Susan Anderson, author of Journey from Abandonment to Healing: The Five Phases that Accompany the loss of Love, explores a parallel but significantly different grief cycle, defining the five phases of bereavement and recovery: Shock and numbing, Withdrawal, Identity crisis, Reorganizing, and Lifting.
Some of you have already heard my story: I’ve repeated it often enough in workshops, articles, and media talks. My heart skips a beat no matter how many times I repeat it. It goes like this: “Here I was – a psychotherapist specializing in abandonment and loss – and the love of my life – my marital partner of 18 years – suddenly and without warning left me for another woman. This prompted me to research and write several books on abandonment. Within the year, I was extremely fortunate to fall madly in love again, but nine years later, in the midst of our blissful lives together, he tragically died at the age of 50. This left me devastated and overwhelmed with a whole new set of feelings to contend with (and with a whole new book to write).”
I had been in the midst of a lecture tour at the time of Paul’s death, promoting my books on a different kind of loss – the kind of grief you feel when someone you love has stopped loving you – abandonment. “Being left” is as complete a loss as loss over death, but the feelings of rejection, failure, and betrayal gravely complicate the grief. Abandonment causes intense depression, helplessness, and loss of self-esteem.
Right up until the crisis of Paul’s illness, I had been responding to thousands of emails and letters from pain-stricken abandonment survivors from all over the world – people who’d read my books our sought out my website www.abandonment.net. I also continued to do individual therapy, run abandonment recovery workshops, give lectures, and do media appearances. As busy as I was, I had energy to burn due to the happiness we shared. He nurtured me with a stream of love, support, tenderness on a daily basis. Just being together felt blissful. The passion between us was intense, the moments tender, the trust and security sublimely healing. I had never felt so much affection for anyone, couldn’t keep my hands off of him, nor could he walk by me without giving me a kiss. All of those years together and we still felt the magic of our connection. We frequently asked each other how we got so lucky, why did we still feel such a rush every time we saw each other?
His death put an immediate end to that life and propelled me into a second journey through loss. These journeys were within a decade of the other – first through abandonment and the second through bereavement1. But grieving Paul’s death was a very different experience. It even felt differently in my body, hormonally, physically different.
I already had a specialty in grief, so I was familiar with the literature and existing theories, but I knew that it didn’t speak to the depths of the process I was going through, explain its bio-chemical components, or provide a roadmap for recovery. I needed to do some fieldwork of my own to find my own way through the labyrinth of pain.
So I joined bereavement groups. Not as a leader, as a participant. Not just one, several. Not one-shot deals, but group that met weekly, each on a different night of the week. I had surrendered to the need for help and I wasn’t one for half-measures. I met with different sets of widows and widowers who had all lost their spouses within the same timeframe as I had lost Paul. We were all about four to six months widowed.
The therapist in me couldn’t help but notice patterns of behavior and feelings that emerged from among the men and women from all walks of life, cultures, and age levels with whom I shared my grief for over the next two years. Perusing the grief literature, I noticed that many of these patterns had not been written about. I began keeping a notebook, jotting down ever-increasing amounts of data that I knew might be put to future use.
I remained especially sensitive to the abandonment issues that were part of everyone’s experience. In fact, abandonment proved to be the root of the pain and fear that under-girded people’s sense of loss. For many, their abandonment issues stemmed all the way back to childhood – to old forgotten losses and disappointments that accumulated over the years. All of the old feelings tended to merge into the current grief, casting people into a kind of emotional time warp that made sorting it all out nearly impossible. “I feel like I’m overreacting to everything, and I don’t know why.” It became clear that the old abandonment traumas needed to be dealt with before people could move forward. Notebook at the ready, I knew that this crucial aspect of bereavement had not been written about.
We all seemed to be in an altered physiological stage, at least during the first year2. The haze I felt in my head had not been there during my abandonment. The entire experience felt different hormonally. Was this true for everybody? The literature had nothing to offer on that – no work had been done to explain how the body’s stress response to death of a partner should be any different from the stress response to separation (abandonment). My inner scientist was eager to find out.
I made it a point to remain exquisitely observant of myself and my group mates for the long haul. I swam through the grief with my eyes wide open, noting the ways we were alike, our gross and subtle differences, and the variables that impacted on us differentially. Within this working laboratory of profound human experience, I noticed what we to help ourselves that seemed to work for everybody, what worked only for only a few of us, and what didn’t work for most of us.
So here I go again. Ten years earlier I was the abandonment therapist who explored the depths of her own abandonment, deconstructing its myths and reconstructing herself, and delineating its stages. Now I once again I am penetrating the surface reality of a different grief process – this time bereavement – to discover its shape, texture, and contour (not to mention its bio-chemical components and psychological mechanisms). I would appreciate it much more if life would stop handing me these research projects.
Much of what I observed has already been written about. Some has not. Here is some of what I found:
Death-of-a-partner is an emotionally bewildering experience. The feelings come from so many directions (including childhood), that they collide and fuse into an emotional soup. We become enveloped in an affect storm, making it impossible to sort out all of the feelings3. In the absence of books or theoretical constructs to guide us, my group mates and I were left to help each other through the haze. We were forced to muddle through, sharing our individual reactions to our (dire) situations. The comfort came from knowing that many of our issues were similar. The illumination came from one person’s reflection arousing recognition in the others.
In continuing to explore the internal dynamics of bereavement, I constantly discover more questions than answers, but one thing is clear: There is as not just one set of stages, but infinite paths people follow4. This has important implications for therapists as well as friends and family of the bereaved. Assumptions about what your friend is going through are dangerous because they can disqualify that person’s reality. Since each person’s experience is unique and since it constantly changes over time, the best option for people who want to help is to just to listen – bear witness to what your friend or client is going through. Let him know that you care, that you want to understand better, that you are willing to spend time – this is how to best support a grieving person.
