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.
- 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.
*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.
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.