On Not Managing Grief

The second Christmas since my father died and I feel like all my attempts to manage the situation have come to nothing.  I find myself plunged into grief again.  I realise now that my mistake lay in imagining that I could “manage” the situation in such a way as to avoid experiencing painful emotions because, let’s face it, that’s what I really wanted to achieve, even if I didn’t admit it to myself at the time.

Content note: death, bereavement, grief 

Back in February, I wrote about the strange experience of bereavement and now, nine months on from that post, I still don’t find it easy to answer questions about the nature of grief.  Representations of bereavement in popular culture are not very realistic, but they do reveal something interesting about how western culture tries to manage grief.  There seem to be two dominant narratives.  The first, which I think of as the “soap opera grief narrative”, depicts the bereaved person as briefly shocked and devastated, but once they’ve had a good cry and/or been distracted by something else occurring in their lives (usually romance), they move on quite quickly and show little psychological distress.  In the second narrative, which I think of as the “Star Trek grief narrative”*, the bereaved person remains stuck in a state of intense grief, rage, and often a desire for revenge, years after the loss.  Their grief comes to motivate all their actions. This is usually depicted as “bad” grief and results in trouble for everyone else.  Neither of these narratives is very helpful to a bereaved person, but they do tell us something about our society’s discomfort with grief and loss – “good” grief is over quickly, “bad” grief hangs around for ages and makes everyone’s life difficult.

The reality is of course much more complex and I’ve come to the conclusion that the only thing I’ve found helpful has been hearing about grief from people who’ve gone through it, have had time to process it and are able to talk about it honestly. This is not as easy to achieve as you might think because in western culture there’s such a taboo against talking honestly about grief and death, something which I think has fueled the recent increase in the publication of grief memoirs. These memoirs are mainly written by very privileged people who, on experiencing a major loss, seem shocked by the intensity of their grief.  I don’ really have anything against these memoirs, but I’m not sure we’d need them if death wasn’t such a taboo and everyone felt able to talk openly about their experiences.

One of the most helpful things anyone ever said to me on the subject came from a man who’d lost his mother when he was five years-old.  This loss had shaped the course of his entire life and he told me something that I didn’t pay much attention to at the time, but have thought about a lot since my father died.  He said the experience was like being tied to the end of an elastic band and being plunged, sometimes briefly, sometimes not so briefly, into grief and then pulled back out again. I find this metaphor, which you might call grief as bungee-jumping, far more helpful and recognizable than any of the progress narratives which attempt to neatly, and rather conveniently, “project manage” grief into stages and phases.  When I feel plunged into grief it helps to think, “Well, at some point, I will come up again”.

Another helpful narrative came from a woman I saw speaking on television years ago. She was talking about the impact of losing a child in utterly horrific circumstances and how the grief always came round again at the same time of year. The grief never went away, but she’d got to the point of being able to recognise it for what it was and understand what was happening to her.  Again, I didn’t give this part of her story much thought at the time, but it’s come back to me now as I find myself going through seasonal patterns of emotion

Being able to recognise the various ways in which you grieve is really important, but grief is not as easy to recognise as you might expect. Feeling sad? Crying? Missing the person?  Well, sometimes, but if only it was that simple!  I’ve learned that my own grief is most likely to manifest itself as feelings of physical fatigue, moments of terrible death anxiety and an anguished, free-floating rage that latches onto the strangest of things.  I’m not comfortable with feeling sad, so I tend to displace sadness into rage, which is at least a more powerful feeling.  I also find it less painful to get angry at things that are not the death of my father.  Over the last few days, for example, I’ve found myself fixating obsessively on various issues in the media. I found myself enraged and ranting to my partner when I got home from work, “Why can’t anyone see what’s happening?”   Then I realised that this feeling, that something damaging is being ignored, is really about my own feeling that something bad has happened to me and I’m being expected to go around behaving as if nothing has happened, my boiling emotions largely unacknowledged.  I look back at old posts and see that last year I was doing the same things and having the same kind of emotional reactions to other issues which were, of course, most definitely not the death of my father.

