Travels with Myself

The Occasional Blogs of Doug Jordan, Author

17. Grief 3

This post [Grief 3] may feel a bit like Rach 3, that difficult and challenging piano concerto by Sergei Rachmaninov, at first compelling, but then we just want it over with.

The Kubler-Ross five stages of grief (or it’s variants, including my own model) didn’t seem to apply to me during Marlene’s illness, nor even afterwards. I was busy problem solving. And dealing with the everyday events of life, while living with cancer. Or at least, I didn’t experience them as they are described and sequenced. I suspect few people do experience grief this way, except very generally. Everyone encounters life differently and so they may come to know grief according to their own circumstances at the time. I understand Kubler-Ross herself did not experience her grief of her mother’s dying in the way she postulated in her book.

I had spent three years devoted to caring for Marlene. When she died I was exhausted. I was also relieved. I told myself I had been grieving for the whole three years. I was done with grieving.

Or maybe I was living in Denial.

But there is no escaping grief, and these emotional responses, if not exactly in stages, would surely come to me eventually.

In the months following Marlene’s death I entered a long period of emptiness. Well, not exactly emptiness – there was a lot of activity – but it felt surreal, life was happening to me rather than me driving it: I was more a spectator than a participant in my own life. 

And forgetfulness – large swaths of this period of my life seem missing. Not just the fleeting short-term memory loss we all experience with age, and stress, but stranded filaments of memory. It’s all there, but I have to be prompted to recall many of the things that happened in the last two years. The ordinary and pleasant events are obscured to me, the trauma I remember vividly. I wonder if this is what PTSD sufferers experience. The things you want to forget, you can’t, and overwhelm the things you should remember.

It felt more like sleep walking. I took all the necessary steps to organizing and sorting through the necessities of my new life, alone. That is no surprise, I’ve always been a structured and orderly person, so I addressed the tasks of life I had to deal with. But my heart wasn’t in it. I was merely was going through the motions. I only know now what I was experiencing then. I was cognitively aware but not fully conscious. I was not fully recognizing what was driving me. The necessary tasks of reordering my life had to be addressed. But I was struggling with core purpose now.

One of the Steps in the ‘Seven Stages’ model, is Pain & Guilt. I did not feel pain. The veil that comes over me in the weeks and months after my life-long partner’s death was not so much pain as anesthesia. There were many periods of unbidden sadness and tears, but more anguish than pain; and numbness. But guilt? Yes, guilt. Guilt about the unresolved conflict in the marriage. Guilt about things we, or more accurately Marlene wanted us to do but there was always some reason (not unreasonable) why we didn’t. And guilt about failing her. I had been through a period of therapy about twelve years before Marlene died, and one of the things I discovered about my core identity (or possibly, Life Traps) is that my life purpose is to take care of the significant other in my life. No doubt this started with my mother (I was the eldest [son] with an itinerant father) but transferred to Marlene: my purpose in life was to take care of her. And I had failed. Marlene had died. And not only had I failed to take care of her, I no longer had a purpose for my life. The logical conclusion was to end my life. My grief counselor tried to dissuade me of this but it is hard for the rational mind to overcome his emotional core.

‘Have you thought of how you would do that?,‘ she asked, in that professional coy way therapists have.

‘Yes,’ I replied. Her interest perked up. ‘How would that go?’

‘I would sit in my car in the garage with the engine running, listening to Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony. But with the way modern cars are built, the carbon monoxide would not build up to lethal levels before the symphony ended and I would by then have changed my mind.’ Then I looked at her and winked. We both knew at that point, I wasn’t going to commit suicide. But the question of life’s purpose persisted.

As to the other steps in the Seven Stage model, I just wanted to skip these. I know I had issues with Anger, but I was not into Bargaining. Life is suffering, said the Buddha, and the only solution is resilience. I suppose I was actually in denial about the Depression, Reflection, Loneliness phase. I did a lot of Reflecting, but that is my nature, and I know I was preoccupied with Loneliness. I think I had felt lonely through much of my conventional marriage, and certainly I felt alone with my worries and fears while caring for Marlene in her last years.

In my career counseling practice it was quite common for my clients to skip straight from ‘shock’ to Testing and Resolution. I was always doubtful of this claim but had to let them work through these steps themselves. Maybe they were resilient enough, and lucky enough, to get to the next part of their lives relatively unscathed. And now I understood this myself. I wanted to skip these awful steps and just focus on Reconstructing and Resolution.

And the ‘solution’ was right in front of me – or so I thought.

2 thoughts on “17. Grief 3”

  1. Psychology wants to define things, put them in boxes. But I think you recognize that there is no “one box fits all” when it comes to grief.
    That might be why it is so hard to find effective support when grieving. It’s such an individual process. What brings comfort to one person might ‘trigger’ another. Often even the griever is learning alongside their supporters about what works and what doesn’t. Too bad everyone can’t just sign an agreement saying “we’ll all do our best, with love in our hearts.” I wonder if knowing that in advance would make the process any less bumpy.

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