Question from a Reader: Since my husband died, I’ve grown used to having mood swings and waking up feeling pretty good one day and deeply depressed the next. I know these are normal grief reactions, and when one of the “rotten” days comes along it helps to tell myself it will pass. But then, even in the middle of a good day, sometimes suddenly the feelings of loss and hurt and abandonment overpower me with a force that’s like a direct hit from a shotgun. And everything I was doing comes to a complete halt and I’m immobilized and can’t do a thing, mentally or physically. Sometimes I’ll recover in a few hours, especially after a good cry. But at other times, it may take a day or two before I can bounce back. I’ve had these extreme shutdown spells so many times now, you’d think I would have learned a little about how to cope with them, or at least have some forewarning that another spell is coming on so I could prepare. But I don’t understand it—each time it happens, it’s like the first time and I’m caught by surprise. Why am I not getting any better at predicting or handling these crises?
I know I need to pay attention to my grief, and I do. But I’d like to have better control over the shutdown spells because I don’t know what to do when their timing creates problems in the rest of my life. For example, I had an extended shutdown spell just when I was struggling to complete an important project at work. There was much work to be done, and the deadline could not be postponed. I almost didn’t deliver on time because during my shutdown I was too paralyzed to do anything but cry! That’s my dilemma – grief by itself is difficult enough to live with, but the stress intensifies when life and work make demands during my shutdown times. When things are that bad for me, telling myself to “suck it up” and press ahead isn’t helpful – it’s like trying to run a marathon an hour after open heart surgery.
My response: In his wonderful book, Grieving Mindfully, Buddhist psychologist Sameet Kuman observes that the emotional roller coaster ride that characterizes grief is part of how we human beings naturally incorporate change into our lives. In Kuman’s view of grief, the “shutdown spells” you describe could be considered as signals to you that the person you thought you were, and how you relate to your world, are changing because of your loss.
You say you’re not getting any better at predicting or handling these spells, because when they happen out of the blue, “everything I was doing comes to a complete halt and I’m immobilized and can’t do a thing, mentally or physically. Sometimes I’ll recover in a few hours, especially after a good cry.” It seems to me that at such times you might choose to look at your reaction this way: At these moments, your grief is demanding your attention—and rather than resisting it, you are wise to pay it the attention it demands, knowing that (from your own past experience with such “shutdown spells”), you will get through this one too, no matter how long it may last, and you will survive it. Whenever one of these “shutdown spells” comes upon you, you can intentionally decide to stop doing and just be with whatever you are experiencing—that is, you can turn toward your grief with compassionate attention, reflect upon it, and allow whatever you are feeling to be just as it is, knowing from your own experience that “this, too, will pass.”
I think one of the most distressing things about these shutdown spells is the fear that once they start, they may never end. We forget that eventually, everything changes. In Grieving Mindfully, Sameet Kuman writes:
“When we are tossed about between pleasure and pain, we must remain mindful of impermanence. This type of mindfulness will help you weather the storm of change throughout your entire life. When you are experiencing something pleasant, you will experience it deeper and with greater presence if you know that this pleasure is fleeting. At the same time, remembering [that this too shall pass] can also help you endure bad feelings. While knowing that pleasure is fleeting can bring you into greater contact with it, knowing that distress is impermanent can give you hope and endurance while you are suffering. Many of us learn that when we exercise, challenging ourselves to tolerate distress if we know there’s an end to it. We tell ourselves, ‘I’m really tired, but maybe if I can just make it to the end of the block . . .’
“. . . [There is a] tug-of-war between our desire for stability and permanence and our wish for the impermanence of pain. We feel our most uncomfortable and intense emotions as a result of life’s unpredictability, and so we seek a sense of permanence, which contributes to a sense of predictability in life. Predictability makes us feel stable, and stability, in turn, gives us an illusory sense of control over the ever-changing landscape of our lives. However, life continues to be, as it always has been, unpredictable, and none of us can really control much of it” (pp 38-39).
You say that grief by itself is difficult enough to live with, but the stress intensifies when life and work make demands during your shutdown times, and I understand what you mean. Grief is extremely powerful and not something you can easily avoid; sometimes it takes an enormous amount of energy just to keep a lid on it, especially in a work setting where you’re expected to be fully functional and “in control.” The problem is that you cannot always predict or control the timing of these sudden, temporary upsurges of grief (also known as STUGs, grief attacks or grief bursts), especially when the loss is recent—and yours was barely five months ago! Much as you may try to avoid them or ignore them, your various reactions to loss can pop up when you least expect them. They can be triggered by something as simple as a song on the radio, an advertisement in a magazine, or a spoken word or phrase that reminds you of the person you have lost.
I want to suggest that, as you continue to get up and go to work every day, you also set aside some time to do your grief work. You can take your grief in smaller doses and do it in pieces, you know—you don’t have to do it all at once!
By doing grief work, I mean doing the things you already know how to do: writing, journaling, meditating, dreaming, reading, remembering—but with the intention of paying attention to your grief. Just as you do with a particular work assignment, set aside some time to pay attention to your sorrow at the death of your beloved husband. Experiment with it as you go along, and take it in manageable doses, say for one hour each evening, at the end of your day. Just for that specific time-frame, immerse yourself in memories: bring your beloved to mind, talk to him in your mind, remember him and recall or write down your favorite stories about him. Play music that you once enjoyed together; watch a sad movie to put yourself in touch with your feelings. These are what Thomas Attig calls “sorrow-friendly practices,” and you already know how to do them.
The idea is to construct a container for your grief, to put some boundaries around it so you’ll feel a stronger sense of control over your reactions to it while you are attending to it. It’s a way to give it a specific beginning, a middle, and an end-point, just for today. That way, when you feel a grief burst coming on while you’re in the midst of an important project at work, you can stop, take a deep breath (or two or three), become aware of what you are feeling, then intentionally set those feelings aside until you get home at the end of the day, until you know it’s “grieving time” and you can give in completely to whatever you need to feel.
Once your time is up, at the end of the hour or two you’ve set aside specifically for this, then tell yourself that you are finished with it, just for today, and go do something else. I suggest you try this for a week or so, just to see if it helps to give you a better sense of control.
If you find that this still does not work for you, then you may want to consider taking some time off from work to pay more attention to your grief work. Maybe this is your mind and body telling you that you’re pushing yourself too hard, or that you’re trying too hard to focus on “work” work rather than on the grief work that you still need to do.
© 2010 by Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, DCCgrief, hope