One pattern of grief that I wished someone had told me about is grief attacks.
You may be hearing this term grief attack for the first time, and it's okay if you are. So that you can understand what I mean by grief attack, I feel it's essential to take you through phases of the grief journey. We know a journey is an act of travelling or a passage from one place to another; every journey has a starting point.
So what is the starting point of grief called?
It is often said that there are various stages of grief. I have shared in an earlier post (What Does Progress Look Like in Grief?) about how I tried figuring out where I was on my grief journey and to find out when I will get to the end of grief.
So far, I haven't found Elisabeth Kubler Ross's five stages of grief helpful to me. The five stages, denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, are a part of the framework that makes up our learning to live with the one we lost.
I have explored other models of grief which I have found helpful in understanding and accepting where I am on my grief journey and how to cope with my grief and loss.
I don't know if this only happens to me. When I travel somewhere, I have never been before. It doesn't matter whether it's by road or air. I would frequently want to find out where I am and the estimated time left to get to where we are going. Like children, I would internalise the question, "where are we, or are we there yet?"
At the point of this writing, I am about 16 months into my grief journey, and I can't tell you all that there is to know about coping with grief. However, I am sharing what I am experiencing and learning to cope with grief and loss.
I prefer to use the term phases rather than stages. The first phase, or should I say the introduction of grief following the death of a loved one, especially those whose loved one's death was sudden, is known as acute grief.
The acute grief phase usually begins shortly after the loss. Usually, it dominates the life of a bereaved person for some time. However, it's not uncommon to feel grief when a loved one is terminally ill even before they have died.
Commonly, anyone in the acute grief phase experiences a whole range of emotions that they may have rarely encountered before and may feel vulnerable in a way they've never experienced. I have found that the most common feelings involved are separation, distress and a powerful urge to reconnect with the lost loved one.
It may feel as if you are being buried under a massive weight of emotional pain, which may also be felt as physical pain. You may experience a variety of physical reactions that you have never experienced before, for example, heart palpitations, slowed motion, butterflies in the stomach, frequent yawning, dizziness, fogginess, feeling unreal, extreme fatigue, etc.
There will probably be frequent distractions from the thought of your loved one during this phase. You may have significant difficulty concentrating on the things you usually would focus on.
The frequency and intensity of grief are overwhelming during this phase. How long it takes varies from person to person. This phase should generally not last for more than six months following the loss. It would be helpful to seek professional help if you still feel the continuous frequency and intensity of grief.
I have shared some emotions that I experienced in earlier posts. For reference, you can find a list below:
Over some time, I found that the frequency of the grief reduced. I recognised some of my grief triggers, cushioned myself as much as possible for the grief triggers within my control. I braced and endured others that overpowered me, which made me feel like I was losing it.
You may wonder, how does grief attack fit into these emotions that I am describing?
My journey through grief felt manageable at about nine months into the process. I had put some systems and structures against my grief triggers, but then suddenly, out of nowhere, I felt an overwhelming sense of grief. I wondered where it came from.
It felt like I was losing my mind, and my emotions seemed to slip away from me. There were moments when it was hard to breathe, and I don't mean in a metaphorical sense.
The sensation of I couldn't breathe was like when someone kicked you in the chest and draining every drop of energy from my body. Bringing back the intense and all-encompassing early response to loss. In grief, these feelings are called grief attacks.
These attacks would sneak up on me like when you sneak up to a friend and shout "Boo!" to scare them. There was no set pattern to when it happened. It happened randomly. These were sometimes in line with grief triggers, and often they were not.
I could move along sometimes, just doing nothing exciting at all. And then another grief attack tap on the shoulder and body slam or karate chop me to the ground. Grief is tiring and unpredictable, period!
Within days, weeks, or even months, the pain level increases. I experience the pain of grieving. Then, after a short period, it decreases again. I would think, well, that was pretty intense, but at least it didn't last too long; I'm getting over it now; I'm recovering.
As I think I'm getting better at managing my grief, something triggers it, and the pain level surges again. I find myself going through the valley. I find myself struggling with the pain and the intensity of grief.
These grief attacks remind me of a trip my siblings and I took to Thorpe Park many years ago, when we went on a particular roller-coaster ride. If you have been on any roller-coaster, you know they all do the same thing. Scare the living day light out of you with its ups and downs and ups and downs. Spoiler alert, one of my siblings, whose name I will not mention, screamed throughout most of the rides.
Like a roller-coaster, with grief, there are days when you're up, and then there are days when you're down.
There are days when you're up, and then there are days when you're down. You're up for a while, then you're down in the depths, struggling again to cope and come to terms with what has happened. Sometimes you reach a plateau.
You seem to have turned a corner. The turn at every corner on a roller coaster usually signifies that you are about to plunge again into the depths.
Suddenly, when we think we're doing well, and we're dealing well with the loss we've suffered, there's an eruption of grief, and we find ourselves once again struggling to cope with what has happened.
These grief attacks often affect us when we least expect it. It's almost like a wave overwhelms us. We find ourselves struggling and trying to find a re-balance.
In the earlier encounters of grief attacks, I would beat myself further for allowing myself to feel this way. I would attempt to talk myself out of this dark valley. I have given up attempting to talk myself out of these intense feelings. I am learning to break out of my 'self-imposed' need to be strong, especially during these moments.
Here's how I am coping with grief attacks
I am coming to terms with the fact that grief attacks are unavoidable. They are common to people who have had sudden and traumatic losses. Sometimes we can identify the grief triggers, sometimes not.
I have come to accept that grief attacks are not bad. Grief-related anxiety attacks are a normal part of the grief process. They are healthy responses to my profound loss. It's my heart-tugging and reminding me I am on a healing journey. I accept the feeling.
I go with the flow and express my pain by giving myself space and time to process and honour the reaction and grief. I have found lying on the floor so comforting during these times.
Dr. Robert Neimeyer, clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Memphis, says that grief attacks serve as reminders that you will need to (in your own time) accept the reality of the loss of a loved one.
Here are some additional writings on how to accept and express your grief:
I am still learning to cope with grief attacks, I don’t have any resolutions to it yet. I will unpack more details in the nearest future.
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To Be Continued Next Wednesday...
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