Does grief really have stages and if you work through them are you over it?

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When my marriage collapsed and dark emotions ran rampant, it was a comfort to me to learn that I was in a state of shock and grieving, similar to what one goes through after someone has died. The intense feelings I had were a normal part of grief with its supposed stages of shock, anger, bargaining, sadness, and acceptance. It helped me to know that I would pass through those stages. In fact, I made an aim to accelerate through quickly. I felt that if I got to the last stage – that of ‘acceptance’ – then the pain would go away.

How wrong I was.

I wrote a lot about those stages. I felt that I did progress through them but I never did reach a state of ‘acceptance’, where I felt that what happened had to happen. I did eventually ‘acknowledge’ that it had happened which was a turning point of sorts, understanding that my marriage belonged to a past world. In reaching that point however, of acknowledging my past life was gone, the pain did not simply go away. In many ways I had simply reached a beginning point, of learning to make my way in my changed world, with a new today, and a different future. The intense grief I had experienced was just the beginning of more pain for me.

Apart from my marriage there were other losses I mourned in the grief process such as the loss of my intact family and the loss of my financial security. Even now – over four years later and well over that grieving process – it is the here and now that is difficult, being a single mother and grandmother, and trying to make it financially with a bruised asset base. It is the practicalities of keeping on going another day, in another way.

In my case the stage theory seemed to work because I kept pushing myself to get through the stages. However, I can see now that it could have been a draw-back if I had thought any ‘stage’ (sadness for example) would magically pass and I would simply move onto the next stage. It didn’t happen like that for me. In fact I was so scared that I could become ‘stuck’ in a stage if I did not work to get through it, that I continually took steps to deal with the feelings I experienced, and learned to acknowledge my changed world of today. I do not know whether it really helped me doing that … or whether I would have simply passed through those stages regardless … or even whether I could have got through less painfully if I had simply let them happen, rather than trying to wish them away.

Another draw-back of the stage theory is that the stages can return again and again (although often with less intensity each time). By that I mean that I would seemingly get over an intense feeling such as anger or sadness and then that feeling would return. This is quite normal and yet when it first happened to me I thought there was something wrong with me. Once that happened it led me into a downward spiral of low moods and a new intense pain – the pain of feeling bad about myself, that I was not doing very well. It was only the voice of a dear friend who one day said to me ‘this is normal’ (what I was feeling) and ‘you are normal’ (how I was behaving) that brought me out of that deep dark chasm.

So here I am enjoying my new world of today (and I truly am) and looking forward to my exciting future (honestly I am) … but sometimes there is still that lump in my throat, that pain in my chest, that catch in my breath, and that intense feeling of loss.

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Retracting forgiveness

“If someone comes along and shoots an arrow into your heart, it’s fruitless to stand there and yell at the person. It would be much better to turn your attention to the fact that there’s an arrow in your heart…”  Pema Chödrön

ID-100136205,SweetCrisisIn a deep hole after my marriage collapse, I made it my mission to forgive as I wanted to move on to a place of peace and harmony. I used forgiveness in order to give up feelings of anger, betrayal, resentment and revenge. Fast forward another 18 months and I was in a dark place of resentment. With my financial security in tatters, trudging through marital settlement mud, I saw the unfairness of my changed situation. I blamed myself for being too trusting in my marriage and too kind after the separation. I thought back and wondered whether forgiveness had been right for me.

I had believed forgiveness would help me heal, become less angry and bring me peace. By any definition, forgiveness does not mean forgetting, condoning, excusing, renouncing efforts to obtain restitution, suppressing anger at what happened, or giving up a recognition that you deserved better. Forgiveness is none of those. Forgiveness is supposedly letting go of negative feelings towards someone who has harmed you. So what forgiveness did to me was make me focus on the action that was done, classify that action as a wrong-deed committed by someone else (my ex-husband) and made me feel like the victim of that wrong-deed. It kept me thinking about what had happened and then, when I still in a bad place, made me feel stupid in being too “nice” in forgiving him of that action. What I know for sure was that forgiveness did not heal me, make me less angry or bring me peace.

