Experiencing Both Grief and Resilience

Original pastel by the author of light through the clouds, the feeling of resilience and grief.
“Light Through the Clouds”

It’s been twelve weeks since Larry died and the heart-smashing black abyss of grief that I first felt is beginning to morph into a more gentle shadow that comes without warning, then fades away.   Most days I spend at least a little time writing and reading about loss, about caregiver recovery.  I cry less and I’m doing more, finding little joys and comforts that bring relief.   I believe I am experiencing both grief and resilience.

I recently read about both in the book  The Other Side of Sadness  by George Bonanno who has conducted years of research with bereaved people.  He says the well-known Kubler-Ross theory of five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) was based on observations of people with cancer who were coming to terms with their own mortality, not on rigorous study of people experiencing loss of a loved one.  And Freud’s theory of needing to “work through grief” or it will overshadow your whole life was just that – a theory.

Bonanno’s research says that 60% of people recover pretty rapidly (within six months) from their initial grief and what facilitates that recovery is resilience.  I was intrigued reading his comment that emotions are meant to be temporary solutions.

As I understand him, people who are resilient tend to be able to accept and embrace that there is an ongoing oscillation between grief and joy.  Each are temporary.  They are able to feel both and they are able to manage both.  They can cry, and they can also laugh. They can express their grief, and when necessary, they can suppress their grief (at work, for example).

They also feel, even in the dark depths of grief, that eventually they will recover.  They will experience both grief and resilience. They have an optimistic view of themselves.

Is that me?  As Larry lay dying and then in the hours that followed his death, his son and I were able to laugh in between when we cried.  Those swings were wild ups and downs, crazy oscillations of emotion that followed into the next days and weeks.

Now I’m finding that there are still oscillations, but smaller ones.  Good days and bad days.  Good nights and bad nights.  Good hours and rough hours.  Overall though, both peace and sadness.  There is light between the dark clouds.

I look back to our last months together, when Larry was experiencing so many symptoms and we still found ways to enjoy life.  We were able to hold both polarities – dying and living a good quality of life.  I’m figuring out how to do that for myself.

That doesn’t mean I don’t miss him.  I do.  I miss him terribly.  A few days ago would have been our 23rd anniversary.

But Bonanno talks about separating the grief from the memories, and even from sadness.  I feel more sadness and less intense grief.  What’s the difference?   Grief feels more like yearning to me- wanting him back, hating that he’s gone, wishing things were otherwise.  Sadness is sitting with the loss.  Accepting I have a big fat hole in my life but I still have to move on.

On the other hand, my love and memories will always be there.  In fact they feel more tangible and available and comforting now than right after he died, when they were too painful to think about.

Maybe I’ll fall apart tomorrow, but according to Bonanno I have a 60% chance of not falling apart for very long.  As for the future, if I feel like I’m coming apart after six months or so I will seek counseling, because that’s when the research indicates initial grief starts to turn into chronic grief and I’ll need help.

In the meantime, I’ll accept that things can feel both surprisingly normal, and then pretty darn hard.  That I can feel happy, and very sad.  That I am experiencing both grief and resilience.



Waves of Grief from Ordinary Moments

Original pastel of one set of footsteps in the sand
My pastel of my lonely beach walk

Today is Father’s Day and next Saturday would have been our twenty-third anniversary.   Going through these sad “firsts” is so hard.  I’ve purposely planned to travel on our anniversary to lessen the loneliness.  I expect those first special days to be hard.  What I don’t expect are the waves of grief from ordinary moments.

I bought a car this week to replace his wheelchair van.  After agonizing over which make and model, how old and how much to pay, I drove out of the dealer lot.  Instead of feeling excited, or relieved, I felt miserable.  As I turned toward home, it hit me like a ton of bricks that this was the first car he wouldn’t see, wouldn’t sit in.   When I drove into the garage, there was no one to show it to, no one to celebrate with.  I just closed the garage door, walked in the house and was overwhelmed by a painful yearning for him, a horrible wave of loneliness that felt like it was sweeping me under.

I’d been doing ok.  Getting out with friends, finding a gentle routine that involved exercise, art, and meditation, journaling and lots of walking.  Laughing sometimes, crying here and there – small swings up and down.

Then the last few weeks, I’ve felt these frequent waves coming at me of grief, and sometimes panic.  Think of playing in gentle waves at the beach and all of a sudden having a rogue wave smash you down and drag you out from shore.    If you expect big waves, you plant your feet, you brace yourself.  But when you don’t know it’s coming… when you’re not ready….

