Crazy with Grief

If you want to comfort someone who is grieving, or if you’ve recently lost a loved one, here’s something you need to know:

Grief can make a person feel crazy.

Stark. Raving. Crazy.

Before I go on, please accept that I don’t use the word “crazy” lightly. I mean no offense to any individuals living with mental illnesses. On the contrary. I have a glimmer of understanding — just a little bit — about how difficult it can be to live with mental health challenges. I have relatives and friends whose diagnoses impact their day-to-day lives.

My late husband grappled with severe, life-impeding OCD. During his last two years, other mental and/or neurological symptoms (which were never adequately diagnosed) infected his thinking and behavior, bringing our home life to its own level of … no other way to put it … crazy.

After my husband’s unexpected death, I thought I was losing my mind; it didn’t work right.

  • My short-term memory stunk. I couldn’t hold simple to-do lists. I’d flit from the start of one to the middle of another. (Why am I standing in the laundry room holding my toothbrush wearing only one shoe?) For the first time in my life, I forgot to pay bills on time. When I remembered to attempt cooking, I left perishable food on the counter or in the stove or microwave until it turned on me and I had to throw it out. I had too many near-misses forgetting I’d turned on the stove or lit a candle. (NOTE: SET A NOISY, OBNOXIOUS TIMER IF YOU’RE GRIEVING AND TRYING TO COOK.)
  • I lost time. It took twice as long (or more) to do routine things like putting on clothes or brushing my teeth. Even pouring a bowl of cereal and slicing a banana took longer. More taxing tasks (like paying bills) took three to four times longer (and I didn’t do them very well).
  • Showering was a sob-fest. I fell apart every time. The solitary vulnerability allowed too much time for thinking, reflecting, and mourning. The waterworks were so bad, for a while I put off showering as long as I (and my family) could stand it.
  • Sleep was a nightmare. Literally — I had soul-waking, body-shaking nightmares. That is, when I could sleep.  For months I avoided sleeping, no matter how exhausted I became, in hopes of avoiding (or at least delaying) the nightmares.

    After my husband died, my brown eyes looked green to me. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce/TealAshes.com

    After my husband died, my brown eyes looked green to me. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce/TealAshes.com

  • I couldn’t look myself in the eye. My reflection looked wrong. Instead of seeing myself — the self I’d always seen before — I saw only the emptiness in my eyes. (Emptiness, that is, except for the bloodshot insomnia tinting the whites.) It was unsettling. I knew I’d lost my husband (my other half) and the mirror flaunted I’d also lost myself. I had to avert my gaze, careful not to look too closely into my soul’s windows.
  • I couldn’t stop looking at my eyes. (Yes, that sounds like a contradiction, which seems a little crazy. Which is my point …) All my life, I thought I had clear brown eyes. It may be scientifically impossible, but after my husband died, my eyes looked more green than brown. (Yes, I felt irrational green-eyed jealousy over couples who got to keep their spouses to ripe old ages, but I’m not talking about their metaphoric hue.) My irises still look more green than brown to me.
  • I couldn’t stand to be photographed, either. I remembered as a child reading in National Geographic of a tribe of people who feared that cameras somehow captured their souls. The thought of documenting the emptiness in my eyes brought panic. I still remember one person telling me to smile for the camera and when I told her no, I didn’t want my picture taken, she did it anyway. The violation chilled me, left me shaking.
  • Making business phone calls felt like mountain climbing. (No, I’ve never actually been mountain climbing, and if I could have avoided all reasons for using the phone during that period, I wouldn’t have made those necessary calls, either.) Every time I called another organization regarding the business side of my husband’s death, I felt like I’d been punched in the stomach. (And yes, thanks to a bigger-than-me-boy-bully from elementary school, I do know how that feels.)
  • Personal calls were harder. I can’t count how many well-meaning souls said, “Call me if you need anything.” I knew they were my friends. I knew they meant it, but their offer was too general, too much from a perspective of not understanding what that “anything” might have been. (I didn’t know what I needed, and besides, didn’t they know how HEAVY the phone felt?) Even as the words came out of their mouths, I knew I would not call them. Could not.* 
  • My body betrayed me. In the first weeks of widowhood, I didn’t remember I was supposed to eat. When I complied with reminders, my body wouldn’t keep food inside. (I’ll spare you the details, but it wasn’t pretty.) Eventually, it overcompensated, telling me I was hungry when I wasn’t. Of course, there was also the nightly insomnia (and the need for daytime naps to compensate). I forgot to breathe fully. And my skin went crazy, peeling and cracking as if it were dehydrated while also creating acne like I hadn’t seen since adolescence. Even my sense of smell went haywire as I perceived the presence of smells that weren’t there.
  • I followed a stranger. With my car. For a couple of blocks. I knew — KNEW — it couldn’t possibly be my husband walking down the street with his build and gait and hair color and wearing a striped shirt like his. It couldn’t be. But I had to follow until I could see the front of him. Because it looked just like him. And I knew we’d buried my husband, but what if we hadn’t? What if it was him?