So in February 2014, I retracted my action of forgiveness. From that point, I focussed instead on healing, on living by my values and acting always with kindness, fairness and courage … no matter what. I decided to choose before each action or comment I made. I would ask myself whether the action or comment I was about to make was being made for protection (of myself or others), connection, contribution, creation, or celebration? If I could not answer ‘yes’, then I would choose a different response.

Over time, I healed and became strong. My self-esteem and confidence grew. I was focussing on me. I was connecting with others and acting with kindness towards them. I was acting positively in the world of my ‘today’, not in a place of my ‘yesterday’. I felt free.

I believe now, that I got forgiveness wrong. It was more important for me to heal first, than to forgive. I do not believe that forgiveness was a requirement for that healing to take place. Instead of feeling like a victim, I now feel good about myself.

As I think about it today, I realise that at some point during my healing process, I became truly emotionally detached from my ex-husband and could see things from a more neutral position. I could see all the good that was in my marriage. As such I felt grateful for what had been rather than sadness at its loss. Some things that previously upset me now have no positive or negative feelings. As an example, two weeks ago it would have been our 41st wedding anniversary. I did not remember the date until today. That date no longer holds any meaning. It does not make me feel sad, bad or mad.

Interestingly, during the process of my healing and subsequent emotional detachment, forgiveness (losing resentment) crept up on me.

OR

Perhaps it is now that I see myself better off. Therefore … there is nothing to forgive.

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You may want to read Living and Loving after Betrayal. Steven Stosny

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Becoming an adult orphan

ID-100135811.supakitmodAn adult orphan is one who loses their last parent when they themselves are an adult. The first time I heard the expression was at the funeral of my mother. Someone described their own transition to that state as the worst time of their life. One would think one should be grateful for having had their parent into their adult years, rather than deeply mourning that loss. Not so. The more you have, the more you have to lose, the greater you feel that loss. So it follows the older the parent (my mother was 88), the older the adult child (I was 61) and the deeper the bond, the harder it is. In my case, here is why:

My mother was my constant

My mother was the one person who had been there for me all my life, who knew me completely, and who loved me anyway.

My mother was the reason for our frequent family celebrations

My mother was the reason for celebrations with my siblings. Now my siblings and I are having separate celebrations such as Christmas, proud to be the centrepiece of our own ‘new generation’. We will of course still see each other. However, it will not be the same as coming together for Christmas and birthdays and Mother’s day and having her there. This is more raw as the year before she died, we saw each other more often than previously. We will have new happy times. But it will not be the same. What we had is now lost.

My mother was the draw-card for extended family gatherings

At some family gatherings, my siblings and I would have members of our own families there. While each niece, nephew and children could not come to all gatherings, over the course of the last decade, there has been frequent contact with all of them. Now that my mother is gone, there is not the focal point for the next generation to meet as often. That frequent contact is now lost.

My mother was the glue that kept her own family in contact

My mother was one of nine children. In the last decade of her life, she was the oldest survivor and became the family matriarch. Everyone looked to her for words of wisdom and comfort. She kept in contact with her siblings, their children and grandchildren; and kept us informed of marriages, births, illnesses, crises. She arranged family gatherings for the descendants of my grandparents. During her illness, the extended family rallied behind her. We saw a lot of my uncle, aunt and many cousins. That contact is now lost.

My mother was the bridge to my ancestors

My grandfather passed away when I was seven, my grandmother when I was seventeen. My father when I was twenty. They have been kept alive by stories from my mother. Moreover, there were stories of her grandparents (my great-grand parents) that were so vivid, I almost thought I knew them. With Mum passing away, I feel I have lost three generations: parents, grandparents, great-grandparents. The link to my heritage is gone.

