Four to six weeks after a death brings an emptiness and isolation to those closest to the death. Thus begins the dangerous times of grief when only the strongest still surround us.
There are emotional traps in grief built on perceived “normal” timelines for healing. A large part of this issue is that many see grief as a series of stages that result in some form of healing back to “normal”.
Your grief, as exhausting and overwhelming as you will find it, will often exhaust and overwhelm well meaning family and friends trying to surround and help you to heal. Without judgment I need to tell you that your grief will redefine most of the personal relationships that you have with family and friends.
The early social mechanics of death, specifically funerals and celebrations of life, have evolved to bring us together to help share this journey into grief. These events generally happen at a time when we are emotionally numb and in shock, and our numbness is expected by those on the periphery of your grief. A compassionate circle of support forms around us.
Typically around week three, the circle of support begins to move their focus back to their own busy lives. At about the same time, our numbness is receding and the harsh reality of the finality of this death. Our efforts to begin to unwind a life and resolve an estate are overwhelming as we struggle to find healing. Our own pain becomes a very heavy and often depressing burden. This gives rise to anger, and combined with our exhaustion we can become very reactive and hyper sensitive to what people say and do, and also to what they don’t do. An our well meaning friends are exhausted trying to help us as we only seem to sink deeper into the swamp of early grief.
As a result, by about six weeks, an isolating vacuum often forms around us and we are left mostly alone with our grief. People we see casually, even good friends return to other social activities. Weeks later, they may check back in, or bump into us on the street. They often expect us to be more healed and “normal” than we appear to them. If we sense that, we can begin to feel their disappointment and our own failure in grief, because our timeline of grief doesn’t somehow follow someone’s perception of what grief should be.
We find these expectations of timelines in many parts of society. How much paid time off does a company grant for bereavement? It’s never going to be enough in the case of loss of a child or a spouse. Going back to work might be an excellent thing to do, so long as work can adapt to your random emotional lack of availability to concentrate on a job. We might not want a surgeon or a pilot who could become emotionally overwhelmed by grief at a moment’s notice, but in the first six months of grief, sometimes much longer, we can be easily triggered to uselessness. There I go, setting an expectation of normalcy at six months when I can have no idea how long it will take me, or you to become fully functional all the time.
In my case, I owned a company and had a business to run. I had to get back to work. The reality is that in the first few years I was more creative, focused and technically productive than at most other times in my business, but looking back I also made a bunch of bad judgment calls. Had I been in a career working for others, those bad judgments would likely have cost me my job.
One reality is that grief is changing us; we are no longer the same friend we once were, and we might change shapes every time someone sees us again. Your friends feel they must tip-toe around your grief to avoid causing you hurt accidentally. You feel hurt because they don’t ask the significant questions anymore. You begin to repel each other socially, rather than the natural attraction you once shared.
These changes and differences are magnified within a marriage as two partners will grieve the same death in completely different ways and on completely different timelines.
Simplistically, your friends and family want you back, but because you grieve you are no longer the same you. We became much closer to a few casual friends and much more casual with most of what we would have called our good friends. As I look back, the new deep bonds are mostly with people who have each, and as couples grieved complex and untimely losses. They were experienced in grief, and had now perceived timelines. Most importantly, they were fearless in conversations.
We tend to see death as failure, rather than inevitable. This causes us to see grief in a negative context, as a part of that failure. There are parts of every death that may take years to resolve fully to comfort, things that will bring tears decades later. These are not failures, they are proof that love endures long after death.
To avoid the sense of failure, we really need to remove the perceived timelines from grief, except the timeline to extinguish anger from grief. Anger becomes the focal point of our pain, and that anger is what we need to eliminate as quickly as reasonably possible.
To avoid the sense of failure, we need to remove the stigma that showing emotion is weakness, that tears are a sign of not being whole, that somehow we expected those grieving to be “more normal” by now. The grieving can’t handle those pressures and will retreat into isolation if they sense them.
If you had a friend who suffered serious burns, would you still love them? Would you come to accept their scars? Would you be seen at a public event with them? Everyone knows how they would answer this question.
Your friend who is grieving has suffered a catastrophic injury to their soul, but you can’t see that injury, you must get close enough feel it. Only the closest of friends will see all of your scars, only the ones you trust the most. Writing about grief, I write about my scars. I know that very few people who are grieving will write back or comment, because to do so will show me and others their scars.
I continue to write, hoping that people who are isolated in grief by the injuries to their souls might feel less alone, more comfortable, have less sense of failure, and see whatever their current state as something natural and changing.
The underlying beauty of grief is that it proves that we know how to love well and deeply. In that thought is the hope that you can find your way to remember to love yourself again and return to loving your life and those lives around you, at your pace, in your time and not on some timeline of something someone else calls normal.
Be well and peaceful, walk slowly through grief, but always toward the light of your own life.