(Doctor’s Note: This was originally published on March 13, 2017)
You’d be surprised how bored you can get waiting for someone to die.
If you’ve been lucky, this sounds either horrific or a pretty good way to start a book. On the other hand, if you’ve dealt with an impending death in the family, it may seem almost distressingly familiar. You may even be horrified by the fact that you thought it. And yet, you absolutely meant it. Welcome to the grieving process, where your own brain finds new ways to shock you on an hourly basis.
Grief and grieving are a process that we all will have to go through at one point or another, and yet none of us are ever adequately prepared for. We think we understand what’s going to happen – we cry, we mourn, we move on eventually – but nothing quite gets you ready for the reality of it. And because the human brain has all sorts of ways to surprise you, some of the grieving process will absolutely fuck you up if you don’t realize it’s coming.
Grieving Is Exhausting
Here’s the first thing you discover when you’re grieving: grief is fucking exhausting. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a family member, a friend, a lover or a pet: grieving a loss takes more energy than you realize. So much so that there will be times when you simply… stop. Why? Because you just don’t have the energy for it.
One of the hardest parts of grieving is that life insists on continuing onward, no matter what you think. Your bills still need to be paid. Those deadlines keep approaching. Your job still needs to be done. The routines of life continue to make their demands. And because our brains love routine and hate change, the mental equivalent of muscle memory kicks in. You start going through your daily routine and treating life as normal. And so you start going through the motions and feeling halfway human because you’re just too fucking tired to cry any more.
And then, as your reserves build up again, it hits you like a hammer and suddenly you’re choking back tears at work and hoping that people think that your red eyes are because you’ve been getting high in the bathroom and not because you just had a ten minute crying jag because someone sent you that fucking Rainbow Bridge poem.
Incidentally: did you know that grief hangovers are a thing? Because they are. You’re going to wake up the next day feeling like ten pounds of hammered shit in a five pound sack because those wracking sobs are like tensing most of the muscles in your upper body at once over and over again and you cried enough to dehydrate yourself. And of course, that’s just going to make you feel even worse.
Naturally, that’s when your brain starts kicking your soul in the nuts.
You Will Think You’re The Worst Person In The World
Here’s the other thing about grief and grieving: it makes us all selfish. It’s entirely natural and it happens to everyone. You’re hurting and it’s kind of hard to care about anyone when you have that giant stabbing pain in your soul. It’s perfectly understandable to curl inwards and just focus on how much you hurt. But unless you’re a truly gaping anal fissure, you’re going to also be concerned about the people around you.
See, it’s really hard to balance wanting to comfort someone and manage your own grief at the same time. You want comfort too, dammit! Where’s the person who’s going to stroke your hair and tell you it’s OK? So now you’re conflicted because you feel like this should be a “walk and chew gum” kind of situation. Surely you can give comfort and receive it at the same time, right? How can you be so fucking selfish at a time like this?
Other times, you may worry that you’re grieving too much and taking emotional energy away from other people who are also dealing with your grief. When you posted about your loss on Facebook, did you have the right to express yourself like that? After all, your brother or sister or girlfriend or whatever is also dealing with the loss… and maybe they were a lot closer to them. So maybe you’re being an asshole here and taking attention that isn’t yours?
Then there’s the fact that your brain will come up with the most fucking horrifying thoughts. Remember what I said about how bored you can get waiting for someone to die? That actually happened to me last Tuesday. One of my cats had hit the final stage of renal failure and there was nothing left to do but help ease her pain as gently as possible. So there I am, sitting with her, waiting for the vet to come. I want her last minutes in the world to be ones of comfort and knowing that she’s loved… and because it was going to be a couple hours, I was rapidly running out of things to read on the Internet.
I was literally getting bored spending the last minutes with someone I loved and cared for for years. So, yeah, Beelzebub has put a seat aside for me in the special hell.
In fact, this happens a lot, especially when you’re dealing with an impending loss. You want to make those last moments absolutely special and savor every moment because you know they’ll be gone and you’re going to miss everything about them. But as I said earlier: grief is exhausting and you can’t keep that level of attention up forever. So you fall back to your regular patterns and treat life like it’s perfectly normal. And then it hits you: how can you be going about your day when you know that you’re going to lose this person you love? How are you not spending every single moment with them?
Well, because you’re human and life is a dick that doesn’t stop because bad shit is happening to you. All that grief takes up energy and eventually your body says “ok, we have to shut this down for a while to deal with other crap.”
It doesn’t matter how big or small the loss is. It hits you as much with your father as it does with your dog. And it makes you feel awkward and terrible in the moment.
And here’s the other thing that’ll make you feel like an asshole: because grief is exhausting, you’re going to resent the person making you feel it. Anyone who’s dealt with a loved one with cancer or another lingering disease knows just how draining it is to care for someone who’s dying – doubly so if you’re the primary caretaker. There is almost inevitably a time when you will get pissed off at the person who is rudely dying at you. That’s when you have the fun moments of thinking things like “Why don’t you just hurry up and die already?!”
Again: this is natural. It happens to everyone, up to and including the Buddha. You know damn good and well what you mean is that the anticipation of the end is taking it’s toll on you and you have all of this pain and frustration coursing through you. You don’t want your loved one to die, but you also don’t want them to be in pain any longer. But those aren’t the words that came out of your cerebellum… or your mouth.
So get used to feeling like an asshole because there’s going to be a lot of it.