My mother was the road to a bygone era

Mum was born in 1927. She lived through the depression, World War 2 and the post-war boom. She knew life without hot-water, electricity, refrigerators, cars and telephones. She knew the value of friends, neighbours and family was worth more than any of those. With my mother gone, it is as if all life started in 1954. History has vanished.

My mother was the older generation

With my mother gone, I am now one of the older generation. I always felt safe and stable knowing there was someone there who was older and wiser. With my mother gone, I have no-one to lean on. In fact with my mother gone, others in the family are starting to lean on me. I only hope that I can be half as wise and empathetic as my mother was.

Mother, I miss you every day. I am grateful for the happy memories of family times and for all the extended family who remain and love me still. I draw strength from the values you instilled in me and am comforted by the fact that you live on within me.

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The next step …

Initially when I was thrust unexpectedly into the world of divorce I could not cope. In order to survive, I put aside major decisions and strategic steps that would eventually need to be taken. I carved off one aspect to navigate at a time. I would then push through with each step until I was able to cope with that before moving onto the next. Sometimes it was not possible to deal with only one thing at a time simply because there was so much to deal with. It was still overwhelming. However, I did put aside everything that could be left. That was how I coped, putting things aside.

Gradually I worked through many steps that at first I thought I would not be able to handle – grieving for my lost marriage and intact family unit, overcoming the emotional aspects of abandonment and betrayal, finding my inner strength, selling the business, pushing through with all the legal and financial processes of the marital property settlement, and closing down all the joint legal entities until …

I was physically, emotionally, legally and financially alone. Me.

However, before I can really say that I have left behind my marriage in its entirety, there is one major hurdle left to do. Selling my home. My home has been my sanctuary over the past 35 years. It has seen me through the birth of all my children and their growing up years. It has welcomed friends, family, colleagues and community groups through its doors. It has provided me with a sanctuary as I have navigated triumphs and tragedies. As the children grew up and moved on, it remained a strength for me, saving many memories of their song and laughter within its walls…

My home looks out to the east to this vista:

Across the valley

It is comforting to rise and watch the sunrise each morning, coming up over my valley.

Even when the sun doesn’t rise, the valley still provides me with peace and privacy.

BCR_2002_050When my husband left me, my home and valley remained behind as my constant, the one thing in my life I could rely on. That reliability, that the sun would rise each day, that the valley would remain, was reassuring for me. In my busy frenetic navigating divorce ‘I-am-overwhelmed’ days, the valley would tug me back to make sure I paid gratitude for the day and be at peace with myself. Now my days are not so frantic, and I love having the time to sit in the warmth of the morning sun, drink in that sunshine, look out to the peaceful valley, and reflect in the peace and quiet.

In those early raw days, I could not bear the thought of ever moving. My home was all I had left of who I had been and the life I had led. I didn’t want to leave me behind. However, I have come to realize my home is also a constant reminder of my past life, our marital life, a life that I now wish to leave behind me. Over the past six months, I have spent some time moving about between my mother’s place and spending time with my friends and family, and especially more time with my grand-daughters. Or I have stayed home. Each time I come home, I am no longer getting that feeling of protection or security from my home. Instead I am feeling constrained, even imprisoned. Imprisoned in the past, blocked from the future. There are little flashes of hurtful memories here and there keeping me back in the past. There are little pieces of present commitments to my home, stopping me moving on to my future.

I thought after the trauma of the drawn-out marital settlement finally being over, with the death of my mother coming about the same time, I would take a year to just sit back in the comfort of my home before I moved on. I thought that I would need that year, that I would want that year. I don’t.

I.want.to.move.on.now.

There is, of course, a fair bit to do in order to make that happen. That is my next project. To make it happen.

 

 

Feeling my feelings

BCR_2002_050At the beginning of 2014, at the tail end of a period of reflection, I was beginning to have a vision for my future. It was a defining moment. After my marriage collapse I had spent quite some time mourning the past, yet fearing the future. To come to the place of a bright vision for my future was a fantastic place to be. The downside was I was still trapped in the mud of the financial process of my marital settlement. I could not move on to the vision that I had. From that point, I was no longer trapped in the past, I was trapped in the quagmire of an unpleasant present.

