Health Bytes: On grief and grieving
How we process, how we cope is important, but what is also important, is the after, when grief fades from fierce eddies of anguish to nostalgia and bittersweet memory.
I went through a rather painful breakup last month. It was inevitable, perhaps, and, in hindsight, probably for the best. I dealt with it the way I usually do—throwing myself into work, working out with a vengeance (I haven’t got my revenge body yet, but I hope to get there), whining to my girlfriends and eating too much ice-cream (maybe, that’s why I haven’t got my revenge body). I also spent many hours listening to what I call my breakup songs--Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Another suitcase in Another Hall, Leonard Cohen’s Winter Lady, Joan Baez’s Diamonds and Rust, and Joni Mitchell’s Both Side Now—on loop. And yes, as always, fiction came to my rescue. There is something about being lost in multiple worlds, living a hundred lives, being bludgeoned by so many complex histories and feelings and identities, that shift and diminish grief. As James Baldwin says in an early essay, “You think your pain and your heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, but then you read. It was books that taught me that the things that tormented me the most were all the things that connected me with all the people who were alive or had ever been alive.”
It still isn’t easy; grief, after all, is Hydra’s head, replacing itself over and over again. Some days are alright, of course. But there are also the not-so-good ones. And the nights are inevitably harder; I still spend many of them battling insomnia, and googling “The Five Stages of Grief”, trying to figure where I am at, currently.
These five stages, a heuristic device, first referred to by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross in her book titled On Death and Dying, divides the grieving process (her initial work focused on death, but she later extended it to other life-changing experiences, too) into 5 delineated stages. It begins with denial, a shield we draw around our mind to protect it from reality. “No, no,” you tell yourself. “This must be a mistake; it can’t be happening to me.” Then comes the anger, days spent railing against the world, and all in it. “How dare you let this happen to me?”, you say. This is followed by what I think of as the worst stage really, a pitiful supplication to fate or god or whatever you believe in. “Perhaps, I was too hard on him,” you think. “I wish I could travel back in time, and do it differently.” The depression, the intense sadness now arrives, and you spend your days in ratty pyjamas, wallowing in self-pity and pain. Finally, you accept that it is over, and emerge on the other side, a slightly different person, perhaps even a better, stronger one. At least, that is what I tell myself, over and over again.
It isn’t set in stone, of course—human feelings are complex things, and don’t follow a road map. They may skip a few stages, or linger in another for a long while, maybe even forever. But what the Kübler-Ross model does is provide some relief to people falling apart at the seams, grappling to rebuild a new life without their loved one in it. We mourn, as French philosopher (and author murderer), Ronald Barthes, writes in his Mourning Diary--a series of daily reflections following the death of his mother— “in layers, a kind of sclerosis,” he writes, pointing out that this means “no depth. Layers of surface—or rather, each layer: a totality. Units.”
I’m still shedding my layers.
In her 2005 memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, writer Joan Didion says something along similar lines.“Grief turns out to be a place none of us will know until we reach it,” she says in this book, an account of her life following the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. “We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks we might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect this shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe their husband is about to return and need his shoes,” she writes in her poignant prose, delving into that initial denial of loss.
She compares her loss to other tragedies—9/11, for instance—to conclude that the “ordinary nature of everything preceding the event that prevented me from truly believing it had happened, absorbing it, incorporating it, getting past it,” was “nothing unusual”. She adds that it is a normal response “confronted with sudden disaster we all focus on how unremarkable the circumstances were in which the unthinkable occurred, the clear blue sky from which the plane fell, the routine errand that ended on the shoulder with the car in flames, the swings where the children were playing as usual when the rattlesnake struck from the ivy,” she writes.
Her observations make you realise how universal grief is, and yet, also, how intensely personal and unique. I have not grieved all my losses the same way; no one does. It was the sound of the clods falling on his coffin, I remember, that triggered the shift from denial to sorrow, at my grandfather’s funeral, twenty years ago. When a beloved aunt died last month, after a brief, if sudden illness, acceptance galloped in so fast that I could barely catch my breath. Perhaps, it was her age—she was 95—and the relief she had not suffered. But, when I lost my cat, two years ago, in a terrible accident, I reacted somewhat differently, sobbing every day for a month. There are days, when I still look out for her when I pass her favourite hideouts, before stopping to remind myself she is gone.
When my fiancé dumped me, Miss Havisham-style five years ago, I mourned him backwards, moving from a short, but intense depression phase to a rage that hasn’t, if I am to be honest, gone away completely. With every broken relationship, lost love, romantic disappointment or disillusionment, I relive that loss, all over again. Not because I miss or love him anymore. But because, as Didion says, “we are imperfect mortal beings, aware of that mortality even as we push it away, failed by our very complication, so wired that when we mourn our losses we also mourn, for better or for worse, ourselves.”
How we process, how we cope is important, but what is also important, is the after, when grief fades from fierce eddies of anguish to nostalgia and bittersweet memory. “There is a time when death is an event, an adventure, and as such mobilizes, interests, activates, tetanizes. And then one day it is no longer an event, it is another duration, compressed, insignificant, not narrated, grim, without recourse,” writes Barthes.
Is this where grief ends: the stabbing agony of its incipience, dulling, over time, into acceptance, tinctured with soul-weariness?
Not, necessarily, says grief expert David Kessler in his latest book, titled Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief, released earlier this month. In a November 2 article Kessler, who has co-written two other books with Kübler-Ross, explains why he saw a need to write this book. “In recent years when I mistakenly thought my tough losses were behind me, it was upended by the sudden death of my 21-year-old son, David. How does the grief expert handle such a tragic loss?” he writes. He thought back to those five stages, he adds, and saw himself move through it all. “But when I got to acceptance, something was lacking. I knew I had to find a way through this unexpected, devastating loss – something that would honour my son. Is acceptance truly all there is when it comes to grief?”
He concludes that this is not necessarily true. “I feel the pain of missing and grieving those who have died, but I also feel and see the meaning,” he says, adding that finding this meaning helps us go beyond pain. “Loss can wound and paralyse. It can hang over us for years. But finding meaning in loss empowers us to find a path forward. Meaning helps us make sense of grief.”
I’m still struggling to find meaning, I must admit. There are still days where I rail at the world (and, unfortunately, the former beloved), for being so intensely unfair, unjust, unkind. It is not easy, admits Kessler; you have to make a conscious decision to acknowledge that there was more to that person than their loss, there was also their life before that. “Ask yourself, what memories of their life do you want to keep alive? What quality of them now lives in you? What memories can we pass on to others?” Kessler says, in this interview with Stylist.
Me, I’m still trying to get past the bitterness and sadness. But I’m also forcing myself to remember the good times—the laughter, the conversation, and the warmth and sharing. “Meaning is never going to take away the pain, but it’s also going to give you some of the good,” says Kessler. “This is the love that can be your cushion as you go through the pain.”
I’m just hoping I can, someday, find it.