The Different Faces and Stages of Grief

Every time I experienced significant loss – redundancy, the death of my Dad, the death of my marriage – I experienced each one of them very differently.

My experience of redundancy remained similar each time it happened. The strongest feeling was mostly deep anxiety, an irrational fear that no-one would ever employ me again combined with feelings of worthlessness and uselessness. I felt totally overwhelmed by all these feelings to the point that, for a while, on each occasion I was totally paralyzed and unable to take any action. All these feelings were invariably forgotten as soon as I got another job.

Not surprisingly, it was very different when my Dad died. For one thing, I actually held him in my arms as he died, all the time loudly telling him (because he had become hard of hearing and I thought I had to shout so he would hear me) how much I loved him, that I would always look after Mum (so he wouldn’t worry about her well-being – although, as it turned out, it was she who looked after me until, in the last few years, we have been looking after each other). The main feeling when he died, apart from loss, was one of tenderness, of completion as well as deep sadness.

The way I experienced the death of my marriage could not be more different. The first thing that struck me about it is just how untidy the whole process of grief is and how entirely unpredictable.

I was married for 37 years. For most of those years I felt lonely and, however hard I tried, I was unable to create a close and loving relationship. As absurd as it now seems to me, I really believed I could make it happen all by myself, by sheer force of will – an endeavour that was clearly doomed to fail.

I finally reached the point when I decided that it was time for me to be happy. It was a decisive moment in my life – the moment when I decided to leave my marriage and create a new life for myself. The process of grieving started with that realization even before I told my then husband that I was leaving him.

As the enormity of my decision and its consequences began to sink in I was overwhelmed with sadness. Many of my then friends couldn’t understand the depth of my grief or even the fact that I was grieving at all. After all, I had initiated the separation and was in the process of freeing myself to create a new life and opening up a whole lot of new possibilities.

To be honest, I couldn’t understand it either. I hated crying all the time. I kept telling myself that I was doing the right thing and listed all the reasons why I should be happy or, if not happy, then at least stop crying.

I remember one particular day when I decided that, from that moment on, I would stop crying. “That’s it”, I said to myself, “I’m drawing a line.” When I told Alan (Alan Daly, my life coach) he exclaimed, “that’s the most stupid thing you can do!” I was completely taken aback yet relieved at the same time. My body was certainly not ready to stop crying. I had come to notice that there was a physical sensation of pressure in my chest that would build up and up until I had no option but to burst into tears. Even if I had tried to follow my own advice I would have been physically unable to contain myself. Combined with the decision to let myself feel whatever I was feeling and cry when I felt the urge came also the decision to stop trying to understand why I was crying or try to justify it to myself and others. The relief that followed from that decision was absolutely wonderful.

As I was gradually learning to be more gentle with myself I also began to learn to look after myself better. That included to stop pretending I was all right when I clearly wasn’t and to do things that would nurture me such as sitting in the park or in an empty church.

Most important for me at the time was my decision not to make a villain out of my ex husband. I told everyone that I wasn’t leaving him because I didn’t love him anymore but because I finally came to see that I loved myself more. That attitude was critical in easing what was already a difficult and painful situation because I didn’t have to deal with well-meaning friends trying to show their loyalty to me by demonising him.

It was an approach that made it much easier for me to live through those early months. All I had to do was grieve and go through the necessary steps to gradually disengage myself practically and emotionally from my marriage while sorting out the legalities and practicalities of divorce so we could both start afresh.

But what I discovered over the next couple of years was that grief can strike at any time, an experience that can, temporarily, knock me for six.

I first told my husband I was leaving him in June 2004 and, after a while, I began to measure the progress of my healing by the duration of the gap between one crying episode and the next. After a few months I was encouraged to notice that the periods in-between were getting longer and longer. However, it was that very length in-between grieving episodes that led me to believe I was doing really well and I was now on the other side – until another totally unexpected wave of grief would re-surface and threaten to engulf me again.

With the approach of the second anniversary of the date when my ex husband finally exited my life drawing near I was recently taken totally unawares when it happened again. What tends to bring it up lately are long forgotten memories showing me yet another aspect of my marriage that I had successfully managed to suppress usually triggered by something outwardly irrelevant. The difference I noticed is that the grieving episode tends to focus less on the sadness and more on all the pain and rage that I have only rarely expressed, even to myself. The pain and the rage are directed not only at my ex husband for – as I see it – not having loved me but also at myself for having stayed so long. I find myself raging in my head, “You f——g bastard!” and then “You stupid bitch!” over and over again until I’m spent.

When it’s all over I generally feel an intense sense of relief, as if a burden had lifted from my shoulders; a burden I hadn’t even realized I was carrying.

The most important thing I learned through the experience of grief is to be gentle with myself, to allow myself to feel what I feel without beating myself up (“What! After all this time and you’re still crying!?!”), to look after myself by spending time alone, spending time with my closest friends, walking, listening to music and generally doing things that bring me joy and peace.

Learning to be patient and compassionate with myself has made a huge difference to my life as a whole and has, unexpectedly, added an extra richness and honesty to my relationships. BOLA TANGKAS