It’s been hard to catch my breath.  Two nights ago, I was looking for something in the liquor cabinet and came across some Vanilla Crown Royal he’d asked me to buy for him.  The next night I happened to open the medicine cabinet in the guest bath and found his electric toothbrush. AHHHH!  And sometimes the tears come without any prompting at all.

In a book called The Other Side of Sadness on new research about grief, I read that these oscillations are normal for about the first three to six months and then, for about 60% of bereaved people, they start to abate.  They come and go less frequently and with less strength.

Knowing it’s normal doesn’t make it any easier, though.

Life almost seems harder now than a month ago.  Maybe I’m expecting more from myself.  At first, I gave myself a pass on just about anything hard.  Now I tell myself to just get on with it.

But I also think the waves of grief hurt more now because a certain new normality has started to creep back into my life.  That new gentle rhythm I talked about.  The waves of grief stand out more starkly in comparison to a few hours of “normal.”

Plus, the permanence of losing Larry is starting to sink in.  I took a walk on the beach early this morning and saw several older couples walking along holding hands.  That won’t be us.  He won’t come walking in the door, all whole again.  He won’t ever hold my hand or drink that Crown Royal or use that toothbrush or sit in my car.

They hurt, these waves of grief from ordinary moments!!!  The yearning for something that will never be.  I know I’ll get through this, but damn, I feel so very very lonely.




Eighteen Caregiving Skills I Can Use on Me!

Original pastel of finding clarity of using my skills on meIt occurred to me this morning that I have all these well-developed caregiving skills.   I had previously identified specific parts of caregiver recovery but I didn’t have any clear picture of how to recover.  Now I’m wondering if

Pastel beginning - finding out how to go forward
This is how I started the pastel above – form but no detail.

part of the process is being intentional about using these skills on me?  I’m alone.  I need care in this difficult time, just like Larry needed care in his difficult time.  So I came up with a list of competencies I developed while caring for Larry.  This gave me more detail to create a better picture of caregiver recovery.  I can use my caregiving skills on me!

  1. Be patient with slowness and disability:   Allow myself plenty of time to do nothing and just move slowly through the day.
  2. Pay close attention to health:  Catch up on doctor appointments, eat healthy, get exercise (I’ve joined a hula hoop class)
  3. Accept help that’s offered and also ask for help:  I asked a neighbor to drive me to the airport because I just didn’t feel like going it alone with Uber.
  4. Notice and mitigate symptoms:  one symptom I’m working on is my tense jaw, neck, and shoulders.  I’m trying to  just notice how often my teeth are clenched – seems like every time I think to pay attention. Plus I had a massage this week.
  5. Find fun activities that are manageable:  I can’t handle big gatherings yet but I go to dinner with a neighbor when invited, take beach walks, ride my bike for a few minutes, and practice my hula to music.
  6. Search for ways to find comfort:  I read happy novels, use nice coffee mugs, notice nature , hug the dog, take long hot showers, get massages or pedicures to feel the comfort of touch, and wear comfortable clothes that make me feel good.
  7. Use trial and error:  when something doesn’t work I try something else.
  8. Right-size expectations: I’m leaving a lot of things undone, especially things I don’t like to do.
  9. Know I can’t multi-task right now.
  10. Be strong or gentle with myself as necessary.  Know that both are possible.
  11. Accept that crankiness and fatigue is part of the journey but don’t allow myself to get stuck in it.
  12. Choose who I spend time with according to whose energy feels good to be with.  Larry and I never chose to spend time with people who offered pity rather than empathy.
  13. Remember that whatever is today will be different tomorrow.
  14. Heighten my awareness of my needs and wants:  I was great at this with Larry and it takes enormous work to do this for myself.
  15. Attend to spiritual needs:  prayer, meditation, ritual. Last week I tried a singing bowl meditation and this week went to hear a Buddhist monk.
  16. Try to stay upbeat and generally optimistic.
  17. Keep a sense of humor:  Alexa, tell me a joke!
  18. Find ways to stay in the ongoing stream of life: Keep living, whether I feel like getting out of bed or not.   Don’t let myself get isolated or focused only on my grief.

I’m going to print this list out and read it on a regular basis.  I have great confidence that these are skills and behaviors that I am good at, with which I have a lot of experience.  Now I can use my caregiving skills on me, and hopefully be as good at it as I was for Larry!