Within our groups, the way friends and family responded to us was one of our main topics of conversation. We agreed that unless you’d lost a spouse, you couldn’t possibly understand what we were going through. We understood that our friends and family did not have a primer to show them how to better respond to us throughout our first year of grief (and beyond), so we were forgiving when they didn’t “get it right.” Besides, we knew that we had been less than empathic toward other grievers, that is until we’d lost our own spouses. For example, almost every one of us expressed regret for having, out of ignorance, failed to understand the needs of a widowed parent or friend in the past. “I was clueless about what my mother had gone through after my father died. If only I’d known then what I know now, I would have been so much more helpful. I feel guilty for neglecting her feelings. I wish there had been a book to help me understand.”
I began to make a list of “Common Mistakes Friends Make that Break the Line of Empathy.” Here’s an example:
Time and time again my group mates and I found that our therapists, friends, and family were out of sync with the reality of our grief. What they didn’t understand they tended to judge. Take Running – running to fill time. Running is part of the grief process. The work of grief is to “keep on going” in spite of loss. Running is a way to fill the void, cope with the aloneness. The job of the living is to go on living. And it’s a tough job. Running is one of the ways the more robust among us go about accomplishing this critical survival skill. In running from appointment to outing to lecture to lunch date we were doing the best we could to cope at that time, yet we found that running satisfied neither our friends nor therapists. They felt we were trying to escape our grief. We felt judged by their comments. “Isn’t it wrong to try to stay one step ahead of the pain?” they’d say. “Aren’t you supposed to feel your feelings in order to work them through?”
“Yeah right,” mocked one of my group mates. “Feel your feelings! As if we had a choice. Grief chooses you, you don’t choose it. We’re doing the best we can to play the hand we’ve been dealt. You can’t make grief go away. It’s just there trying to drag you down. Damn right we’re running to stay ahead of it. If we spent all day feeling it, they’d say we were wallowing, wouldn’t they? They’d fault us even more if we couldn’t cope.”
In all fairness to those who love and care for us and are only trying to help: It’s not easy to show support to a grieving person. For one thing, grief doesn’t show on the outside, especially in its latter phases. Once grievers have regained their initial weight-loss and caught up on some sleep, they look and act relatively okay (sometimes even better than before because they were making an effort to be presentable). For another, bereavement is not as verbal an experience as abandonment. Someone grieving the death of a partner is too numb or too introspective to give you a blow by blow of what they are going through; whereas someone going through an abandonment crisis has the need to talk incessantly about the details of the breakup, analyze its causes obsessively, and ruminate about all of the particulars ad nauseam.
The bereaved person knows that no amount of obsessing and analyzing will bring her partner back. She has a need to share, to reminisce, and to reflect, but there is also a need to absorb, to rest, to “just quietly be” even while in the company of friends.
She also gets the impression from people’s responses that they don’t really want to hear about the depths of her angst because it makes them feel uncomfortable, sad, threatened, helpless. “I had no idea what this was like until I experienced it myself, so why would I want to drag them into it when they so clearly don’t want to go there?”
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My clinical background and coursework in thanotology provides some theoretical base to my research into the grief process, but it is my own personal experience and that of my comrades that reveal hidden truths to me. I’m hoping that my observations and research findings might help grieving people and the friends, family, and counselors who seek to support them. One of the earmarks of bereavement is feeling lost. Being able to differentiate the various feelings, circumstances, and phases people are going through can help them navigate through the murky fog to see the light. Being able to identify the hidden issues and emotional signposts can serve as beacons in the storm.
Although there is no formula for bereavement, it might help to describe some of the basic phases I found grievers seem to go through. I observed approximately five phases5 that appear to be relatively universal to the process: Shock and numbing, Withdrawal, Identity crisis, Reorganizing, and Lifting. These are not the same as Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s five stages, as hers were originally designed to describe the process of dieing, not of grieving.
Bereavement’s phases are not discreet packets, but one flowing process. And each person experiences them differently. In the early phases my group mates and I cycled through these phases so rapidly, they were nearly simultaneous. We swirled through them within an hour, a day, a week, a year – cycles within cycles – until the hurricane finally weakened and we began to emerge out the end of the funnel in a place of greater peace, acceptance, and renewal.
What follows are encapsulated versions of each phase. My proposed book would explore then in greater depth.
Phase one: Shock and numbing (Encapsulated version of Chapter One)
The first few months after the death are characterized by Shock and Numbing. When my group mates and I first met (approximately four months after our spouses died), we all seemed to be in an altered state of consciousness6. We described going about the activities of daily life in a daze. We had this pervasive sense of unreality about what happened to our partners and about life going on around us. “I just can’t believe this happened. Life doesn’t feel real.”
We alternated between feeling devastated and feeling nothing. Some of us were prone to crying; others hadn’t yet begun to cry. “My eyes get watery, but I haven’t broken down yet.” Most of us remained steeped in sorrow tamped down by numbness – a kind of undifferentiated malaise where all aspects of the loss blended into a dense emotional fog.’ This fog made it difficult to know exactly what we were feeling at any given time. This was a sharp contrast to the initial phase of that other type of loss – abandonment – where someone you love deliberately leaves you (and is still alive). As I’ve said, abandonment loss is just as complete, but being left leads to very distinct emotions and unremitting obsession. The pain goes beyond loss and is sharpened by rejection and betrayal which seem to override the numbing effect of the loss.
During the first phase of bereavement, we remain in a post-funeral haze. In sharing our respective experiences, many reported that they’d gone through the burial rituals and other activities somewhat robotically. Now, several months later, most of us continued in an emotional blackout, showing up to our jobs and social events physically, but vacant spiritually, performing the tasks of daily living perfunctorily. The central purpose of our lives was suddenly lacking. Our lives were beset with a sense of meaninglessness.
