dying. I was sad he died. I was lonely because he died. I didn’t blame him for dying. He fell asleep. It was an accident. Irritatingly enough, denial resurfaced for a small time. No one asked any of us to identify the body like they do in the movies. No one asked if Rob had any distinguishing marks on his body, like the blue triangle and eye of Ra on his left shoulder blade. Wouldn’t they automatically ask that of everyone? What about the long scar down his belly from the surgery he had when he was four hours old?
Wouldn’t they want to make sure they had the right guy before putting his death notice in the paper? So maybe he didn’t really die. Maybe it was someone else. But then Fernanda and Lena went to see the body at the funeral home before the wake. So that ended the denial bit. Again. The shitty part was: I did the work again, but I didn’t get to check it off the list again. And then I wondered about the way he died. The troopers said he fell asleep while driving. But that sounded so unlike him. He’d pull over to the side of the road to sleep, even with the threat of a commanding officer at formation bearing down on him. So why wouldn’t he have done that on that night? Maybe he didn’t fall asleep, maybe he had an aneurism, I speculated. But the autopsy didn’t show one. Guilt is another bonus grief stage. Most of my guilt stemmed from not making him stay home and sleep. He could’ve gotten up after a few hours of rest and made it to formation by six that morning. And I asked him to stay, but he said, “No.” And that was that. I knew I really couldn’t make him do anything. He was an adult who made up his own mind. I left it there; no more dwelling. And acceptance. Well that was dumb. Of course I accepted his death. He was gone, wasn’t he? It was almost an insult to my intelligence. Fucking check. So, I’m done right? Checkoroony.
Yeah. Right. Remember that anger I was telling you about? Well, four years later after I
was “done” grieving it showed up. Surprise! I was angry at Rob for dying. I was angry at him for working a 24 hour shift and not having any sleep. I was angry at his National Guard unit for proposing the 24 hour work shift. I was angry that I wasn’t going to have any more of his children. I was angry that we never got to go to France and Germany together. I was angry that he wouldn’t be there for the kids to do daddy things with. And I was angry that he was gone and I might never have the same intense love that he showered on me from anyone else. Whew. The most important thing to remember after that, for me, was that it was ok to feel this anger. It was normal and right and safe, and I wasn’t a bad person for feeling it. Double whew.
Somewhere in those four years I was at a certification training for bereavement facilitation led by Alan Wolfelt, PhD. He spoke several times during that week and I learned something that has given me peace ever since. And now I give it to you. Grief is cyclical. You can check off whatever stages you want, but you’ll most likely revisit them. And that’s normal. You aren’t delayed, or dwelling on the death. This is supposed to happen. Not forever mind you. And it’s not eternally on your mind, or anything. Maybe six months – or four years -- will go by and you’ll feel this overwhelming anger or sadness and wonder what’s wrong with you. Nothing. Grief is cyclical. It’s not a tidy inked line on the paper, it’s a big ball
of yarn that’s been tangled up by the new puppy. Something else I learned from Dr. Wolfelt helped me feel much less crazy in those first few years. He described something called “grief bursts.” Boy, was I relieved when I knew what these were. I’d had one and thought I was delusional. I was driving to the mountains with my roommate, Susan, for a day of snowshoeing. We were listening to an India Arie cd in my rig and the song “Beautiful” came on. In the middle of it I burst into tears. I had no idea why. It was actually fairly terrifying. I had no trigger: we hadn’t heard the song together before he died, Susan and I hadn’t been talking about him, it wasn’t a random anniversary of ours or his. Nothing to warn me. Just an overwhelming sense of him, and my sadness that he wasn’t there. Susan and I dissected the possible causes for the outburst for a long time. The most plausible to me was that I was wearing Rob’s flannel coat and there must have been some residual smell of him in the fibers and the heater warmed it up enough to smell them. His smell being enough to trigger the tears. But the truth is, it doesn’t matter. There doesn’t need to be a reason. In fact that’s pretty much the definition of a grief burst. You randomly burst out with emotion related to your grief for no apparent reason. It’s just there suddenly and then fades just as quickly. Done. But it certainly creeped me out when I experienced it. Not to mention I was again discouraged that I wasn’t yet “over” this irritating grief. So, to learn that grief bursts were normal was a huge relief and had solidified for me that the stages of grief weren’t tasks that need to be checked off. Grief lingers, but not in an irritating-younger-sibling-tagging-along way,
or a flu that linger on and on and on. It’s a sweet grief. Like the favorite special sweater of his you saved and bring out every year for Samhain*.
*Sambain is celebrated as the Celtic New Year. It’s more commonly referred to as Halloween, or the eve of the Day of the Dead. Our family celebrates this holiday with an altar decorated with things our ancestors, friends or close family members who’ve died once owned, or liked. A camera, pencil sharpener, dog tags, a watch, or an empty carton of cigarettes. Camels. (And we sometimes wear clothes that once belonged to them, as well.)
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