In short, I felt crazy.

For all the examples above (except the eye color thing), I’ve heard other bereaved souls acknowledge similar irrational thoughts while mourning. Finding out I wasn’t alone in my mind-mush helped me cope.

But that wasn’t enough.

Before I talked myself into giving grief counseling a try, I pondered the advice of several widowed friends who’d found the process helpful.** Those who got the most out of grief counseling plunged themselves into the process without holding anything  back. They told their therapists everything. Everything.

That scared me.

There were elements of my husband’s mental illness I hadn’t shared with anyone. Some of his symptoms were obvious to those around him; others were more subtle, known only to those closest to our family; a few issues I learned only over the course of our 24 years together. I never wanted to undermine him or betray his confidence, so I spoke of them to no one. Most people had no idea of the depth of his struggles or how they impacted both of us in our shared life.

So during my first appointment with a grief counselor, I let it all out. Everything. All the grief-related craziness and all the new-widow insecurities and all the old-life abnormal-normalcy of living with my husband’s mental illness.

It helped. Telling one nonjudgmental, neutral person everything brought a balance to my grieving. More importantly, the therapist validated the life-altering impact of losing a loved one. She helped me reframe my perceptions of how to move forward in the newly-revised, work-in-progress, ongoing version of my life.

I wasn’t crazy, she assured me. I was grieving.

If you’ve thought your grieving friends were going crazy, or if you’ve thought it of yourself while mourning, I hope this has helped you feel less alone. Please feel free to share your experiences in the comments below.

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*I believe I made only ONE middle of the night call during the first couple of years. It was to a dear friend I met through a widows network, Shelby Ketchen. Because she’d been a widow for about six months before me, I was able to trust the sincerity of her offer to call “day or night” more than I could trust myself to call upon people I’d known much longer. I knew that as a recent widow, she understood my post-midnight madness. She shared her experience, her faith, and her friendship at a time I most needed to quell the desperation I dared not show in daylight.

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See the Mayo Clinic’s page on Complicated Grief for more information on warning signs that your friend may need professional help adjusting after a loss.

**For a related post, see Grief therapy and a friend’s counsel.

“Happy Birthday” after a Death?

At this time last year I wrote about MLK Jr., Kennedy, and me. It should be on my mind again this weekend, but this year I hardly remembered why the third Monday of January is recognized as a national holiday. It’s not the late Dr. King’s birthday I’m remembering.

Birthday candles and party favors (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Birthday candles and party favors (photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

It’s my husband’s. My late husband’s.

And my mother’s. My late mother’s.

When Mom died a little over twenty years ago, I worried over whether anyone else would remember her birthday. I didn’t want her to be forgotten. And I knew I’d miss her even more on her birthday than I did every other day without her.

Celebrating my husband’s birthday without my mother’s was hard, but he helped me get through each of hers. He said things like:

“I know today is a hard one.”
“I’m sure you’re thinking of your mom today.”
“I miss her, too.”

When my husband died a little over five years ago, I couldn’t face the thought of Mom’s birthday without him.

And I couldn’t face the thought of his birthday at all. I was too broken.

A dear friend came to spend time with me. She listened when I cried and ranted. She reminded me to eat (and made me food when I still forgot). By her presence, she showed me how much she cared.

Even though these pieces are glued back together, this broken mug will never fully be whole again. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce)

Even though these pieces are glued back together, this broken mug will never fully be whole again. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce)

And that she remembered. By doing so, she helped me gather up pieces of my fragmented self.

Fast forward five years — to now.

My life is good again — different, but good. Most days are much easier to get through than they were in the first couple of years after he died.

But some days — like his birthday and like my mom’s, which fall so close together — are harder than others. On those occasions, grief leaks more easily through the patched-up holes where I put myself together in my new normal.

If you know someone who is grieving lost loved ones, share your memories of them.

And if you know their birthdays, let them know you’re thinking of them then, too.

Grief Therapy and a Friend’s Counsel

A  few weeks after my husband’s death, a woman I hadn’t seen in years suggested I meet with a grief therapist. “My mom went to counseling after her husband died,” my friend told me, “and it made a world of difference for her. Counseling helped her cope.”