It’s important to understand the “rapid cycling” of early grief. Many of us did not remain in a steady state of shock and numbing. Throughout the day we visited the other phases as well. We cycled from the numbing fog to the acute grief of the withdrawal phase, then to the painful self-doubt and soul searching of the Identity phase, then to feeling dread over the extra burdens ahead of us in the Reorganizing phase, and finally to Lifting where we felt momentary lapses of grief, only to be smacked in the face again by the sudden realization of our loss which would send us cycling right back to home base – the numbing fog.
No matter how prepared we had been – some of us had been taking care of partners with terminal illnesses – during the onset of grief, the state of shock and numbing was nearly universal.
I believe the shock and numbing of bereavement were due to the fact that death had touched our lives so closely that it stunned us into a crisis of mortality – our partner’s and our own. The death bore down upon us with a sense of finality, utter nothingness, and inevitability. This tended to go on unconsciously since it’s too difficult for our conscious minds to deal with or comprehend. Death had crept in and removed the central figure in our lives, death with a capitol D, a word whose impact harkened all the way back to childhood when we first worried that our parents might Die, that we might Die. Now the D word became real, present, palpable and had entered our brains, and turned our minds inside and our lives upside down.
As I’ve already said, bereavement’s biochemical reaction to death – characterized by shock and numbing in this initial phase – was markedly different from abandonment’s. How could this be? After all, loss is loss. How could the mammalian brain know the difference between the two? I believe that our brains are hardwired to recognize death, to fear death so as to avoid it, to know it warns us of our own, to know that we need to protect one another, keep one another safe, and function in the presence of death for the sake of the tribe. I believe the brain assists this process, mediated by powerful endogenous hormones. Throughout human evolution, death of a partner upon whom we depended for survival, was a common occurrence. These numbing hormones helped us through it so that we could continue performing the tasks of survival so as to perpetuate the species. Being left by your partner – abandonment – is also a catastrophic loss, but the fact that the person is still alive and at large (along with the crisis of rejection, loss of face, betrayal, and lack of closure) gives rise to a distinctly different physiological state from numbness. Following an abandonment, there is a state of hyper-alertness (as if you are under attack by a powerful foe). The emotional brain perceives abandonment’s knife-wound-to-the-heart as a threat to your existence and sustains an ongoing fight/fight response of hyper vigilance. You feel on edge, overreacting to any noise that might signal the possibility that your abandoner is returning to you. Since he or she is still alive, there is a sense of ongoing vigil. You might yearn for or fear of repeated contact. If you bump into him, there is the risk of re-wounding, of feeling abandoned all over again.
During this initial phase of shock, my group mates and I tended to exist on the emotional border between life and death – much of our energy having crossed to the other side – the death side. We were still emotionally invested in a person no longer living. Not uncommon were spiritual and emotional visitations from our partners. We reported feeling their presence in the room sometimes, thought we heard their voices, or saw their faces. (This seemed to provide an example of what Bowlby described as “searching for lost object.”) Some of us went to mediums to make contact with our beloveds.
As we made our way through the numbing fog we were plagued by free floating anxiety7 in our guts (especially pronounced upon awakening throughout the nights and early mornings). We felt dread and panic over future tasks that loomed ahead of us, i.e. paper work, finances, having to clean out closets, having to face the future alone.
The irony was that most of us looked perfectly normal on the outside, even while we felt dazed, lost, anxious, and fragile on the inside. Friends constantly said things to us like, “You look wonderful!” leaving us to wonder how we can possibly communicate to them what we were going through and how life can be so split. How can things seem so normal and yet be so irrevocably changed?
Many of us felt survival guilt – though most might not have labeled it as such8. This guilt would come upon us when we’d suddenly feel intensely alive in sharp contrast to our partners’ loss of life. “Why couldn’t he be here to see his new grandchild?” “Look what she is missing.” “Why should I be the one to survive and not him?”
Along with the shock and numbing, there were additional physiological symptoms most of us experienced, i.e. appetite loss, sleeplessness, and utter exhaustion9. Grief was hard work, most of it carried out unconsciously by our mammalian brains toiling away under the surface to “search for the lost object” (its right shoe searching for its left). It was physically exhausting to come to recognize the reality of the loss. We were only conscious of the tip of the iceberg of this relentless work as we tried to make sense of our altered (shattered) lives. Most of us reported having short-term memory problems – another consequence of the biochemistry of this stressful process.
On the positive side, we discovered our strength during this initial phase. We were surviving something that we had always feared. We were taking care of our selves, our lives, and even each other. Our friends were constantly telling us, “You’re so strong!” which didn’t sit well with some of us because we felt it failed to recognize the gravity of our situation. “Don’t they realize we have no choice but to keep functioning? We’re on automatic pilot.”
People I interviewed who didn’t have others going through the same stage of grief10 to talk to, felt guilty about their sudden lack of emotions. They didn’t understand the mechanism that allowed them to function robotically in spite of their mate’s demise. Without a compass to guide them through the emotional extremes of rapid cycling, they remained lost in the emotional fog, desolate one minute and numb the next, feeling disoriented, out of it, and bewildered.
Phase two: Withdrawal (Encapsulated version of Chapter Two)
As the Novocain wore off, the acute pain of loss began to break through, and we went into withdrawal. We were in painful withdrawal from our partner, just as if we were in withdrawal from Heroin (and it involves the body’s own opiates). We began craving and yearning for a love-fix we could not possibly get.
Week by week, our emotional needs – the ones that had been met by our partners – began to mount. We grew to miss them more and more. We missed having someone in the background, someone who cared, someone to care about, someone to come home to, someone to bring us that cup of coffee, someone who would know if we fell in the shower, someone to serve as a focus for our lives. As these deprivations reached critical mass, the intense grieving could become nearly unbearable.