That was frightening and demoralizing. Two mini-epiphanies pulled me out of my dark hole. The first was a suggestion from a friend to re-frame the processes of the marital settlement as steps towards my bright envisioned future. Clunk! An obvious self-esteem boosting solution once I could see that. The second was sage advice from my mother. She told me I needed to face what had to be done, write down the tasks to get it done, get started on the first, keep going, get through it, then – and only then – when all done – begin living that life I was dreaming.

Facing all that had to be done was extremely painful and overwhelming, but I did face it. I wrote it all down into a horrifying long-list, subdivided into categories, tasks, and sub-tasks. Slowly, task by task, I moved through the list and got the job done. When I wrote the list, I had no idea at the time that it would take another fifteen months to complete, all the time dragging myself through mud. The going was tough and slow.

Sadly, I also did not know at the time that I would lose my dear mother along the way.

I did not know for ten of those fifteen months, I would be flitting between the two worlds of the marital settlement process, and caring for my mother in her last phase of life. Two entirely different and emotionally intense worlds, yet both were worlds where I had to put my emotions aside in order to cope. In order to survive and get through that last fifteen months of the marital settlement, which required my logical thinking brain, I had to put aside my feelings of grief at the loss of my marriage, and feelings of anger and resentment at being stuck in the process of settlement. In order to care for my mother and provide for her an environment to live her last days in peace and happiness, I had to put aside my own distress that I was losing her. I had to put aside my own grief, for her well-being.

Four huge changes have taken place in my life over the past few months: the selling of the business, the end of the marital settlement process, the final separation from my husband, and the death of my mother. Friends and loved ones were concerned that with all that, when I found myself alone, I would emotionally collapse. What would I do with myself? How would I cope?

I must admit, I too had moments of concern. Over the past fifteen months, when emotions surfaced, I would actively blunt them or push them aside. I would tell them to go away until I had time to deal with them. I was afraid that when things became quiet they would return and would overwhelm me. I was also afraid the opposite may happen, that I was so used to burying my emotions, I would become a frozen wasteland devoid of feeling.

I have not collapsed. I have not become overwhelmed. I am coping. In fact, at times I have been bubbling with excitement and anticipation at approaching blue skies and exciting adventures ahead. However …

I am feeling my feelings – all of them. Instead of pushing them aside I am embracing them and I am at peace that I am at last able to allow myself that space to feel them. ___________________________________________________________________

This is the first post in a series of posts I am writing on feeling my feelings.

Home again

ID-10011911(2)I have returned home again, having spent the best part of the last two months, with my siblings, caring for my mother in her final days.

Sometimes I wonder whether I am actually returning home, or whether I am leaving home behind me. I am feeling a quadruple loss. As well as losing my mother, I am leaving behind my siblings, my extended family, my hometown and the community I grew up in. To leave all that behind me, to return home alone has been difficult. What am I coming home to?

Two days after my mother’s funeral, I took a phone call from my solicitor to say that the marital settlement was complete. You may remember that papers were signed earlier this year. From that signing date, the actual process to untangle our various investments and loans took a few more months. Now the process was finally over.

I was very sad that I never got to share that moment with my mother. However, only days before she slipped away, I did share with her my dreams for my future. That conversation had made her relaxed, and she gave me a smile. She was happy to know her daughter would soon be on the road to her own life, with a vision of a life of peace and contentment.

Now, three weeks later, here I am.
Home again.

Yet, it will all be so different …

My home is now actually my home.
My finances are now my own to manage.
The business settlement period is drawing to a close.
I am finally free of the marital entanglement.

Four major changes in my life, and with the death of my mother, that makes five.
My life will be so different.

So today I am clinging on to that vision, that vision I shared with my mother, that vision for my life being one of peace and contentment.

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