Monday, August 24, 2015

That Feeling of Devastation

Monday, August 24, 2015

"Only by facing our feelings do we learn and grow. Pain has a size and a shape, a beginning and an end. It takes over only when not allowed its voice." - Anne Brener

I have become increasingly convinced that many people who attempt to function let alone thrive in American culture face an uphill battle. There are many factors that I believe contribute to this reality. One of those factors is the unreasonable expectations we place upon ourselves and others to live at a virtually breakneck pace. I was reminded of this when reading a recent article in the New York Times. It can be fun to live a fast paced life and push our limits. It can be fun to push ourselves to reach grand visions and possibilities. And yet grief has something to tell us as well. Grief, I think, teaches us to slow down. Grief can become a wall when too long denied.

The article, entitled "A Grief So Deep It Won't Die", explores the difficult issue of people whose grief lingers or is so deep that it may begin to hinder normal daily functioning for a long period of time. As I read through the article I could feel elements of my own life journey writ large in its content. One woman, named Anne Schomaker, took care of her husband for the last eight years of his life. Her experience as documented in the article gives evidence to the idea that appearances are not always indicative of what a person is actually feeling. Indeed, there are many people who appear entirely functional who are nonetheless dealing with immense pain and grief. A person may be active in his local community and social circles and nonetheless feel virtually haunted by loss. And some of these losses may have occurred years ago.

Grief is a natural human experience. The article notes that "the death of someone beloved often brings deep sadness. Usually, however, the intense grief of early mourning begins to ebb as months pass, and people alternate between continuing sorrow and a growing ability to rediscover life's pleasures." This brief sketch of a normal trajectory of grieving seems quite accurate.

I have noticed I myself have reached a stage where joy and pleasure are now, thankfully, a more common experience of my daily life. I have written about this in more recent entries in my blog. And yet the shadow of grief can be long and deep. When grief endures an especially long time some might describe it as complicated grief. It appears that prolonged grief (which may be used interchangeably for complicated grief) is likely to be more common in older individuals. Why? Older people are likely to be experiencing losses that are both more immense and more frequent as compared to younger people. And this makes perfect sense. This is an inherent aspect of becoming older. People become sick and die. Others move away.

The article offers the additional insight that prolonged grief "appears more likely when a death is sudden or violent; when the person who died was one's spouse, romantic partner or child; and when the bereaved person has a history of depression, anxiety or substance abuse." Written in my own words I would rephrase it this way: Some losses are more painful than others. The closer a person is to us the more devastating the loss of that person can be. And it is my opinion (not borne out by any extensive research I have done on the issue...because I haven't) that the earlier a significant loss occurs in the life of a child the more likely that loss will be felt acutely and for a prolonged time. I make that conclusion based on my own personal experience. Nearly losing both of my parents before I turned nine was quite devastating. In some way I am still working through the subtle aftereffects of the first ten years of my life.

The article goes on to discuss the potential implications of pathologizing protracted grief. Yet whether the American Psychiatric Association ultimately chooses to describe complicated grief as a mental disorder is, in one sense, an academic matter. Regardless of what lay people or mental health professionals call it there is an already existing reality that many people out in the world suffer from grief for years at a time. I know because I was one of them.

I may never see my birthmother again. The idea of this pains me. I may never see my father again. And despite the fact that I am not on good terms with him (and do not expect to be in the future) the idea of this pains me as well. Besides older people I think it only natural that children who experience significant loss when they are quite small are more likely to be profoundly impacted by that loss as compared to healthy adults in the prime of their lives. Why? Children are less likely to be able to bring something to bear on their experiences that adults can. Adults can bring perspective to their challenges, frustrations and losses. How can a child of five do that?

I actually found it consoling to read the article I have referenced. I realize prolonged grief isn't such an unusual experience among my fellow humans. Yet just because something is normal or common doesn't mean it is healthy. If you carry intense grief regarding a loss from many years ago it's a wise choice to see your doctor. Sadness is normal. Completely vanishing from the world of other people (family, friends, neighbors) outside the walls of your home for a decade is quite a different matter.

I generally feel encouraged about my life now. Some twenty-six months after the disruptive events of June, 2013 redirected the course of my life I still have days when I feel, well, devastated. Yes, I will use that word. But such depth of pain usually only steals upon me when I allow myself to spend too much time thinking about some of the people who crossed my path in the last three years whom I wish I had never met. I have learned the painful lesson of the value of gradually allowing people to enter your doing quite the opposite. There are some days when that time twenty-six months ago feels like an eternity. And yet other days that time seems like yesterday. I can almost recall how the air smelled the day I found myself crying in Abbott Hospital in the summer of 2013 when I was getting yet another test and all the while feeling frightened by not (yet) knowing what was wrong with me. Pain and time have a strange interrelationship.

Do some people never recover from the losses they endure? The article I have referenced argues in the affirmative. I suppose this must be true. I have encountered strangers on public transportation and in other settings whose faces have such an utter blankness about them that I can only imagine what sad experiences they have endured in their own life histories.

And yet I must believe that healing is possible and can appear as unexpectedly as flowers blooming outside in the midst of a Minnesota winter. Healing can find us if we allow it in. The painful burn of a heart and spirit healing from the darkness of loss (whose contours we will all inevitably come to know) can be agonizing. And yet I have to believe the pain we may feel in reaching out in hope for a brighter tomorrow is preferable to the pain of isolation, fear and daily unquenched yearning for that which has left us.

I believe we have the choice to heal or die, to grow or wither. The journey may be long and arduous but the nectar of joyfully experiencing a beautiful moment can make years of personal effort melt from our minds and hearts and seem a mere instant. Joy, like pain, does an interesting dance with time.


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I invite you to accompany me as I document my own journey of healing. My blog is designed to offer inspiration and solace to others. If you find it of value I welcome you to share it with others. Aloha!