We found ourselves weeping – a kind of crying specific to early bereavement, characterized by sighing and flowing tears, different from our usual crying11. Our emotional brains were automatically scanning our memory banks (searching for the lost object) – an involuntary function of the brain which is part and parcel of our stress response to crisis – flooding us with scenes from all the way to the beginning of the relationship. Our coupled histories passing before our eyes in a blur of tears. We remembered them as they we (and as we were) when we first met them, the initial romance. These memories (along with the intense yearning and pining) caused us to fall in love with our partners all over again and want them more than ever before. We became walking memorials to them.
I was awash in images of Paul nine years earlier when he first expressed his love-feelings for me. My heart ached with memories of how safe I felt in his presence, how his arms felt draped around me, the soft texture of his flannel shirt against my skin. How I missed the way he tilted his head toward me with his eyes intent upon mine when we spoke, the slightly husky quality of his voice when he expressed his feelings. It was agony to be bursting with love for him knowing he was irrevocably gone. As my group mates and I cycled through the tugging, craving, helpless feelings of withdrawal, we helped each other realize that we weren’t alone feeling this pain. We served as reality checks for one another – maybe we weren’t going crazy after all – our emotional excesses were an ordinary part of grief. We could see each other surviving through the worst of it and felt reassured that we too would make it through.
We cycled through withdrawal during all different timeframes. For some, this phase of active grieving was delayed for a long time. Several members remained in the numbing fog indefinitely. “I know I need to cry, but I feel detached and remote, like I’m not really here. Other people’s tears don’t seem real to me, but I know they mean something.”
“He’s the love of my life and I miss him but it’s almost like it’s happening to somebody else and I’m on the outside watching.”
“I’m waiting for it to hit me.”
We listened compassionately without judgment to one another’s issues related to our ongoing emotional blackout. It wasn’t our place to help each other get in touch with specific emotions. Each person handles loss uniquely. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Each person’s path must be respected.
Waves of grief:
Grief proved to have a mind of its own – its own rhythm. It came in waves which washed over us and sometimes swallowed us whole, leaving us beached and dazed, sending us back into the numbing fog to start the cycle over again.
Any sudden realization of the loss – as if realizing it on a new level – could send us right back into shock, and then the acute pain of missing the person would break through the Novocain, and we would resume a new wave of active grieving. We might wake up in the middle of the night startled anew by the reality that our loved one was gone, and cycle from shock to withdrawal in a matter of minutes. In fact this is another cornerstone of grief: the sudden re-realization of the reality of the death.
During withdrawal, there was a mind/emotion disconnect. Intellectually we knew our partners were gone, but our emotional brains were unconsciously waiting – as if we were expecting them to walk in the door any minute (more evidence of Bowlby’s “searching for lost object”). On the surface we felt expectant and hyper vigilant, but our rational minds belied the cause12. For whom were we expectant? For whom were we holding a vigil? Yet the emotional (psychobiological) condition persisted throughout this phase.
Working through abandonment:
Based on many variables, i.e. the love-aspect of the relationship, length of time together, degree of independence, stage of life – our grief took on different flavors. We were all working on issues unique to our individual circumstances. One example: those who suffered from abandonment feelings during the relationship found themselves mourning the love they never got from their partners. Their longstanding efforts to win love was now too late (death was the final abandonment). This yearning for unrequited love made it harder to let go. They were left to deal with abandonment feelings that they felt hopeless to resolve. (Now that several years have passed, I realize that for this category of people, finding a new partner (sooner rather than later) who could lavish them with love and attention proved healing by helping to assuage their feelings of being unworthy and perpetually abandoned. In contrast, for those of us fortunate enough to have felt loved by our partners, the need to find a new partner was postponed until much later (unless the right person came along).
Widowed? Why me?
During this phase, no matter how dignified a front we provided to the outside world, most of us inevitably came upon an agonizing feeling of “Why me.” Intellectually we knew we weren’t the only ones experiencing loss – there were billions before us and billions to come. We didn’t want to seem self-centered, but we were dealing with something so difficult. Rage bubbled up. Death had zeroed in on our lives, pulling the rug out from underneath us while the rest of the world went on about its usual business: Why me?
Because we had built some trust, within the intimacy of the group we were able to share moments of feeling sorry for ourselves. Self pity is a highly stigmatized and shame-ridden state. We might not show our self-pity in public, but how could we possibly not feel terribly sad over what we had lost? To deny feeling sorry for ourselves is a cruel trick of society, when such sorrow is real.
We were grappling with what it meant to be a Widow[er], most of us resenting the term, even while knowing full well that it applied. We were actively grieving the “We.” We wailed in protest: “Why did this have to happen?” For many, our longing and grief were mixed with burning anger over the circumstances of the death as well as the condition of our current lives. “My husband was killed by a drunk driver. I was so angry all of the time, I forgot what normal felt like.”
Wakeful and worn out:
The physiological symptoms of withdrawal13 included continual wakefulness, anxious wrenching in our guts (even while some of our appetites (unfortunately) began to return14). We felt overwhelmed, on edge, and entirely exhausted. Beneath the surface, the emotional brain continued working overtime “searching for it’s ‘other half’ and learning to recognize the loss. Our cortical brains were also busy on the conscious level trying to come to grips with this reality.
On the positive side, the acute grief of withdrawal motivated us to dig deeper, reach all the way down to our untapped resources. We panned for our grittiest reserves and came up with survival skills and hidden strengths that amazed us.
PHASE THREE: IDENTITY CRISIS (Encapsulated version of Chapter Three)
During the middle phase of the grief process – the “I” of the SWIRL15-- our concerns shifted from mourning the “we,” to facing the “I” – what I am going through, the impact on my life, the personal void I am now forced to fill.
This painful period of self reflection brought on a whole new set of issues. We found ourselves in a painful paradox: The acute yearning of withdrawal had enveloped us in an emotional bond with our beloved, but as we realized that no amount of pining would bring him back (something we knew intellectually all along), we now faced something equally or even more painful – a terrible sense of emptiness and disconnection. Indeed, loneliness is one of the most difficult challenges of losing a partner.
