How People Grieve – Return To Normal

It is not possible for a widow to get back to “normal,” if “normal” means the way things used to be. Things have changed. The widow still feels the same about her friends, but they may not feel the same about her. She still is who she used to be, but she’s now a widow . . . a fifth wheel, no longer half of a couple.

A widow feels it keenly if a friend appears jealous of the attention her husband gives her. Old friends may go out of their way to prove things haven’t changed, but they have. A forced “comfortable” smile on an old friend’s face is devastating. To make it worse, the friend may not even sense the forced smile, just a “slightly uncomfortable feeling” when around the widow.

The widow senses that something is wrong but may not know what. She asks herself, “Why do they treat me so differently? What’s wrong with me?” Gradually she learns that her friends are not reacting unfavorably towards her, but cautiously towards her new role. Her initial fear and confusion may turn later to hurt and anger.

Cautious interactions can smother a close friendship. A friend may fail to tell a story about the deceased for fear of upsetting the widow. Yet the widow probably would like very much to hear that story or even any story to know that her husband has not been forgotten. Silence leaves her feeling deserted and invisible.

With time and effort new relationships are formed and old ones redefined. All relationships face continuous change and redefinition. A major redefinition can make a friendship even better . . . or wreck it. If needs are being met on both sides of the relationship, it will most likely continue. If not, the relationship may terminate.

At this stage of the grief process it is important to remember that everyone gets depressed once in a while . . . but to relate every depression back to an unresolved loss is not productive.

Loss can lead to depression. Even the memory of a loss can lead to depression. The chain of events can become a habit when a grieving person begins to connect depressions back to the original loss.

This leads into a vicious circle. Often this vicious circle is triggered by a completely unrelated event. Here’s how:

Fred, whose wife, Mary, died on November 11th two years ago (Loss) feels down (Depression) because his kids aren’t coming home for Christmas (Unrelated Event). Fred feels even worse as he thinks about how lonely he is now that Mary’s gone (Vicious circle).

Memories of events, like wine, age for the better. Because people tend to forget unpleasant events and remember good ones, the past is often remembered with more pleasure than it was lived. This selective remembering can become a roadblock to the return to normal.

Jerry, a widower, described with intense sincerity the marriage he had enjoyed for 27 years, “We never spoke an unkind word to each other. When Mary was born, they broke the mold. I’ll never be able to find another person who could hold a candle to my Mary.” Jerry probably will not be able to find a mere mortal to compare to his idealized Mary, but there’s still a chance . . . Mary was once a mortal too!

In the same way, Al, who lost his job due to forced retirement, may remember the job as being a lot better than it really was.

Being aware of their own selective remembering could help Al and Jerry keep their perspective.

Another roadblock to the return to normal is “there-and-then” thinking instead of “here and now” thinking. Just as the world has the international date line at Greenwich, England, as a time reference, people have time references, too: the day Paul died; the day little Suzie married; the day I retired. A person using only “there-and-then” thinking is like a person driving a car by looking only in the rear view mirror: he can go forward . . . but with great difficulty. Remembering the past is helpful, but relating everything back to a past event can wreck the present.

Not all the stages of grief will be experienced by each grieving person. Nor will the stages of grief necessarily follow in definite order. But knowing about the stages can help you in your grief work . . . if you’ll let it.

Lynn Caine, author of Widow, writes:

Grief is predictable. Studies in this country and in England have corroborated that there are phases of grief and that phase follows phase as spring follows winter. And each phase has its use. There is no avoiding the natural progression of grief–nor should one want to. I am convinced that if I had known the facts of grief before I had to experience them, it would not have made my grief any less intense, not have lessened my misery, minimized my loss or quieted my anger. No, none of these things. But it would have allowed me hope. It would have given me courage. I would have known that I would be joyful again. Not my old self. I am another woman now. And I like this woman better. But it was a hard birth.

What would Lynn have said had someone tried to tell her the facts of grief before she was ready to accept them?

Knowing me, I suspect I would have protested, “Oh, that’s very interesting, I’m sure you’re right. But it doesn’t apply to me. My case is different. You see, I . . .” and I would have gone on to explain that mine was a very special case indeed.

Do all people work through their grief the same way? No!

Drs. Clayton, Desmarais, and Winokur writing in the American Journal of Psychiatry, Vol. 125:2, list the symptoms grievers report. The doctors found that 2 to 4 months after the death, 81% of the subjects reported they were improved and only 4% reported worse. Those improved dated their improvement to 6 to 10 weeks after the death.

Working through grief takes time. How long? In ancient India a grieving peasant asked the Yogi, “How long will I grieve?” Instead of an answer, the Yogi gave him an instruction: “Go today from home to home and ask for one-half cup of rice from those who have experienced grief.” The peasant did as he was told. At the end of the day he had no rice, but he had met many happy people. He found his answer.

Many people who have suffered a loss don’t realize how selfishly they cling to their grief. They hold jealously to their self-pity and self-centeredness. They think “poor me, my John is dead,” instead of “poor John; he’s dead.” There comes a time to stop focusing on loss and start looking at what’s left. Nothing short of a miracle happens as a person in grief slowly begins to live in the present, rather than the past; to accept rather than suppress; and to “live what’s left of my life for me.”

Remember Lynn Caine: “I am another woman now. And I like this woman better. But it was a hard birth.”