Today marks the two-month anniversary of Julian’s death. It feels like a lifetime ago. That was the end of “old normal.” That was when my life changed forever.
The first month was mostly numbness, shock, and deep grieving. The second month was about grieving too… but also seeking, learning, discovering. I’m a different person today than I was two months ago.
As I think back on this second month, I can appreciate how hard I’ve worked to learn about grief and to find meaning in this experience. Long talks with my mom, my friends, and my therapist has helped me honor Julian’s memory and appreciate the time I had with him. Writing this blog has helped me process my thoughts, and really understand how I feel. It hasn’t been easy to take this aggressive approach to my “grief work,” but I’ve been trusting my instincts and working through the grief.
Ironically, my challenge now is that my progress makes some people suspicious and uncomfortable. I don’t fit the picture of what a bereaved parent is supposed to look like. There are people in my life who are concerned that I’m not grieving enough.
These people, and so-called “grief experts” that have written the books I read, seem to discourage my pursuit of happiness. Comments that seem supportive on the surface, such as “You’re so STRONG,” seem to be laced with judgment. I’m warned that what I perceive as progress is probably denial. I’m accused of not “feeling my feelings.” Some comments even suggest that the amount of my suffering is proportional to my love for the one I lost — in other words, less-than-average suffering must mean less-than-average love.
The latter example is easy to ignore, because I have no doubts about the love I had, and will *always* have, for Julian. But what about denial? Is it possible that I’m not really feeling my feelings? Is it possible that any day now, I’m going to suddenly curl up in the fetal position with some new understanding of what has happened?
Despite my confidence in my process and my “grief work,” I started to get paranoid. So I obsessively began buying books, hoping that I’d finally come across something that would make me feel less unusual. Less odd. Less suspicious.
Do a search for “grief” on Amazon.com and you’ll get over 19,000 results. So far, I’ve read about a dozen of them. Topics have covered loss of a child, grief in general, life after death, and science. And it’s the last category — science — that gave me what I was looking for. Rather, a good friend gave me the book I was looking for: “The Other Side of Sadness” by George A. Bonanno. The subtitle is, “What the New Science of Bereavement Tells Us About Life After Loss.”
This “new science of bereavement” changed everything.
This book explained why so many other books haven’t been helpful to me:
There is no shortage of books on grief and bereavement. Most take a surprisingly narrow perspective, avoiding the bigger questions. One reason is that many of the books on grief are written by medical practitioners or therapists. This is not surprising, but it does create a bit of a problem when we try to understand grief in broader terms. Grief therapists are apt to see only those bereaved people whose lives have already been consumed by suffering, people for whom professional help is the only chance of survival. These human dramas may be compelling, but they do not tell us much about what grief is like for most people.
This book confirmed that there are other people like me who have had the same frustration:
Many who volunteer for our studies make the point that they tried to read up on bereavement. They quickly add, however, that they couldn’t seem to find anything in their reading that matched their own experience.
This book validated that it is not uncommon for people around me to have the reactions that I’ve experienced:
Inherent in [books and journals on bereavement] is also the assumption that grief is more or less the same for everybody and that there is something wrong when people overcome their grief quickly or when they appear to have skipped some of the “stages” of mourning. Armed with these ideas it is easy to become suspicious when a bereaved person seems too happy or at ease. “Is this some sort of denial?” we may wonder. Or worse, maybe the person never really cared about the loved one in the first place? Or maybe, without help to get in touch with the grief, she or he will suffer some sort of delayed reaction years from now.
This book chased away my paranoia that those people might be right:
Remarkably, though, after many years of studying bereavement, I’ve found no evidence to support any of these ideas. A good deal of what my colleagues and I have found, in fact, suggest a completely different picture of grieving…. The good news is that for most of us, grief is not overwhelming or unending. As frightening as the pain of loss can be, most of us are resilient. Some of us cope so effectively, in fact, we hardly seem to miss a beat in our day-to-day lives. We may be shocked, even wounded, by a loss, but we still manage to regain our equilibrium and move on. That there is anguish and sadness during bereavement cannot be denied. But there is much more. Above all, it is a human experience. It is something we are wired for, and it is certainly not meant to overwhelm us. Rather, our reactions to grief seem designed to help us accept and accommodate losses relatively quickly so that we can continue to live productive lives. Resilience doesn’t mean, of course, that everyone fully resolves a loss, or finds a state of “closure.” Even the most resilient seem to hold onto at least a bit of wistful sadness. But we are able to keep on living our lives and loving those still present around us.
The book — and the years of scientific data it is based on — supports me in my aggressive pursuit of happiness and joy:
Bereaved people are able to have genuinely pleasurable experiences, to laugh or indulge in moments of joy, even in the earliest days and weeks after loss. Most of the early literature about bereavement tended to gloss over these kinds of positive experience, which were often dismissed as examples of avoidance or denial. My research has suggested the opposite. Not only are positive experiences common, but they also tend to have an affirmative impact on other people and may actually help the bereaved recover more quickly after the loss.
I’m not unique. I’m not odd. I’m not likely to slip into denial that hasn’t shown up yet. I definitely have many moments (… or hours… or days) of “wistful sadness.” I don’t blog much about my sadness, but it’s a welcome emotion for me. I recognize it as an important part of “feeling my feelings.” But ultimately I’m sad, not destroyed. In fact, each week that goes by brings me a little more appreciation for life.
I’ve completed the first two months of the “after.” I’m two months into the creation of my “new normal.” And I found powerful relief and comfort in the new science of bereavement. It showed me my truth: I’m not in denial, I am RESILIENT.
p.s. All of the quotes in this post are from the first chapter of the book. You can expect more posts about the specific insights that I learned throughout the book, and how they impacted me.
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