We felt heightened insecurity as we faced a whole abyss of unknowns. “I felt so isolated, needy, and insecure, I didn’t think I could survive and not sure I wanted to try.” “I wasn’t sure who I was anymore. I’d become constantly anxious, lonely, and vulnerable. Was this basket case me?” “Being alone was so alien it was terrifying.”
In losing our partners, we’d lost our identity – our employment as mate, caretaker, best friend, lover, helpmate, companion, man, woman. We’d lost our focal point, our sense of purpose, what made us tick. The anxiety about filling the void by ourselves immobilized many of us from being able to see alternatives, dimming the light at the end of the tunnel.
In grieving not just the person but our own lives, the quality and type of our crying changed. Our weeping began to give way to more frustrated type of crying – the usual kind – where tears didn’t bring us the relief we were seeking16.
It made no difference whether our partners’ deaths were sudden and unexpected or the result of a lengthy illness, or whether they died young or of old age; or whether we loved them dearly or had stopped feeling love feelings for them years earlier, we were forced to deal with a whole new identity as a single person no longer coupled, no longer belonging to anyone in particular. We went inward to take a personal inventory. “Am I worth anything all by myself?” “Who am I now that I’m alone?”
Insensitivity of friends:
Our friends seemed oblivious to our struggles, rattling on about how “Hank and I are going down to Florida next weekend to check out condo’s down there – we’re thinking of moving to a warmer climate.” How could they possibly understand that we no longer had anyone to build a future with, no one to go on vacation with, no one to carry out a retirement plan with, no one to care about us. With life missing its most important ingredients – love, connection, companionship – what could we have to look forward to? The landscape of our futures had become a flat, barren wilderness. Our life-span loomed, a lonely burden to fill.
Most of us turned to friends and family to fill some of the void, to head off the overwhelming loneliness that wanted to swallow us whole. But in reaching out for them we were reminded time and time again that they still had full lives with busy schedules. We wanted to be acknowledged, needed, understood by them, but didn’t want to become a charity case, someone they felt obligated to spend time with. We didn’t enjoy having to accept hand-outs of time and sympathy from people who had previously sought our company when we were part of the coupled world. Most of our old friends found it hard to fit us into their busy lives – we who had nothing but free time in which to suffer loneliness. Our loss had put us in a “we need them more than they need us” position. Caught up in these quandaries, we found it difficult17 to ask our friends to spend time. Their outreach to us dwindled as well. As singletons we watched our social status plummet within the coupled world. Again, we asked: “Are we worth anything all by ourselves?”
The people I interviewed who did not have access to peers who could validate these feelings, said they felt ashamed and stigmatized by their neediness. Without access to this information (about this grief cycle), they lacked a roadmap with which to universalize their feelings of insecurity, dependency, and self-pity. “I feel pathetic being at the mercy of my friends. I don’t know what else to do with myself, especially when the loneliness gets unbearable. I feel like a beggar when I call a friend, trying to sound nonchalant so they won’t guess how desperate I feel: “Hey, how about getting together?”
Internalizing the grief:
Whether going though abandonment or bereavement, during the “I” phase, we internalize the pain of grieving. With abandonment we turn the anger we feel about being rejected against ourselves and beat ourselves up for losing that person’s love, damaging our self-esteem in the process. With bereavement, our self esteem suffers also, but the issues are different. We internalize the loneliness and insecurity, as if what we are feeling were a reflection of some inherent weakness we carried, as if there were something wrong with us that we “can’t just snap out of it” and make it all better.
All the while we are devaluing our own sense of personal strength and worthiness, we are doing the opposite with our partners – idealizing them. We’ve lost some of our sense of importance because our lives lived alone seemed pointless, gray doomed, over. We’d grown to feel insignificant simply because there was no one loving us or counting on us anymore. We needed that person to make us feel needed in order to feel worthwhile. We wanted our lives back, to be back in control, but we felt inadequate to the task of filling the void.
The intensity of our loneliness and fear caused us to doubt our own strength. We kept asking each other, “Is this normal?” “Am I okay?” It is during the implosion of self-confidence that a lot of people start taking antidepressants18.
As group mates we let each other know we were not alone in these feelings. We could see that the strongest and most independent among us felt needy, unstable, and terrified of the future. We were able to reassure each other somewhat that this emotional crisis we were going through was not a sign of personal weakness, or of going crazy, but part of a universal process.
Intimidated by other’s attitudes:
Most people reported feeling intimidated by society’s mandate to “get on with it.” We felt wounded by friends’ comments that seemed to imply that we were not doing as well as we should be doing, “Maybe you should stop attending that group, maybe you should start attending a group, maybe you should see a therapist, change therapists, start medication, change medication, stop taking medication, etc.,” as if there were some solution to the way we were feeling and that we just hadn’t found the right combination of moves. They seemed to tacitly believe that anyone who can’t out-step the pain just isn’t trying hard enough. After all, shouldn’t there be an antidote to this? Our death-phobic society would like to think so, to deny the reality that grief is a real force to be reckoned with and can’t just be outmaneuvered.
Incriminated by grief:
During this difficult period of self-reflection, some felt contaminated by the tragedy that befell their lives. Their friends seemed to treat them as if they carried stigmata which invoked the specter of death – especially friends who knew them as a couple. “When I get together with our old friends, I feel like the bearer of gloom and doom. It’s not that I act morose; it’s that there is this empty chair beside me wherever I go, reminding everyone of Phil and his death, dragging them down.”
A lot of us found that people who had been friendly before, now tended to avoid us, most likely because they felt uncomfortable and didn’t know what to say. “I feel like I had the letter “W” branded on my forehead and that people looked the other way when I came around because it was too threatening – it could happen to them and they didn’t know how to deal with it.”
