Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~William James

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Grief Postponed: Part II

In yesterday’s post, I wrote of not having “properly” cried since my Dad’s death in the summer of 2007.  Why did that post belong in this blog?  Why does this one?

The way I see it, coming to terms with my grieving process is one of the main things I wish, and perhaps need, to put to bed.  Not the grieving itself--which I accept will take the time it takes, and which I expect, to paraphrase a Patti Smith interview I heard this week, to survive as a wound that I will have with me always--but the way I have been doing, or not doing it.  I want to understand why my experience of this loss has, thus far, been so very different from what I imagined.   And what, if anything, I should do about it.

I loved my father.  There was never a moment in the more than half a century we had together when I doubted that.  Through anger, through irritation, across distances geographical and emotional, I never questioned the importance to me of this quiet, funny, smart, loving and too often tortured man.  So where are my tears now that he is gone from my life?

I have been reading about grief lately, bibliotherapy being my first recourse, as always.  My dabbling in the literature, mostly online, has yielded two general categories of assessment of grief without tears.  By far the most common view is exemplified by the National Cancer Institute’s treatment of the subject—and they should know from grief, right?   According to this paradigm, such reactions, or nonreactions, are a form of “complicated,” and in the terms of some, “pathological” grief.  It can be seen as
Inhibited or absent grief:  A pattern in which persons show little evidence of the expected separation distress, seeking, yearning, or other characteristics of normal [sic] grief
or, depending on where I go from here, as
Delayed grief:  A pattern in which symptoms of distress, seeking, yearning, etc., occur at a much later time than is typical.

But why delay grief?  The Rowan Tree Foundation site, dedicated to helping families heal after the loss of a child, describes a scenario where this response, perhaps a defense mechanism of sorts, might occur:
[I]f a busy mother with young children loses her husband unexpectedly, she may become so entrenched in keeping up with the normal day-to-day activities of running her household that she never gives any time to her own mourning. Alternatively, the loss might be so overwhelming that her ability to cope is diminished at the time. Both of these scenarios can lead to delayed grief.
The same site, relying on Dr. Therese Rando's How To Go On Living When Someone You Love Dies, tells us that 
there could be an inability to let go of the relationship by avoiding what the reality of the loss entails, or a refusal to express the feelings that the loss brings to the surface.

In my own case, my father’s death was followed, within a week, by a trip with my mother to a still-Katrina-challenged ER to rule out a heart attack; within two weeks, by yet another ER trip with my asthmatic teenager; within three weeks by a return to Louisiana to move my mother to a different, more appropriate assisted living facility; within a month, by my daughter’s emergency induction of labor, eventual c-section and the arrival of my two-months premature first grandchild; within two months, by my mother’s heart attack and procedure-induced stroke; and within five months, by the serious life-threatening illness of my other teenager.  At the time, I believed I could not “afford” to grieve.
But at what cost, if any, did I hold off falling apart?

Some hold that inhibited grief puts the mourner at risk.  For example, this assertion from that
Because of this [inhibition] the bereaved person’s grief tends to manifest itself in the physical body instead.  They become sick in some form or another. It can begin to exhibit itself in the form of migraines, stomach problems and other physical symptoms.
Or this dark warning, from the Rowan Tree Foundation, under another common umbrella term, "unresolved grief:"
Delayed grief can lead to serious physical and mental health concerns.
(Can't you just hear the bum-ba-bum-bump beneath those words?) 

I should admit that I haven’t been feeling so hot, emotionally or physically, the last few months.  Ever since my last trip to New Orleans, almost exactly two years after burying my father there.  I search for other explanations, but am open to the thought that my atypical grieving may be related.
But if it is, then what?

[W]hat does [inhibited grief] mean for the bereaved person? Did they just get lucky in that their grief is not disrupting their daily life? Have they found a way [to] control grief so they can just continue on with their normal activities without the hassle of doing their grief work? Of course, the answer to these questions is a firm, "No." [Rowan Tree Foundation]

We must do the grief work; we must walk the path in order to fully heal.  []
So I have, perhaps, miles to go.  But I said earlier that I had found two orientations in my reading.  The alternative view is provided on the National Cancer Institute site, where they quote from an article by G. A. Bonanno, entitled “Loss, trauma, and human resilience:  have we underestimated the human capacity to thrive after extremely aversive events?” published in American Psychologist 59 (1): 20-8, 2004:

Empirical reviews have not found evidence of inhibited, absent, or delayed grief and instead emphasize the possibility that these patterns are better explained as forms of human resilience and strength.  Evidence supports the existence of a minimal grief reaction—a pattern in which persons experience no, or only a few, signs of overt distress or disruption in functioning. This minimal reaction is thought to occur in 15% to 50% of persons during the first year or two after a loss.
So maybe I could still be off the hook?  And just the amazingly strong person I apparently wanted to be?  
Hmmmm…..  Maybe not.  I am, after all, writing these posts.  And I did have a great deal of difficulty getting to it, especially this morning, after feeling kind of sad and edgy most of yesterday.  I considered, actually, changing the subject.  And I do feel a kind of pressure behind my eyes, as if something there is backed up.

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