The earliest feelings of mourning include the initial shock (this can’t be happening), the denial of the reality, and feeling overwhelmed and numb. It is not uncommon to feel some loss of self-esteem and extreme vulnerable. Symptoms usually include a variety of internal complaints, a great deal of crying, insomnia, waking from sleep or not being able to fall asleep, feeling anxious, loss of appetite, possible sweaty hands and heart palpitations. You may also experience irritability, lack of patience, forgetfulness, distractibility and loss of concentration. Feelings of sadness and loneliness accompany feeling bewildered.
Disassociation of feeling is common. “I feel split off and distracted; I’m not there.” “Or, I feel like I’m on “automatic pilot’”. These feelings are normal. It is important to develop the ability to self-nurture during this most stressful time. On the Homes and Rahe Social Readjustment Scale, death of a spouse ranks at 100 percent as a stressor.
Concentrate on self-care and physical check-ups, appropriate nutrition, rest and exercise. Talk honestly of what you are feeling to friends and family. Feelings are not right or wrong; whatever you are feeling is appropriate. Acknowledge that there is no “script” to follow and know that talking about your feelings to understanding family and friends is good, yet being aware that no one understands grieving until it is their experience.
Living through the Pain
The temptation now is to go to denial. Your loss will be with you 24 hours a day as you traverse this bewildering early time sequence. You may feel “frozen,” “locked up,” emotionally numb, scared and more capable of crying than talking. You may find it hard to be coherent or put two sentences together. You may want to go into some dark corner and scream. You are searching for tools while feeling half crazy. You want gentleness and support but are often quick to anger and anger often spills out everywhere. Being able to focus is impossible. Feeling scattered and out of sorts is your new norm.
With your loss, you feel as if you are on the wrong road or out of your familiar community, or as one mourner expressed, “I’m living in the wrong neighborhood.” Vaguely, the house looks familiar, but the world is strange and un-kempt. Nothing feels right. Anything and everything your friends and family say can feel irritating. There is no place to go that is comfortable. You are not at home in your body; there is no good place to be, anywhere.
Grieving is exhausting. Feeling tired emotionally is draining. If you are lucky enough to be able to exercise, this can be some outlet for your inner tension.
Sleeping can be uncomfortable. You might fall asleep and wake up or want to sleep all the time. Internally, you can feel very empty and want to fill up, often by overeating. On the other hand, there may be loss of appetite and you can’t eat at all. Either way, there may be extremes of mood. Emotional stability can feel transitory. There may be good moments in a day but they may be overshadowed by, moodiness, despair, internal pain and great sadness.
Hal has this to say: “Well, quite obviously, the first few months were beyond description. There were just horrible moments of despair and loneliness. I was only able to get relief after the first few weeks when the meds that I was taking kicked in, and, after the therapy started to ease some of my feelings of guilt and a bunch of random other feelings that my wife’s death brought forth.”
As the months progressed, Hal’s pain eased, but the loneliness persisted. “I think that was probably the most debilitating aspect of mourning, the absence of my mate. She had been there since, really, childhood because we’d known each other since we were 14 years old.”
Early bereavement is a slow process. You might expect to make greater progress along these strange roads than you do. Inner patience is important, as is allowing yourself to feel whatever you feel. At first it feels as if nothing will ever change or get better, but the intensity diminishes in time. The raw and open wound slowly begins to heal. Bad feelings are less frequent and linger for a shorter time.
How do you change a “rotten place” to a place of optimism and hope? How do you move from despair to a lighter meadow? How do you learn to dream again? How do you move to wholeness?
What is the inner process of achieving wisdom? What does the heart advise? How does the heart heal? The following exercise can be helpful:
Envision each chamber of your heart as a separate room.
Envision each chamber filled with sunlight and air,
Envision breezes blowing through.
This room is different from a room with no light. When you are sad you can love the dark and hate the sunlight, but when you allow sunlight in, you can again breathe in that room. Learn to breathe again.
Have you begun to think of your late spouse in terms of perfect? Or that the relationship was perfect, or as if the achievement of “sainthood” validates your pain? What is gained or meant by this thinking? It enables you to stay emotionally stuck. “Look what I lost.” The enormity of the loss can become your sad lament. When the human characteristics of him/her emerge once more, it is often a strong indication that you are getting better. This is one way that the psyche is protected until you are ready to mourn. On the other hand, you may feel sheepish about admitting, even to yourself, that your marriage was less than perfect. Give yourself permission to feel these feelings, knowing you are far from alone.
Often the bereaved, at this stage, attribute sainthood status to their lost loved one. It is a measure of your healing when you are able to remove your deceased spouse’s sainthood status.
The use of humor transcends all the stages of healing and needs to be used and recognized as a wonderful tool for self-balance. Humor keeps our head above water at a time when we think our logic is going to float away and drown us. It offers leverage, relief and distance from pain. There are moments when we think we will never laugh again and then, in the most unexpected moment, there is a smile and it is so welcome. At first, you may feel uncomfortable with laughter, but participating in a bereavement support group will help you to acknowledge not only how good it feels, but how wonderful it is to witness and participate in.
Healing from Within
Your search for your inner guide requires an inner quietness – a place where the brook of energy runs freely – the water flows. The currents swirl, life is not stagnant. Ask yourself the question, What do I want? What feels right and true to me at this moment? When one is overwhelmed by anxiety, natural intuition is blocked – the flow is interrupted.
How can you learn to relax the body when you feel tense? How can you be grounded when you don’t feel grounded? One technique is to use breath as an energizing source. Visualize your breath and let go of body tension. Imagine moving into a deep quiet inner space where there is an innate wisdom that spills forward as if it were a waterfall. The water soothes and comforts. Ask God, or the Universe, for guidance and trust the reply that comes from that inner place.