Many felt the need to protect the coupled world from our grieving. (In truth, during the “I” phase of heightened insecurity, we were protecting ourselves from feeling judged.) When asked, “How are you doing?” some of us didn’t bother explaining that we were still going through a difficult time, as this didn’t seem to fit into what society expected. Instead we told people what they seemed to want to hear: “I’m doing better.” “Taking it a day at a time.” “As well as could be expected” “Things are okay.”
We all agreed that people who hadn’t walked in these shoes couldn’t be expected to understand the challenges of the hike. The empathy line, now strained with many of our friends, tended to increase our isolation and add to the identity crisis. “Who am I to my friends? How do they see me now that I’m not a couple – now that I’m needy? Am I a burden? Do I have enough to offer as a singleton? Am I enough all by myself?”
During the “I” phase, our cognitive difficulties continued and included short-term memory deficits as well as difficulty focusing, problem solving, concentrating, and following through19.
On the positive end, many of us discovered gains in our independence. We felt good about learning to do things that formally had been the domain of our partners, accomplishing things we never felt capable of. Well-intentioned friends tended to make too much of our gains, as if being able to finally redecorate our living rooms in our favorite colors compensated us for our loss, or that we were somehow “finally free to be ourselves and therefore better off than before.” As group mates we could congratulate each other’s triumphs without dismissing our very real emotional challenges.
As we cycled through the “I” of the hurricane, a sudden realization of the loss could smack us in the face – as if realizing it on a new level– and it would send us swirling right back to the beginning – into the shock, then to the pining and yearning of withdrawal, and then back to the cavernous void of loneliness20. This could happen a hundred times a day.
Phase four: Reorganizing (Encapsulated version of Chapter Four)
The forth phase, Reorganizing is about the struggle and a half to start over. Our focus shifts from the identity crisis of being alone to the concrete reality set down in front of us. Lonely or not, we were forced to reckon with the practical ramifications of being alone. No one to follow us to the car repair. No one to go on vacation with. No one to figure out the finances. No one to know if we went into a diabetic coma. These cold realities had been plaguing us all along, but now we realized that whatever this mess was in front of us, this was life, and it was our job to get it working. Okay, the hand has been dealt: Stop studying your cards and play the hand. For many this shift takes place during the second year, although the time-frame varies widely.
Reality vs. society’s expectations:
Society gives mourners about a year to grieve a death (abandonment even less), and afterward, expects us to get on with our lives. Yet here we stood amidst the ruins of our former lives, still stunned, still wounded, still lonely, expected to have it all together. As much as we resented society’s expectations, we put similar pressures upon ourselves. During the previous year, we had given ourselves permission to grieve. We’d made allowances for being out of commission when we went through all of the firsts – the first anniversary without him, the first birthdays, the first holidays, and finally the first anniversary of the death. But now we said, “Okay, time to face my life as it is and pick up as many pieces as I can, if only knew how.” These new expectations and the hard work of starting over are why they say the second year is more difficult.
Repercussions of loss:
As we faced the tasks that lay ahead, we realized how much we had changed – that being so closely touched by death had changed us, our cognitive abilities changed, the quality of life changed, our roles and responsibilities changed, our futures changed, and our self changed. “I never had a need to be held all the time, but now I do.”
“I never had this problem before, but now I have trouble prioritizing. The roof needs repair, I have to get a job, I don’t know what to do about the holidays, I don’t have any drive, and my life doesn’t work, but where do I start?”
During this phase we contended with age-related issues as we struggled to restart our lives and kept stalling out. The emotional turbulence of this phase was universal, but the issues varied according to each person’s special circumstances. Some of us had retired – perhaps to take care of their ailing spouse – and needed to make dramatic changes to survive our sudden unemployment as caregiver, the emptiness, and sudden lack of purpose. Others had jobs which gave us a structure to return to, and this made it a little easier to fill each day (although returning home to our empty love-nests continued to be jolting). Those of us young enough to start new careers felt intense internal pressure (guilt) until we finally overcame procrastination and depression21 and managed to take a first step. Those too old to consider starting a new career either had to accept the state of diminishment our current lives were heir to, or continue the uphill struggle to change it.
Trying to change your life is much harder than your friends or therapists want to believe. In fact it’s downright discombobulating. What an emotional roller coaster as we struggled with our disorganization, upheaval, and emotional turmoil. We desperately wanted to fill some of the spaces left empty by our mates, but found it extremely difficult to find things we liked doing, things that felt satisfying, things that might serve as consolations for the void that was always trying to swallow us.
In trying to reinvest our energy into new pursuits, we constantly felt thwarted. Some of us decided to get a job but had trouble finding one. Some of us found one only to discover that going through the motions made us feel worse. Some found that even when we returned to our usual hobbies and interests, they’d lost their appeal. “I loved to garden, but that was when I was a couple. As a man alone, I find it drudgery.”
In experimenting with new activities, we make a strenuous uphill climb, only to fall backward. We were in an emotional rehab, stretching shorn muscles, relearning how to walk. Ouch! The whole process took grit, endurance, and lots of patience.
Both abandonment and bereavement give rise to a state of protest in which we rail against the hardships foisted upon us by loss. In abandonment, the protest is tinged with burning resentment over the rejection and betrayal that caused it. In bereavement, we stage a protest against the existential reality of death which cheated us of our life-styles and forced us into the painful process of having to start over.
Rage and Resentment:
We couldn’t help but feel abandoned by the fact that people around us go on with their lives. Some of us also felt some abandonment rage at the departed for departing – for leaving us to pick up the pieces alone. We’d been white knuckling loneliness now for a long time now, fighting its malignancy along with the indignities of trying to survive as a singleton in a coupled world. Our efforts to “get a life” were frustrating at best, and often downright infuriating. Some of us displaced our anger onto our family and friends – especially those who seemed oblivious to our struggle. “I feel as if I’d been forced to climb a steep mountain by myself, while all of my coupled friends are snuggled into their cozy lives, looking down on me for being lonely.” I admitted to feeling couple-envy. Oh what a relief to admit it and to have others join me in admitting they felt it too.
