My dad passed away early this morning.
I know there’s nothing I’m supposed to do or not supposed to do with the shit-storm brewing inside my mind. Just go to work, throw together some dinner, intellectualize away the feels via my blog, blabber on tearfully to my husband some point in the evening while looking though old pictures and eating boxes of zebra cakes dipped in Nutella… I suppose that’s as good a plan as any.
“Grief” is not something with which I am unfamiliar. In fact, as a psychologist, it’s a process with which I am all-too intimately acquainted.
Got delt the shitty (and random) hand of abusive or neglectful parents? A psychologist might point out that it’s time to grieve the loss of the stability and love that could have been but wasn’t.
Have a spouse that doesn’t automatically consider caring for you while you’re ill or consulting with you on a big purchase? A therapist might suggest grieving the idea of Stanly automatically meeting your (sometimes basic) needs without having to ask him.
Grief is a messy process, sprinkled with moments of anger, denial, sadness, and sometimes bizarre defense mechanisms, emerging repeatedly and in no particular order. Ultimately, it is the roller coaster in which one is helplessly harnessed, the rickety ride that eventually slows down into the mostly steady pace of acceptance. But every once in a while, when one least expects it, the track jerks and jolts back into intensity, maybe when you hear song, when the holidays come around, or when you’re doing nothing at all…. And maybe right after the loss or even years down the road. Grief is a shifty bastard.
Here are some more realities that I ain’t gonna sugar-coat, because I’m just not in the mood. (And also because sugar-coating someone’s legitimate suffering only makes them want to gouge your smug throat with a letter opener. Ummm. Ok, moving on.)
The anger is a bitch.
It’s natural to be ANGRY when you lose or don’t receive something desireable (or, even more-so when you are denied a basic human need, in which case the feeling is less “anger” and more “the pure and seething rage of injustice”).
I have one rule of thumb when it comes to the anger within grief: Keep it directed at its rightful target and proportional to the aggression. BAaaahahahaha. Just kidding. Good luck pulling that off while in the throes of grief.
More realistically, expect misdirected and exaggerated angry urges, and try to at least channel them into behaviors that aren’t going to get you in trouble. Like, be angry at God all you want (Based on the number of people who have expressed anger and confusion at God, and the fact that zero of those people have been smited-from-heaven, I’m pretty sure God can handle it.), or silently curse the poor waitress who forgot your order behind her back. BUT, setting fire to your boss’s desk because you associate him with authority and you’re grieving the fact that you never had a loving parent with appropriate limits? Probably not a good idea.
(And, P.S. The art of a humble apology is mighty handy during grief, says the therapist who regrettably unloaded on her brother some words that are most-unspeakable, even for a blog that sometimes drops f-bombs.)
When it comes to anger, the typical goal is to have some awareness of where that anger should be directed and why that anger is occurring, and also some time to actually access that appropriate anger. In the case of grieving something that was denied or taken from you (in the case of an abusive parent who denied love and stability, for example), the straight-up superhuman goal is to seek so much understanding that you actually forgive on the basis of empathy, without actually assuming blame or subjecting yourself to further danger. That superhuman goal is a delicate balance that is pretty much only achieved by monks who spend a lifetime accessing their own humanity and accepting the world as it is. However, legend has it, it was also accomplished by the wife of my friend, who allegedly forgave her father’s killer on the basis of compassion. But that kind of hippy-dippy empathy (that is not simply repression and reaction formation) is RARE. And not necessarily critical to managing the anger in grief.
Unprocessed compound-grief will annhialate your world.
My definition of compound grief (not to be confused with “complicated” grief, which compound grief often leads-to.) is as follows: Compound grief is when you have to grieve the loss of a person/desirable situation AND, at the same time, forgive-and-validate yourself for some regrettable behavior.
Grieving the loss of an identity and high-powered job because you just got fired for missing deadlines? You’re probably going to be eyeball-deep in compound grief.
Grieving the loss of a loved one that you mistreated in some way? Expect the sinking company of Mr. Compound Grief.