My friend’s sincere concern (and attempted consolation) touched me. I felt the kindness of her intention, but her words scraped at already raw emotions. I balked.

I may have nodded as she spoke, but I stepped back, putting a wider space between us while my inner voice screamed over her advice:

I don’t need a therapist, thank you very much, and this sadness isn’t something I need to fix. I don’t want counseling — I want my husband back. I want my kids’ father back! How dare you — who still have your husband — tell me someone can fix my mental health? He’s only been dead a month — am I supposed to be okay with that?

My husband was dead. Talking it out with a stranger wouldn’t return him to life. It wouldn’t return me from my new, unwelcome status as a single parent to my familiar role as a married, stay-at-home mom.

But before I could put words to that inner indignation, another old acquaintance approached who’d not yet heard THE news. “Hi, Teresa. How’s your husband doing? Where is he today?”

I opened my mouth to answer, not knowing what I’d say.

Sometimes, back then, when grief was new and raw and all-consuming, I couldn’t allow myself to utter the horrible words, “He’s dead.”

Other times, I couldn’t stop myself from blurting, “My husband died.” (Looking back, I pity the poor store clerks, fellow shoppers, and service professionals I encountered.)

So how did I answer the second woman’s innocent, caring question that day — on the heels of hearing another’s advice?

A wordless sob.  I spun and — sobbing louder — ran as fast as I could.*

I ran from the idea of counseling as much as I ran from the need to escape before really making a scene.

For more than a year after that day, my friend’s suggestion rattled around in the back of my mind, usually associated with feelings of flight. Meanwhile, I met and networked with many, many fellow widows and widowers and began networking with others who’d lost loved ones as well. From time to time, these peers mentioned grief counseling, and how glad they were they’d participated.  I always thought, “Good for them … but not for me.”

Counseling reframes grief, but it doesn't remove it.

Counseling reframes grief, but it doesn’t remove it. (Photo by Teresa TL Bruce, TealAshes.com)

Yet my friend’s words echoed: Counseling helped her cope … Counseling helped her … Counseling helped …

When I was ready, I realized it might do me some good. Even then, it took a couple of months more (and several dialed hang ups) to schedule myself an appointment.

It did help. It didn’t take away or diminish my loss, but it empowered me with tools to reframe my life’s “new normal.”

(Thank you again, my friend, for the gentle suggestion you gave me that day more than five years ago. I remain grateful for it!)

Before you gently suggest grief counseling or therapy for bereaved friends, keep in mind:

  • Grieving is harder than it looks, so avoid criticism or commentary that implies your friends are mourning and/or coping the “wrong” way. (Of course, if they are doing or about to do something harmful to themselves or others, stepping in is essential — just as it would be for any of your friends who aren’t grieving!)
  • Grieving takes much, much longer than you think. (Hint: Year two is often more difficult than the first 365 days after a death.) Please, remember they are still in mourning long after the funeral — and reach out to them.
  • Sometimes it helps to enlist a professional, but until mourners are ready, counseling won’t help.**  If you think it would benefit your friends, gently mention the idea once. Wait a couple of months before you bring it up again. Then wait another couple of months.
  • Remember: Grief is an emotional state born of love and triggered by loss, but it has real, physical components, too. Grief can’t be cured or fixed or treated any more than you can cure or fix the love at its roots. But coping tools can (eventually) assist in adjusting to it.
  • Like anything new, it takes time to become proficient. Never, ever, ever imply to a griever they should be (or get) “over it by now.” Don’t say that. Ever. No, never. (Can you tell how strongly I feel about this?)

In the meantime, let your friends know that whether or not they seek a professional’s help in learning to manage their grief, you’ll stand by them — no matter what.

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*I ran as fast as a woman with nerve damage in her ankle could “run” away while clomping along with a cane. (But that’s a whole different story of life back then…)

**See the Mayo Clinic’s page on Complicated Grief for information on warning signs that your friend may need professional help adjusting after a loss. The symptoms listed are normal for grievers (and even to be expected) during the first six months, according to that website, but may also last much longer. However, if they do not diminish of if they intensify over time, enlisting professional help may be necessary.

Forget about the “Stages of Grief,” but Remember the “Symptoms”

As a writer and editor of both fiction and nonfiction (and as a widow who has networked with thousands of other bereaved individuals) I cheered — and jeered — over one trade article’s treatment of grief.