During this phase, we grew weary of all the running – the running to fill time. We were making endless plans, going to meetings, joining clubs, going to concerts, arranging dinner dates – so that we would have something to do every minute, especially during the evenings when many of us felt the void the most. Gone were the days when all we wanted from life was to kick back at home for the weekend, sublimely relaxing, our partners somewhere out of sight (perhaps on a business trip), but still part of our lives. Gone also was the parallel play, the blissful cuddling and love-making, the feeling of belonging.
Refuge in Routine:
Some of our more solitary members found solace in habitual daily rituals. They tended to become compulsive about adhering to these routines and felt out of sorts when something interrupted their schedules22. These activities had become a refuge, cocoon of predictability, self-soothing familiarity, and security.
During reorganizing, we continued reminiscing about our partners, but now we worked to form new relationships with them. We worked to resolve regrets about what some of us perceived as our personal culpability (real or imagined) with regard to our partner’s death. We came to a new level of understanding about the dynamics of our relationship, our partner’s behavior and our own. We worked to resolve marital conflicts in abstention. Bereavement groups provided a crucible of intimacy and trust in which to articulate these issues. We helped each other work many of them through, buoyed by support and compassion.
Some of us relocated in order to free ourselves from the memories of the home we had shared with our departed (but even then, our new homes felt like empty castles). Almost universally we tried to reclaim territory shared with our partners, i.e. returning to a favorite restaurant or vacation spot, this time alone or with another friend. We reinvested our emotional energy in new people, new things, all in an attempt to reinvent life’s purpose. We also worked on revamping ourselves. Some of us changed hair styles, some went to plastic surgeons, some went on diets (finding willpower difficult to summon due to the ongoing emotional turmoil of this phase).
Getting on with life caused many of us to feel guilty. “If I loved him so much, how could I go on with my life?” The truth is that the job of the living is to go on living, but it is a difficult truth to behold in light of the loyalty and devotion we still felt toward our partners.
Relating the struggle to grief:
This turbulent phase of reorganizing is sorely neglected in the literature since the issues are not as much sadness-related as life-related. Our friends and therapists tended not to connect our battle to change our lives with the grief cycle, but it certainly was part of grief. In fact during the reorganizing phase we need as much support as before. Facing the repercussions of loss and straining to rebuild our lives is arduous work. My group mates and I frequently got fed up, wanted to throw in the towel. “I feel like I’m getting nowhere, like a train lying on its side with its wheels spinning. No matter how hard I try, I just can’t get any traction.” As we continued meeting into the second year, we were able to inspire each other to keep trying and commend each other for our efforts.
In interviewing people who did not have peers to share with, I found that they too failed to connect the dots between the upheaval they were going through and the grief process. The issues seemed unrelated. They weren’t thinking about their partners when, for example, they suffered through a boring lecture at the library – a lecture they’d attended in hopes of sparking a new interest – or when they were knocking things over in the hardware store, trying to find the right bolt. They didn’t realize feeling out of sorts, restless, unfulfilled, discombobulated was part of the grief cycle – its reorganizing phase. Without access to this information, they tended to fault themselves for not being able to see their way out of their messy lives. Since the work of grief is to “accept the pain of loss23” it is important to the healing process to be able to relate the two: “This upheaval is the pain of loss.”
Phase five: Lifting and Letting go (Encapsulated version of Chapter Five)
Lifting is ongoing. It extends beyond the so called second year to encompass a process of acceptance – Letting go of the anger that held us in the past, Leaning to accept Life on Life’s terms, Learning to accommodate the amputation. Notice these terms – Learning, Letting go, Lifting – are all in the gerund tense, implying ongoing discovery and exploration of life.
Life begins to distract us, lifting us out of the grief more and more. We have had moments of lifting throughout the grief cycle, but now we reach a new plateau. We learn to cope with our loneliness and feel more comfortable about being alone. We count the little pleasures we have been experiencing all along as part of a new texture of life. We have longer periods of calm, peacefulness, more good days than bad days. The memories are less painful, in fact most of them make us smile instead of cry. Our moments of lightness and laughter increase.
During this phase, we can still get suddenly smacked in the face with the sudden reality of our loss and go swirling back to beginning, but we Lift out of it more quickly – sometimes within a matter of minutes.
Those of us who have not yet met someone new or found a new career, continue to look for a central source of pleasure to replace the loss of a life-partner. In searching for meaning and purpose, we come upon unexpected adventures and treasures.
For many, we get ready to Love again24.
Thirty years of training, research, and clinical experience proved to have much less to inform me about my grieving than I’d expected. My bereavement clients had always expressed gratitude for the support and direction I gave them, attributing their healing process to me. Now I realized that I had been a figurehead – a transferential figure upon whom they projected the need to have their grieving understood. In truth, I had not really understood the depths of the void they were struggling to fill or the obfuscating tumult of trying to restart their lives until I experienced it myself, and became intimately involved on a peer basis with the many others who shared my experience shoulder to shoulder. Now I have a new vocabulary to guide myself and others through a dynamic process.
I learned that conventional notions about grief must be discarded so that society will stop abandoning us when the first year is up. People dealing with the challenges of the latter grief stages must be welcomed out of their closets so that they can air their feelings without being singled out or considered pathological.
It must be acknowledged that there are some people who are NOT able to change their lives or fill the void in a way that equals the satisfaction they had felt all of those married years when they had a steady companion, lover, and helpmate, and helpmate. “For the first couple years I thought I’d be able to start a new life, but try as I might I’m still in the same old life, just with Harriet missing from it. She was my best friend. The most I’ve been able to accomplish is getting used to surviving without her.” There are many people like this. Without support, they live out their life spans with an ongoing sense of loss and diminishment, surrounded by a social structure which fails to acknowledge the emotional challenges they face on an ongoing basis.
