When someone we love dies, it can feel like we’re being dropped into the wilderness.
Nothing looks familiar, even—especially—ourselves. While we may each grieve differently and there’s no map to get us through the process more quickly, there are some common pieces of landscape that you might run across. Here are five things I learned about grief during my time in the wild.
How hard it is to comprehend the sheer absence.
Death can be really, really hard to wrap our minds around. How can someone be there—alive, talking, sleeping, and eating—and then suddenly cease to be? It’s as hard to comprehend as conception—how a cluster of cells can morph into a person who wasn’t here before, but now, suddenly, decidedly, is very, very here.
In an episode of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” called “The Body” that explores the death of one of the characters, another character sums up the struggle to grasp death.
“I don’t understand how this all happens. How we go through this,” she says. “I mean, I knew her, and then she’s—there’s just a body, and I don’t understand why she can’t just get back in it and not be dead anymore.”
Grief can feel a lot like losing your mind.
In the months after my brother’s sudden death, I often wondered if I was losing it. Thoughts would pop into my head, like, Oh, I’ll just call Will to tell him about the crazy thing that happened at his funeral. Or I’d find myself making a mental tally of who I’d prefer to die instead of him, who I’d trade for his existence, as if I was some kind of semi-malevolent puppet master.
In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis famously wrote, “No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear.”
I’d add that no one ever told me grief felt so much like mentally circling the drain.
How long shock can last.
Most of the losses I’ve experienced have been sudden—someone I loved was alive and fine one minute, and then with no warning, no lingering illness, no time to say goodbye, they were dead. Our minds aren’t really equipped to process such a drastic change, and to protect us, we go into shock. But shock doesn’t always just last for hours or days like I’d thought—after my brother died, I measured shock in months. “It’s going to get worse, you know, when the shock wears off,” a friend who’d also recently lost a brother had warned me. He was right—after about three months, the fog of shock finally began to evaporate, dropping me into something more raw and real.
Grief isn’t linear.
Most of us have heard of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’ famous five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
While grief does take most of us to each of these places, it doesn’t do it in a linear fashion. We don’t stop at each stage as if visiting a train station, braking for a time before sliding onto the next stop. Rather, we rollercoaster from one to another, we rumble back and forth, catching a brief glimpse of acceptance before being thrust back into a heaping helping of anger or denial. While we can make use of coping tools, for the most part, we’re not in charge of the grief ride—we just tumble from station to station, letting the process have its way with us, hoping the journey gets smoother with time.
Grief is an equalizer.
In Martha Beck’s lovely book, Expecting Adam, she discusses discovering that her unborn son had Down syndrome. At first, she wondered why such a thing had happened to her. But then she twirled her question around, and instead of saying, Why me? began saying, Why not me? In the same way, loss doesn’t discriminate. None of us are immune—if we live and love long enough, we will grieve.
We don’t get over it.
The bad news is that in my experience, we don’t ever “get over” losing someone we love.
We may figure out how to weave a life around the loss, to incorporate the wilderness of grief back into our tamer, more urban lives. But not getting over it is the good news, too. We keep grieving over our loved ones because we also keep loving them. Grief and love are twined together, and while they may change shape over time, neither ends.