I applaud Danny Manus for writing “Notes from the Margin: Five Stages of Grief for Your Character,” in which he urges fellow writers to infuse their characters with “fully fleshed out” emotional reactions by having “them go through the Five Stages of Grief.” Too many writers (and friends of the bereaved) appear unaware of the the life-altering impact of loss (whether that loss relates to health, relationships, employment, or other serious changes — including, of course, death).

Manus’s article and attached illustration might provide an initial working framework, but as one among many grief-related writers, I must disagree with the shape of the ribbon as well as the opening lines of the article!

The true

Although the loops acknowledge there are turns along the way to “recovering” from grief’s impediment, I disagree with the shape and “stages” of this image linked with Manus’s article at http://www.scriptmag.com/features/five-stages-of-grief-character.

“When something traumatic happens, it’s said that we all experience the five stages of grief. So as your character goes on their journey – which should be full of trauma, drama, action and emotion – it stands to reason that they should go through the same steps.” – See more at: http://www.scriptmag.com/features/five-stages-of-grief-character#sthash.jNiDqsod.dpuf%5D

I groaned — aloud — as I saw the lovely, neatly looped ribbon illustration and read the words “the five stages” and “the same steps.” 

Not again!

REAL people experience REAL grief in messier, less linear, and far less predictable ways. Every loss is different, because every relationship is unique. Realistic fictional (and nonfictional) characters should be presented accordingly — and living, (barely) breathing, grieving friends should never, ever, ever be pigeonholed into expectations of predictable, orderly patterns of grieving through “stages.”

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross herself explained that her “Five Stages” of grief applied specifically to people’s confrontations with their own impending mortality — and that they did not always line up in this neat little order. As another Elizabeth put it (though regarding the admittedly different topic of pirate laws), “They’re more like guidelines.”

A more accurate “ribbon” would show these “stages” appearing at uneven intervals and with skipped and irregular repetitions. Instead of a loosely looped U shape, the ribbon would be knotted in places, torn and shredded, and positioned in a wobbly spiral like a warped, stretched, squished Slinky.

For me (and for most of those I know who have lost loved ones, the so-called stages look more like the figure on the right:

Grief is messy. The “stages” look more like the figure on the right. (Image found at http://www.ywam-fmi.org/tl_files/ywam-fmi/images/articles/2015/Stages_of_Grief.jpg)

Consider realistically portrayed grieving television characters. Let’s look at the early guest appearances by the divorced Lorna/Lana Gardner (played by Jean Smart) on Frasier and the eight seasons of widowed Adrian Monk (played by Tony Shalhoub) on Monk.

When former high school classmate Lorna/Lana is reintroduced to Frasier, she thought she was already “over” her divorce. She’d “moved on” and was happy with her life — until her ex remarried on her birthday. The writers successfully (and comically) revealed her ups and downs along spirals of “stages” as new life circumstances forced her character to revisit past emotional reactions in her present life. In subsequent episodes, Lorna (by then called Lana) continued to carry her “anger” and “bargaining” stages with her (as parts of her personality that crept in) even as she moved along in her “meaningful life.”

In the series “Monk,” the title character was beautifully, tragically flawed. His lifetime of coping with OCD was thrown into non-coping chaos after his wife’s murder. Even though Adrian Monk managed (with heavy support from understanding though sometimes impatient and exasperated friends) to “return to meaningful life,” that life was always in flux with the “earlier stages.”

When also-widowed Natalie Teeger (played by Traylor Howard) becomes Mr. Monk’s assistant in the third season, her character has “already” returned more fully “to meaningful life” than her employer, yet throughout the remaining seasons there are moments the writers reveal the ongoing impact of grief in its recurring stages. For Adrian, the Slinky of stages remains tightly compressed as he moves forward; for Natalie the Slinky is stretched nearly — but not quite — into a straighter line.

Grieving is messy and complicated and non-linear. If you’re writing about characters whose losses have impacted their “normal” lives, be aware that realistic portrayals reflect the chaos of returning, churning emotions they thought they’d already put in the past.

If you’re supporting friends who’re mourning, please, please, please don’t tell them, “You may be depressed now, but as soon as you go through bargaining you’ll be ready for acceptance and then everything will be okay.” (Trust me on this — I’ve heard it. It doesn’t help, and unless you can bring back the dead, to the recently bereaved that will never be okay.) For many, grieving a loved one is the hardest thing they’ve ever done, and sanitizing it into simple stages implies it should be easier. They will not appreciate you minimizing their emotions.

If you’re grieving a loss of your own, I’m sorry. It hurts. Sometimes all you’ll see are the suffocating scribbles in the “My experience” illustration above. It won’t always be this hard, and in time the dark lines will fade as you work your way forward, but for now, be patient with yourself. Please.