People need people. Society has work to do to create a social infrastructure that can support people who are alone – abandoned, widowed, or just single – and allow them to connect with each other in meaningful ways. There is a wealth of research that shows that health declines when we lose our partners. Coupled people have fewer heart attacks, less incidence of cancer, and longer lives. Isolated people with limited social connections suffer the poorest health25.
There is so much more friends, family, counselors, and social agencies can do to help. Social support needs to be continued indefinitely – right through the Lifting phase and beyond. For example, most bereavement groups are between 6 and 10 sessions and are usually offered to people going through the first year. They often start out with a facilitator, but can continue informally when members exchange phone numbers and begin meeting at one another’s home for round table discussions. The initial structure is necessary to get the process started and establish ground rules (i.e. confidentiality, no interrupting, no judgment, no advice) in order to build a degree of intimacy and trust. But it is what happens after the 6 to 10 sessions – the ongoing support – that makes the biggest impact on healing and recovery.
Précis of the five phases of bereavement:
Phase one. Shock and Numbing: We go through the funeral and subsequent activities in a dense emotional fog, alternating between feeling sad and feeling nothing.
Phase two, Withdrawal: As the Novocain wears off, the acute pain of loss begins to break through, and we go into painful withdrawal from our partner – just as if we were in Heroin withdrawal.
Phase three, Identity Crisis: We move from mourning the “We” to facing the “I.” We grapple with losing our Identity as a mate and freefall into an abyss of aloneness.
Phase four, Reorganizing: Our focus shifts from the “I” to the concrete reality in front of us. Lonely or not, we must deal with the practical ramifications of our singleness, i.e., There’s no one to follow us to the car repair. We battle with pragmatic problems to repair our lives.
Phase five, Lifting: Life begins to pull us out of the grief and into a process of acceptance, discovery, and exploration.
1 I arbitrarily assign the word “bereavement” to denote grief-over-death.
2 I believe it lasts for several years and leaves permanent markings on physiological response.
3 In contrast to bereavement’s haze, abandonment’s feelings were sharp and distinct – i.e. rage, self-hatred, and panic.
4 Interestingly, the rejection and rage of abandonment give rise to a universal process causing people to have cookie-cutter responses at each stage. With bereavement, the existential issue of mortality along with the other variables, i.e., length of relationship, love-quality, religious background, social supports, etc. lead to highly individualized responses.
5 Why five? Because I wish to pay homage to Kubler-Ross’s Five Stages of Death and Dying. I want to expand upon her seminal work.
6 Mediated through grief’s own neruo-chemistry (the endogenous opiate system)
7 Separation anxiety
8 Most of the bereaved aren’t able to conceptualize, label, or articulate the specifics of what they’re going through at any given phase and greatly appreciate this information which helps to clarify.
9 All symptoms of traumatic stress
10and people without access to this information
11 These differences in types of crying were due to neuro-chemical differences between bereavement and other types of stress, i.e. abandonment.
12 In abandonment the hypervigilance is produced by the fear of seeing the person again.
13 Endogenous opiate withdrawal is akin to 8 Mg of Heroin withdrawal.
14 Some people stuffed their grief with food.
15 Like abandonment’s, bereavement’s five phases spell SWIRL.
16 Similar to the type of crying during abandonment grief.
17 Some found it humiliating.
18 It’s important for grievers to know that SSRI’s (i.e. Prozac, Paxil, Zoloft, etc.) do not provide the brain with serotonin; rather, they alter brain mechanics. Here’s how: SSRI’s block the re-uptake of our own supply of serotonin, thus causing our own supply of this “well-being” neurotransmitter to remain in the neuronal synapse longer where it increases its bombardment on neuronal the receptor cites. SSRI’s don’t affect the brain at the “end product” (as they would if they in fact contained serotonin). Instead, they affect an earlier part in the whole cascade of neuro-chemical events within the brain. The “down stream” affect of the SSRI’s upon the “end product” is entirely up to chance and differs from brain to brain. It some (many) cases, the impact causes greater depression further down the line (where the person needs more and more of the drug), and this impact can be either temporary or permanent.
Possible explanations: Speculation has it that increased serotonin-bombardment on the receptor sites, may cause the brain to create additional receptor sites in order to accommodate these additional “rounds of serotonin” – thus ramping up the brain’s need for serotonin. Another speculation is that the increased bombardment may make the receptors more sensitive – may damage them. Or it is thought that at the end of the cascade, the extra bombardment of serotonin may ultimately signal the brain to produce less serotonin (creating “down regulation”) causing a net loss to the system.
The point is that one should not take antidepressants “lightly,” in spite of many doctors indiscriminately prescribing them to grieving populations. Grief is a reactive type of depression (and hoped to be temporary), whereas, as we’ve seen, the affects of SSRI’s can be permanent. Although antidepressants can be helpful to grievers, their long term ramifications need to be carefully considered, and most grievers know nothing about them (and most doctors fail to elucidate).
19 Evidence of brain changes – different from abandonment – brought on by grief-over-death.
20 Some of us continued cycling rapidly through these phases.
21 Cognitive dissonance
22 Compulsive and ritualistic behaviors are evidence of trauma. These self-soothing behaviors serve to medicate the posttraumatic stress and anxiety of losing your partner.
24 Some people preempt the latter phases by meeting someone early on in the grieving. Plugging a new person into the empty spaces dilutes the pain and partially distracts us from the loss. Some of the preempted grief gets transmuted into abandonment feelings (i.e. intense insecurity, fear of loss) in the new relationship.
25 Research shows shorter life spans, higher incidence of cancer, etc. with people living alone.