And, nobody who is suffocating under the weight of compound grief wants to get out of bed, let alone make it to a therapy appointment to release the layers of self-and/other loathing. So maybe start with journaling. Or call a random stranger on the psychic network from your home. Or join an online support group and find that other people fought with their spouses through their cancer treatments too. Or unload on the mailman who doesn’t even know you, about your every last regret, until he is sufficiently nodding, smiling, and posturing for hug. Anyway. You get the picture (don’t hold the regret stuff in, dammit!).
Ahhhh, the mind games.
Bet you thought you were a pretty f*cking reasonable person before buckling into the grief coaster, didn’t you?
Ha. Think again. Deep in grief, you now find yourself reading into songs on the radio, talking to yourself, considering joining a cult that promises answers and requires you to wear crystal underwear, and crying in the produce aisle at the grocery store because the peaches are bruised. And just the other day, you swear a bird talked to you and told you everything would be okay.
The brain has an awesome and convincing ability to protect the psyche, expel repressed feelings in random but safe places, and offer comfort during times of extreme distress. At one end of this spectrum is wondering if your pizza-loving cousin’s spirit is living on through a pigeon slurping up road-cheese in Central Park. The faaaaar other end of the spectrum is actual psychosis, which no amount of indulgence in fantasies could initiate. Bluntly, if it’s not hurting anyone or causing any problems in your life, why not enthusiastically defend your little piece of crazy to your engineer husband who rolls his eyes at you? Err, I mean, to just illustrate a totally random scenario. Yes, totally random.
Platitudes are f*cking enraging. Unless they’re soothing. (Grief is sometimes Jeckyl, sometimes Hyde.)
Grieving the loss of a relationship after a breakup? You might fantasize about inserting a staple between the eyes of your coworker who quips, “You don’t need him. You’re too good for him anyway. Plenty of other fish in the sea!” In fact, you might later vent to your therapist that “Marsha’s dismissiveness of my pain was quite invalidating as well as her characterization of Stewart was wildly unfair; After all, the man did get my a kitten for my birthday even though he is allergic.”
OR. On another day, someone’s sweeping statement about how “You’re better off now without him” might make you sigh with relief and smile.
About this one, I have no words of wisdom, other than “please, please for the love of God, PUH-LEAZE communicate to your main sources of support (spouse? friend?) what you want from them: “No relationship bridge was ever burned by a little over-communication and explaining when you simply want the other person to imagine your pain, not try to fix it or talk you out of it,” says the therapist whose husband sooo appreciates the scripts she gives him, whether he asks for the or not. Right, RJ?
Sometimes all you have to cling to is meaning. Even if you have to dig deep to contrive some.
Viktor Frankl coined the concept and the theory, but indeed, it does not take being a Jewish psychiatrist suffering in a concentration camp, to believe that it is sometimes soothing to find meaning in suffering.
Often times, people in therapy who are grieving the safety, love, or innocence missing in their childhoods, remind themselves that they would not have been who they are today had history been any other way. Still others learn lessons in their grief, like not taking life and family for granted, that they carry throughout their lives. And others cherish the opportunities (and even children) that they would not have had, if they had not been forced to let go of something dear.
I had no control over the trajectory of my Dad’s life, health, or death.. But I can cling to small lessons and insights that I would not have had if he hadn’t died. There are nutrition and medical choices that I will now take much more seriously, and people that I will no longer take for granted. I mean, it still feels like my heart is standing in a tornado wearing a paper gown; I’m not gonna lie. BUT, thinking about the life-altering takeaways from his death, gives me moments where I think I see some sunlight peeking through the clouds. Or maybe that’s just my kid shining his new Scooby Doo flashlight in my eyes while I ignore him to write this blog post. Whatever.
Anyway, grief is sucktastic. But there are no shortcuts to riding the rollercoaster and feeling the feelz. And with that, I bid you fairwell, internet, as a carton of Little Debbies is calling my name.