When someone you love dies, you will feel indescribable pain, but deep inside, you know you can handle it, you know you will survive and “get better”, “get back to normal” – whatever the fuck that means, at least it was so for me. The first weeks I cried, was angry, my chest seemed to be overloaded by the most intense anxiety imaginable. After crying a lot and thinking that I was starting to “get over” my loss, I was struck by the realization that I had been rationalizing and escaping my feelings.
“I´ve been where you are and I dealt with it in the exact same way. And it worked, for a while. The longer you run from this, the more it will hurt when it catches you. And trust me, it will catch you.”
When you finally start accepting what happened, whether you want to or not, some things start to become clear. First, you realize you were denying the death of this person unconsciously. Initially, you might have thought that you were feeling all there was to be felt, that you were being crippled by emotion. But when the real emotion kicks in, you realize that you had been comfortably numb. And if you are a person who has worked a lot in trying to know herself and the intricate workings of her own mind, you might be shocked that such a biggie slipped your security system.
And yet, once you start to feel the intensity of the emotions after the negation phase has passed, you realize this was a good thing. See, you would have crumbled under the pressure if you weren’t emotionally sedated. So even though the more you postpone the pain, the more it will hurt when it hits, trust yourself and your protection instincts for a little while.
If you realize, however, that you keep on running away (through travel, sex, TV, alcohol, drugs or whatever it is you do to escape), try and force your feet back on the ground. You have to go through this. The faster, the better. And here´s a mind-blowing fact: almost everyone will have to go through this at least once in their lives.
Second, “normal” is not an option anymore.
Or let me rephrase that: you will have to find a new normal, a normal that does not include the person who died. Here’s the tricky thing: since we don´t talk about dark feelings in our society, and since the topic of grief not only makes everyone uncomfortable, but we are also collectively ignorant on the matter, people’s advice and your own preconceptions will actually make things harder for a little while.
You and the people around you will initially have the perception that the goal is to get better, to go back to how things were. Yet eventually, you will realize that this is impossible and that what you actually have to do is redefine your identity, a new identity that does not include the person who died.
You will arrive at the painful realization that every milestone in your life will bring about avoid, for this person will not be able to share these moments with you. When you get here, something kind of breaks. It breaks because you know that no one will understand what you are going through unless they have gone through it themselves.
You start to feel as if your friends do not or cannot understand you, and as if there’s a time limit to your grief, and yet, you now recognize, it will be present until the day you die. People are not emotionally equipped to handle your thoughts and/or pain. You are, after all, dying in a way – like an ego death – whilst not total, it still is a partial ego death (unwanted too, I might add) and so it might trigger some very understandable yet overwhelming emotions. When you try to put these into words, you will most likely scare the people who love you and make them worry about your mental sanity, so you start to keep your deep dark thoughts to yourself.
This leads me to number three: grief is a taboo. Grief is – without a doubt – the strangest, most puzzling and crippling experience I’ve ever been through and I’ve had my fair share of weird experiences.
It’s weird because you feel so alone and this is mostly so because, one: tears and emotion make people uncomfortable, and two: we are, as a society, completely and ridiculously unequipped to deal with grieving people.
Although all well-intentioned, most of the people’s reactions will only force you further back into yourself and will only make you want to hide more because of their lack of understanding on the subject. Let me elaborate on that. Some people will try to cheer you up and/or distract you by just completely ignoring what happened and pretending that it didn´t until you burst into tears and leave them a bit bewildered as to what to do with you.
Others will bombard you with attention and tell you how much they love you on an hourly basis. Others will obsessively ask you how you are doing – which presupposes your capability of answering that question. Others might vanish. And others will constantly tell you “if you need anything, please let me know”, as if you had the strength and/or mental capacity to make a decision, let alone know what you need or want.
If you are one of the lucky ones who has someone around that just hugs you and passes you tissues while you cry and is there to hear your weirdest thoughts without judging and thinking you have gone mental, remember to very enthusiastically thank this person (or persons) once this craziness is over. Just a warning, though: don’t use them as an emotional crutch. If you do, you will be back at point one: ignoring or postponing your feelings.
It’s nice to not feel alone and feel cared for, but apparently curling up in bed crying, feeling as alone as you ever have, and feeling like you want to die is not only normal but also part of the process.
I could keep on rambling on and on about things I have learned whilst navigating the waters of this unknown territory, but as a sociologist, the things that struck me as incredibly significant is how unfit we as a society are when it comes to death. In very objective terms (and cynic ones if you will), life is a walk towards death, and yet we all collectively seem to desperately want to ignore this fact. I wonder why.