Grief: One Person's Journey
By: Cari Beth Page, M.D.
What do you feel when you hear the word grief? Sadness, fear, sorrow, even joy? The word certainly invokes emotion. A patient of mine asked me recently how I was dealing with the loss of my father. I told her that I still cried often but less than at first. I also told her that I have realized I feel so much more joy in the memories of my Dad in recent months. My patient, having recently lost her husband of 62 years, said she thought she’d never be able to remember the joy as she felt such great sorrow. She got me thinking a lot about grief, what it is, how it feels, how it changes, and how we each deal it.
What is grief? The Grief Recovery Method describes grief as a natural and normal reaction to loss or change of any kind. Loss, particularly the death of a loved one, is what we normally associate with grief. Loss can also be the change of a relationship, loss of physical or mental capacity through illness or accident, as well as significant change in personal status. Divorce, cancer diagnosis, and retirement are examples of situations we grieve. Grief is universal. We are all going to experience loss and change. It is an inevitable part of life.
How does grief feel? The feelings associated with grief can be messy, deep, and complex. The loss of my dad is the most profound sorrow I have ever known. The end of my marriage was both a tremendous relief and a pain I hope to never feel again. Anger is an emotion frequently associated with grief as well. Fear seems to appear too when facing the unknown after the loss. The most important lesson I have learned through personal and professional experience is that you have to feel what you feel. I believe we all need to feel each and every feeling fully and completely. This seems a bit counterintuitive in our society that is so recently focused on positivity, but it is so important. Feel what you feel. Suppressing your feelings is unhealthy. I have allowed myself millions of tears, more than a couple of punches into a punching bag, and hours of solitude to grieve. All were necessary for me to continue moving forward.
How does grief change? For me, it was huge immediately after each loss but shrinks over time. I still have bouts with grief. Sometimes it is big, sometimes it is small. Frequently, it is sad, and beautiful and joyous all at the same time. Grief is unpredictable, like two weeks ago when I stood sobbing in the ladies room at the Driver Testing Station while my son took his driving test. I never expected to be so overwhelmed that my dad wasn’t here for that. My dad was a diehard New York Yankees fan who would’ve been thrilled that Mariano Rivera of the Yankee pinstripe, was elected to the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame as the first ever unanimous vote. I spent an hour listening to Mo’s entry song, Enter Sandman, smiling and sad as I remembered everything Dad had taught me about baseball. Eighteen months ago, I could not comprehend that I’d do anything but sob through the memories but time has shown me how to feel the sadness and the joy at the same time.
I think it is true that grief is a process. The process is different for everyone. I like this quote to illustrate the different ways we all handle grief:
“The shoe that fits one person pinches another; there is no recipe for living that suits all cases.” C. G. Jung
Each of us has to process our grief in our unique way. For me the process is never-ending and ever-changing. I handle the loss of my dad differently than my mother and my sister. My ex-husband and I continue to handle our divorce very differently. No two of us are the same; neither is our grief. For me there is no on and off switch, it is more like a dimmer switch. I am grateful for those friends and family who are able to hold space for me when the grief becomes too intense. After my divorce and early on after my dad died, I wished to be one of those people who could turn it off or quit giving an energy to the loss. I no longer wish for that. I honor my grief style as a part of who I am. With my dad, I have realized that you grieve deeply when you were deeply loved. I now use that love to help my patients, family, and friends through this unavoidable process of grief. Each of us will feel it. I hope we can all learn to share it and hold each other through it.
Dr. Cari Beth Page (nee Chumley) is another one of my dear friends of 30+ years. Our roots go back to our college days at UTC, and I am delighted that she is my guest blogger this month. Cari is a physician with Erlanger Primary Care of Marion County.