I’m afraid I’ve got some bad news for you…grief makes you crazy.
I suppose that may be a bit of an exaggeration. In reality, it only makes you feel crazy.
In the beginning, you feel totally out of sorts – like lash out at everyone, cry over everything, wear the same sweatpants for a week insane. Then over time you only feel a bit odd every now and then – like I’m a 5’2 woman totally unwilling to let go of the 6’1 man’s tweed suit from circa 1950 that’s hanging in my closet.
Stop looking at me like that.
Fortunately, I also have good news…when it comes to grief, crazy is the new normal.
It looks different on everyone because we all experience grief in our own way, but on some level, we all struggle to understand ourselves and the world around us in the face of profound loss.
Think about it – it makes total sense. Whether the loss was sudden or you were able to anticipate it, as soon as you understood and accepted that someone you love was dead or dying you began the grueling work of grieving. If ever a rationale for temporary insanity was needed, one could certainly be found among the range of reactions and emotions associated with grief and loss – shock, numbness, sadness, despair, loneliness, isolation, difficulty concentrating, forgetfulness, irritability, anger, increased or decreased appetite, fatigue or sleeplessness, guilt, regret, depression, anxiety, crying, headaches, weakness, aches, pains, yearning, worry, frustration, detachment, isolation, questioning faith – to name a few.
Understandably, many will find it hard to acclimate to these emotions. One day you’re walking along like normal and the next day you feel like an alien has invaded your body; your actions and reactions have become totally unpredictable and confusing. In search of something familiar you look to your primary support system, your family and friends, but they seem changed as well; some avoid you, some dote on you, some are grieving in ways you don’t understand, and some are critical of the way you are handling things. Everyone is searching for the new normal.
The first few weeks are foggy. You wake up each morning thinking maybe it was all a bad dream and you muddle through the day trying to make sense of life without your loved one. Just when you start to get a grip (or not) you are forced to step back into your pre-grief life. It seems absurd that the world would keep moving in the face of your tragedy, but it has. Sadly most grievers can’t abandon their duties for long – parent, employee, bill payer, pants wearer – you now have to figure out how to continue to exist in the roles that have been yours since before the death.
Alas, that is not all. You must also incorporate new roles and duties, the ones you inherited when your loved one died – mowing the lawn, balancing the household budget, single parenting, closing old bank accounts, dealing with insurance, taking in grandchildren. God never gives you more than you can bear? We’re seriously testing that theory.
Sometimes even more disorienting is the emptiness felt by those who have fewer responsibilities as a result of the loss. Perhaps you have spent the past year dealing with treatments and prescriptions, appointments, prayers, and hospice. Now that’s no longer necessary and a life put on hold to be a caregiver must be restarted. Or perhaps you’re a parent whose life was previously made colorful by a child and fast paced by the duties of parenting. Now you find yourself waking up in the morning to rush through the before school routine, only to realize there’s no one to hurry out of bed or call to breakfast.
Life is forever changed and things feel meaningless, gray, and empty.
This is when you really start to feel crazy (you’re not). Friends don’t know what to say to you anymore. You are supposed to be back to work, school, the PTA, but you don’t feel the same. You’re worried you are alienating people by talking about your loved one and the death. You’re confused about your purpose. Everything you knew about life has changed. You’re questioning your faith and life’s meaning. You’re wondering if you are supposed to be getting better and you can no longer see the world in color.
We here at ‘What’s Your Grief’ like to talk about a condition we call ‘Temporarily unable to see rainbows’. Have you ever noticed that many of the resources, articles, books, and materials created to help people who are grieving use images of people staring off at sunsets, standing on a beach, or gazing at the clouds? These images inevitably lead Litsa and me to a conversation that goes something like this…
Eleanor: You know, my grief never looked anything like that.
Litsa: Yeah my grief didn’t look like that either.
Eleanor: As a matter of fact, my grief would not have been impressed with that sunset at all.
Litsa: Mine either. My grief would probably have wanted to punch that sunset in the face.
The irony is, when you are in the throws of grief you may really struggle to find the beauty and the joy in life and it may be quite unlikely that you would stop and admire the beauty of a rainbow or the vastness of an ocean. Those who cannot relate to these images begin to worry, what’s wrong with me that I don’t have such a zen perspective? The inability to derive joy from things that were once pleasurable can feel a lot like depression and it can be frightening.
Don’t worry you’re still not crazy. These are normal feelings. I know because I’ve experienced my own grief and I know because I’ve heard hundreds of other grievers talk about the same types of experiences. (If you’re worried that you are actually experiencing a psychological disorder like depression, anxiety, or PTSD – read this and this and this)
You’ve probably heard people say, ‘the first year is the hardest’, this is sometimes true. Quite often, the second year is no picnic either, but at some point, things should get easier. The intense and unrelenting distress of acute grief will be replaced by less frequent moments of sadness, anger, and frustration. You will still have bad days, but you will know things are getting better when those days are outnumbered by ‘okay’ days.
This does not mean you are ‘getting over it’, moving on, or forgetting. An important part of healing is discovering the role your loved one will play in your life after their death. Of course at first, you hold on very tight, afraid if you let go your loved one will disappear completely. You hold on to items (not crazy), you leave rooms untouched (not crazy), you pay their cell phone bill so you can continue to hear their voice on their voicemail (not crazy). These things are not crazy and you may continue to do some of them forever, but some you will eventually let go of as your grip slowly loosens and you realize that nothing short of amnesia could make you really let go.
And slowly…slowly…the faded colors of life become more vibrant. The world unthaws and you start to find beauty peaking through in places you would never have expected it. Your season of grief has left you weary but stronger. You know you will never be the same and you begin to accept that you must integrate your loved one and your experiences and continue to live…a little bit wary, a little bit wise, and a little bit crazy
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Prefer to listen to your grief support? Check out our podcast on 12 ways that grief makes you crazy.