I do not know how I feel about labeling some grief as “Complicated Grief.” Every grieving experience is complicated. No one’s grief is simple or easy to understand. With that said, I can’t figure out any other way to name this blog. Maybe I should call it “Sorting the Feelings After We Have Complicated The Experience By Some action or Decision.” That is rather long and complex so we will just muddle through with the inadequate title we started with.
Her husband died after a long illness that required unbelievable time and energy in care giving from her. As is often the case in grief after a long illness, her grief was delayed. She was too tired to grieve. The care left her emotionally drained dry. She told herself she had done her grieving in the long months before the death. She called it anticipatory grief and, while there really is such a thing, it does not replace the grief after a death.
My father died after a long illness and I was the primary care giver for him. When he died I did not feel anything at all. I felt a great deal of guilt about not feeling as bad as I thought a son should feel. Just like the woman we are talking about, I told myself I had already done my grieving. It took eight months for my grief to arrive. I woke up one night reliving his death and began the grief journey eight months late.
Since she was not experiencing any real devastating or overwhelming feelings of sadness or pain, she set about in the process of “getting on with her life.” To her surprise she found that a casual relationship at church turned into a courtship and a marriage within ten months of her husband’s death. It happened so naturally and with such speed that she really had no time to give it a second thought.
At first, everything was wonderful. She did not have to be alone. She had someone to help her with the myriad of decisions any death creates. In her case she had some large financial decisions to make and it felt wonderful having a strong man by her side as she struggled with lawyers and courts. Then came the inevitable time of adjusting to her new husband. He did everything different than her first husband. It seemed to her like she could not please him no matter how hard she tried. He felt the same about her. They did seem to love each other and both wanted the marriage to work. At this point, I was not sure whether the marriage complicated the grief, or the grief was complicating the marriage. Maybe it was both.
Separating her feelings proved to be the most difficult task we faced. Which ones were coming from the unresolved grief, and which ones were coming from the inevitable adjustments to a new relationship that did not have a long enough courtship to let them even know one another much less know what to expect.
What I wanted to do and what I tried to do with some success was to walk her through the death of her husband. She really had two stories to tell. She had the story of his death and the depths of that loss in her life, but she also had the story of his dying. She needed someone to hear what it was like to watch a person who had always been in perfect health and lived a vibrant full life wither away in front of her eyes. She needed to tell someone how hard it was on her. Far too often caregivers must grieve in silence. No one thinks to ask about their pain. I call that the slow grief of long term care. Most feel selfish even telling themselves how hard it is much less sharing it with someone else. Most think, “How could I think of my pain, when my loved one is dying? My pain is not important.” But it is important and often we need to find someone to tell it to after the loss. It is harder to find someone to listen to that story than it is to the story of the death. The latter is evident and current. The other is hidden and history.
The sessions we had were not easy nor free flowing. She was convinced that her husband was the problem and had a difficult time separating and sorting her feelings. It was hard to see that her emotions were bruised and her feelings were raw from the long struggle she had with her husband’s illness and ultimate death. It was hard for her to admit that this might have made her more touchy than usual and made it easier to hurt her feelings. She had a hard time grasping the possibility that the loss made it harder to accept a new relationship for fear of getting hurt again and that perhaps she had not been able to fully accept her new mate’s love.
I am not a counselor nor do I offer counsel to people. I am a companion who tries to walk with people in grief and do my best to understand what they feel and accept what they think. I began seeing this lady on a regular basis over a period of time. I became a safe place and her safe person. She could say anything and feel anything without fear. We began walking through the story of the illness first. I found she could talk about that without immediately returning to the marriage problem. The task was to expose and separate feelings and frustrations so they could be explored and talked to death.
I made it clear that I do not do marriage counseling and that when our work was done, if the need was still there, I would refer them to someone who could give them that kind of guidance. I knew I could never get her to deal with her grief if there was the opportunity to switch to the marriage. It was gradual but over time effective.
I do not offer this as some kind of success story nor as a plan of attack for others to follow. I hope the story gives some insight into the need to sort and separate feelings. I also hope it helps us realize that the first year of grieving is really not a good time to make major decisions in our lives. Sometimes they must be made, but the longer I walk through complicated stories like this one, the more value I see in waiting until al least the first few legs of the grief journey have been walked.
Copyright Doug Manning of In-Sight Books, Inc. Doug’s books, CDs and DVDs are available at www.insightbooks.com. Post originally published on Doug’s Blog at The Care Community www.thecarecommunity.com.
Updated: January 24, 2015