Know why? Because…
Nobody Knows What To Say, And It’s Going To Piss You Off
Every time somebody experiences a loss, you’re going to see a parade of condolences. “I’m so sorry for your loss,” “You’re in our prayers,” “They’re in a better place now,” “They were lucky having you in their lives,” etc.
It’s part of the standard grief narrative: what you say to console somebody who’s just experienced a tragedy. You’ve probably said it yourself plenty of times.
Guess what? When it’s you on the receiving end of that conga-line of compassion, you’re going to get so annoyed at everyone. Because here you are with this gaping hole in your soul where your loved one used to be and everyone’s talking about thoughts and prayers like it’s supposed to mean something and all you want to do is just look them in the eye and tell them what you really want.
It’s part of the awkward dance around grieving. The people reaching out aren’t saying these things because it’s required and they’re fulfilling a duty. They legitimately want to offer some measure of hope or consolation. More often than not, they want you to know that they understand how you feel, that they ache with you and for you and that you’re not alone. Other times, we want to provide say “Yes, they’re gone but they’re not forgotten” or “their suffering is over” or give some measure of hope.
But most of us don’t actually have the language to say that – not in the way we really feel it. Unless you’re a poet at the level of Poe or Elliot or Tennyson, it’s incredibly hard to give comfort in just words.
At the same time, we feel that we need to say something. And so, we reach for those cliches because… well, we’ve heard them a thousand times before when what we really want to say is how much we want to punch Death in the dick because of all this.
Amusingly enough, the greatest, most heartfelt expression of the frustration of not knowing what to do or what to say or why anyone is going through this bullshit in the first place can be found in a 20 year old television show about high-school vampires.
So everyone is fucking frustrated and angry and doesn’t know what to say. And at a certain level, you know this because you’ve been on the other side of it. And so you understand the spirit with which those condolences are being delivered.
But it’ll still piss you off because grief is a motherfucker like that.
You Will See Ghosts Everywhere
The hardest part about grieving is, frankly, literally everything is going to set it off. You are going to see that person everywhere and it’s going to drive you kinda crazy for a while.
When you’ve lost someone, you suddenly have a massive hole in your life. You have built up years to a lifetime’s worth of habits and routines that involve them. The fact that they’re gone means that while intellectually you know that they’re absent, the rest of you hasn’t gotten the message yet. That same muscle memory that keeps you going through your life on autopilot is going to keep throwing you up into reminders that they’re not there any more. More than anything else, the expectation that you’re going to turn around and see them is going to shred you. You’re going to fall into an old pattern and then realize that they’re not there.
And this is going to fuck you up like nothing else.
See, you can get used to literally anything. And as hard as it is to believe in the moment, you will get used to the loss of someone you love. At some point, their absence will be your new normal. At first, you’re going to feel all the big ghosts. You’re going to expect to feel their touch at certain times. You’ll expect a particular smell. There will be an emptiness that was never there. Those are the ones that hit you the hardest at first – learning to get used to the new normal. Eventually, it’s just going to be how things are and you’ll think that you’ve adjusted.
But there will be the moments that remind you – on a visceral level – of their absence and those will hurt worse than anything else because they’re going to take you by surprise. You’re going to drop into an old routine that you’d forgotten about and realize you can’t finish it. It may be when you cook a particular dish for dinner. Or it may be the first time you feel that impulse to text them and share some bit of news. It may be when you want to call to ask for their advice. Or some stray mention on social media is going to drag up that pain like it was fresh and new because it’s a reminder that they’re not there any more.
The good news though is that passes in time. You’ll still run into these ghost processes on occasion – you’d be amazed at how many you have – but there will be fewer and fewer. In fact, that may be the hardest part. You see…
Eventually, You’ll Feel Better And You Won’t Know What To Do
One of the hardest parts of grieving is, honestly, knowing that eventually you’ll stop.
I know; this doesn’t seem like it should be a problem. In fact, when you’re in the middle of grief, you’d probably give almost anything for the pain to stop. At the same time however, that pain is almost totemic. It’s a reminder of just how much you loved them. It’s a testimony to how much you care. Not feeling that pain feels… wrong. Like it’s a sign that you don’t care any more.
But everything will pass eventually. Part of the point of the grieving process is saying goodbye and letting go of the person you’ve lost. And more often than not… it’s going to sneak up on you. One of these days, you’re going to wake up and realize that you don’t feel as bad as you used to. In fact, it may be a surprise – just a sudden realization that you haven’t had a massive crying jag that day.
So… now what?
That’s not an idle question; one of the hardest parts of grief is moving on and living your life. You are almost always going to feel like it’s too soon. Like you’ve let go too quickly and what does this mean? Did it mean that you didn’t care as much as you thought? Are you dishonoring their memory by not being sad at their loss? Shouldn’t you be more miserable?
Some people may even try to draw out that misery, subjecting themselves to the things that remind them of that loss because without that pain… what are you?
As hard as it can be to understand at the time, life will go on and so will you. It can’t rain all the time, after all.
To quote the sage:
“You attend the funeral, you bid the dead farewell. You grieve. Then you continue with your life. And at times the fact of her absence will hit you like a blow to the chest, and you will weep. But this will happen less and less as time goes on. She is dead. You are alive. So live.”
The greatest gift we can give to the ones we love, the ones we lost, is to simply continue to live. As much as it may hurt now, as much as we may miss them and it tears at our soul… life is going to go on and so should we. The pain will fade eventually. And it will be time to face the dawn of a new day.
And that’s sometimes the hardest part of all.