The Roller Coaster of Grief

Dear Dr. Neimeyer.

Today marks eight months since I lost my husband. He was only 46 years old. I still am having a difficult time realizing he is not coming back. The first few months after he was gone, I had to leave work every single day at lunch to cry in my car and I mean really cry and sob like a baby. I had an overwhelming crushing pain. I just loved my best friend so much and miss him more as more time goes on.

So, here is my question: Is it normal to still feel that crushing pain at times? Sometimes something will trigger a memory of my husband and out of blue, boom I have a sneak attack of grief and cry almost as if it is happening again–that deep, painful cry. There are certain songs that make me really sad and I can go to a dark place and get really down. The next day I feel fine, then the next day I don’t. I never know from day to day how I will feel.

I do feel much stronger than in the first few months. I do at times though have intrusive thoughts; such as seeing the doctors trying to resuscitate my husband, or seeing him lying there after he passed, etc. Is this something I should talk to my counselor about? I do see a counselor and that does seem to help, but I’m not sure if there is anything that can help with these unwanted memories. Well, I guess that is two questions.

Thank you kindly,

Yvette

Dear Yvette,

Just as you describe and as countless bereaved people can attest, grief is a roller coaster of emotions, with unpredictable ups and downs from one day to the next, sometimes seemingly random, and sometimes in response to triggers or reminders of the loss. My friend and colleague Therese Rando talks about these “sneak attacks” of distress as “STUG reactions,” which stands for “Sudden Temporary Upsurges of Grief,” waves of painful emotion that wash over us with something like their original intensity, even long after the loss occurred. Importantly, however, these typically become less frequent as the months go on, with more “good days” than “bad” as we consolidate a “new normal.”

In light of this, what might you do to track or facilitate your progress in adaptation? One idea would be to keep a simple “grief monitoring diary,” in which you record your mood on a 0-10 scale each day, with 0 representing no experience of grief, and 10 equalling the most anguishing grief you have ever felt, making a simple rating by entering this number on your calendar each day. Be sure to do this at about the same time each day, as you may find, as many bereaved people do, that their mood changes as the day goes on (for example, waking up feeling depressed, but having this lighten as they move actively into their routine). Alternatively, you could record your average or peak level of grief for the day just before going to bed at night. Whichever of these systems you adopt, you can readily chart your progress just by adding up the numbers for each week, and see how these go up or down across a period of a few months. Very likely what you’ll find is that the “light grief” days will grow more common, and that the average daily grief will reduce as you move forward.

A second idea goes beyond monitoring to setting an intention. That is, rather than wait to be blindsided by a “sneak attack” of grief, invite it in. That is, set aside a few specific times each week to spend with your grief–times that you will not be disturbed, and can give your mourning its due. For example, you might choose a few periods of an hour each to spend with memorabilia or photos of your husband, write an AfterTalk letter to him, journal, or listen to music that was special to you both. Then schedule in advance a time to end this experience, and shift back into daily life by taking a vigorous walk, joining a friend for a movie, or going out for a meal. By intentionally shifting attention alternately to your loss and your life you will gradually gain more control over when and how you grieve, without simply trying to repress or eliminate it. Ultimately, feeling more comfortable with moments of mourning should result.

Finally, you ask about dealing with the specifically troubling thoughts and images of your husband during his failed resuscitation and while lying on his death bed, and whether this is something worth working on with your counselor. I strongly support your intuitive sense that this could be both helpful and necessary, inviting a prolonged exposure to these scenes by a counselor familiar with such interventions for traumatic memories. Essentially, this would involve creating a safe relationship and “container” for a close review of the images and thoughts, along with the strong and probably painful emotions they trigger. By doing to for a significant period (of 15 minutes or more, perhaps on multiple occasions), the memories can begin to lose much of their anguishing intensity without being erased. In other words, courageous willingness to invite and “sit with” the images, rather than trying to avoid them, can begin to replace misery with mastery, and reinforce your resilience in the wake of loss.

Dr. Neimeyer

One comment on “The Roller Coaster of Grief

  1. Dear Dr. Neimeyer,

    As always, fortuitous advice.

    Clearly all who seek consoling from their deeply painful grief, some chronic while others acute need a vangaurd of their most sacred emotions and that said, Dr. Neimeyer is you.

    I could not help but to relate all to well to Yvette’s sorrow and the deep shards of pain it brings without mercy. I’m truly not sure which is more painful, the roller coaster “triggered” effect or the insidious nature of the pain of grief itself.

    Whatever catalyst grief overwhelms us, it’s never nominal for sure.

    In six and ¾ years i have found your advice in-plethorum valuable, and to the point practical.

    To each his own, “they say” But having implemented this regime of coping skills and that regime of coping skills had given me one thing more valuable than all combined, a sense of self-preservation and the will power to assure not just myself, but the beloved Anthony that is in me will never abide by pain again.

    To: Yvette,

    Dear heart, it’s good to cry, really really cry.

    The tears you feel running down your cheeks are the eternal measure of both your husband and your love.

    It’s a dark morning when you wake and he’s not there with you to awake and greet the day, but he left you himself in every way, each and every day you spent in the ecstasy of your live’s together.

    He is TRULY there somehow -speak to him, for only a physical change has occurred in your relationship with him, NOT the emotional, mental or spiritual…these have not changed. This may sound corny, “but if you really don’t bury him too deep into oblivion and willful association, not that you would want to, but may feel it’s a prudent piece of coping advice, don’t do it.
    Your beloved husband will find a way to contact you. Is it metaphysical? I believe it is, or some kind of ethereal force of love that will never ever abolish, but be a companion to you as was he before.

    And you’ll discover through this relationship that he wants, no! demands you to be happy, and ” love” forward, not move forward in life.

    All the unspoken truth of his undying love will come to you, words and feelings that he once spoke to you and some not will be made manifest in your journey with him in a very sacred, very special way. Call it divine introspection but what comfort you gain will be realized ultimately is that he is still with you-

    MY SHARED SOLILOQUY:

    Yesterday my love it rained, while I played our favorite song, not a moment went by, feeling so wrong. For how can a life be a life without saying so long, for such things aren’t spoken in two hearts that belong.

    Tomorrow the sun will rise, and once again we’ll sing and dance while gazing in each other’s eyes, and our greeting shall be, “forever our love be strong” no goodbyes, no tears all the day long, for behold my dearest love … they’re singing our song.

    With all my sincerest prayers for you to get strong Yvette.

    Rodrik

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