I feel a need for people to acknowledge my pain, even though I can’t even articulate that pain directly and keep displacing it onto other issues in my life.  I desperately want a response, even a negative one will do, just some kind of response that isn’t ignoring or dismissive.  There is always something particularly awful about being in emotional or psychological pain and not having it acknowledged, but when it comes to grief, I do understand why people find it hard to respond because in the west we have become so massively death and grief-avoidant.  People don’t want to open up their own grief or deal with other peoples’ and I often feel that we are just terrified of emotions, perhaps because experiencing emotions might mean losing control – and we do seem to be terribly invested in maintaining an illusion of control.

When someone dies, you’re expected to grieve for the person (showing “too little” grief being as frowned upon as showing “too much”), but again, the question of exactly what you end up grieving for goes well beyond the actual person.  I’m grieving the loss of my father as a person, but I’m also grieving for the way he died and this is particularly raw right now because his final Christmas with us became a symbol of everything that I feel went wrong about his illness and death. It’s strange to say it, but I find the way he died harder to deal with than the fact of his death.  Now I’m re-living the pain of that last Christmas and the guilt and regret I feel about it. As a side note, that’s one of the reasons I think Christmas in particular can be such a trigger point – it’s always the same, so you can’t escape from the triggers.

My father’s death has also made me aware of the way we carry all our losses around with us.  A new loss can bring the old ones up again.  My aunt once told me that when her second child was stillborn, she suddenly found herself screaming for her brother who’d died years previously.  I haven’t gone through anything that extreme, but since my father died I do find myself haunted by the memories of people who’ve gone out of my life and also animals, cats and dogs lost years ago.

I’m still fixated on getting back to the way things were before my father died.  Rationally, I know this is impossible to achieve, but I can’t shake a feeling that things were better before he died and will never be as good again. I find myself hankering after the past.  I can feel myself denying the new reality, trying to push on through and force my way back there to a time when I didn’t have to deal with guilt and regret and painful memories.

So I suppose my take on living with grief would be to work on recognising how your grief manifests itself and when your behaviour has its source in grief.  This can at least help you make decisions about your behaviour.   It’s not easy or obvious and will take time, but I’d try and be aware of repeating patterns, such as my strange rage attacks.  For example, I tend to get cranky on twitter, but that can have consequences which I might not want to invite into my life, so it’s important to be aware of what’s beneath my impulse to be a bit of a dick.  Grief is completely individual because all relationships and losses are different and I think it helps to become aware of your personal triggers and of time – what are you feeling and when?  Also, be aware that it may always be with you. When I told a colleague that my father had died, she burst into tears about the death of her husband some 20 years previously. It turned out that she had hated this husband and was still carrying a huge amount of grief and guilt over the failed marriage and her unresolved feelings.  I think, in a way, she was grieving for her own lost life as much as his.  These days I cry at almost any news of a death, not my own father’s death, but pretty much anyone else’s. It’s important for me to be aware of this since I have to work in an office with other people.

Despite my resistance to the following statement, there’s no way (at least no healthy way) to manage things so as to entirely avoid pain, it’s more a case of making it as safe as possible to experience the pain and that means putting in as much support for yourself as possible. Whatever support you feel you need, try and put it into place.  I’m lucky in that I have a partner who’s always willing to talk and very good at noticing when I’m having problems, but there are other things, like being aware that I don’t like being alone for long periods of time at the moment, so making sure that I have things to do and people to see.

So what is grief? If someone asked me that question now, I’d say that grief is transformation. That sounds flaky, but I’m not saying that this transformation is necessarily “good” or “bad”, just that, whatever the outcome, this bereavement has been one of the most transformative experiences of my life.  As such, all I can do it stop trying to “manage” it and just let it be, let it take its course.  Another way to put this might be to say, instead of trying to control the grief all the time, try and take care of the grief.  I do think I’ve grown as a person, not least because I’ve had to become more emotionally literate, but it’s not a matter of “getting over it”, because there’s just no “getting over” something which completely alters your reality.  It’s more a matter of adjusting and trying to get used to the new reality in a way that you can live with.  I’m not there yet, but I’m getting to the point of being able to accept that I’m not there yet.

* “Star Trek grief narrative” – inspired by a post by Catherynne Valente about the rebooted Star Trek film. I’m afraid I can’t find the post now, but it concerned the way no one grieves normally in science fiction and how the character of Nero is a classic example of this trope.

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