Wouldn’t it be nice if grief were similar to a common cold or flu? Just a nasty cold for a week to ten days and then—1,000 tissues later—you’re chipper and back to your old self. Why not flu-like symptoms for grief? Achy? Yes! Fever? Maybe! Feel rotten? All the time! Don’t wanna to get outta bed? Exactly! But soon the flu is over and you’re chipper and back to your old self.
Grief isn’t a cold or flu, with or without a thousand tissues or resting and drinking plenty of fluids. Instead, grief is a combination of normal reactions to a normal event that all combine to create a profound sense of abnormality . . . that going-crazy feeling.
What do I mean “normal event?”
I mean death. Simple question: is death a rare or peculiar occurrence in your experience? We joke about the inevitability of death and taxes, but when the laughing ceased, wouldn’t we (reluctantly) agree that death always trumped taxes? Could I convince you that some folks have avoided paying taxes throughout human history? Travel back in time to ask a medieval serf or remain in your cubicle and quiz your co-worker . . . and I’ll betcha they have a friend of a friend (or heard a rumor about someone) that never gave yesterday’s king or today’s IRS a dime in taxes. No need to ask anyone about knowing someone that never died. Death is a normal, inevitable event.
However, many of the “normal” reactions to a loved one’s death unsettles us. I recall grief expert Alan Wolfelt referring to polyphasic behavior in a bereavement workshop. Poly-what? It’s a word that means starting many (poly) things and finishing none.
Hey, that sounds normal!
And it is. For example, yesterday I interviewed a person, but haven’t typed and submitted the formal notes. I also sent multiple emails to colleagues and must follow-up with several of them in the next days. Then there’s my lengthy grocery list, however I haven’t gone shopping yet. While I could give other examples of incomplete tasks, I hope you get the point. We all begin projects that take time to accomplish or become unintentionally (or intentionally) abandoned. No. Big. Deal.
But after the death of a loved one, “normal” behavior skids out of control. Our attention span packs its bags and waves goodbye. We can’t concentrate on one project, let alone multiple projects.
For example . . . you start a to-do list of 1) feed dog, 2) wash dishes. After penning two items, you notice the dirty casserole bowl in the sink and tackle cleaning it. While scrubbing, the lawn sprinklers click on. Drats! The sprinkler by the roses appears broken. You race outside to shut off the suburban version of Old Faithful, but spot yesterday’s newspaper on the driveway. You pick it up. It has a headline with “Hawaii,” prompting you to recall your honeymoon with your deceased beloved. You begin to cry. Your neighbor walks by and asks if you’re okay and you wipe your eyes, amble to the sidewalk and lie about how you feel with your thoughtful neighbor. After the neighbor strolls away, you notice the roses are flooded and there are weeds under your favorite flowers and you yank out a few weeds . . . but stop when you hear the dog barking. You go back inside, hands dirty, and glare at your dog. You wonder why a clean casserole dish is in the sink with the water running. Then you rediscover your to-do list and can’t remember if it means you’ve fed or not fed the dog and if the dishes were or were not washed. While pondering the two mysterious to-dos, you see the week’s pile of mail on the table with a letter from your favorite aunt on top. As your dog barks and water runs inside and outside and your hands are dirty and the paper was dropped where you talked with your neighbor, you scan a sweet note from your aunt. Without finishing the note, you realize you’re exhausted from the morning’s activities and it’s time for a nap.
Except you can’t sleep because you think you hear water running somewhere.
Polyphasic behavior . . . it’s normal during grief. But it never, ever feels “normal.”
Will you get better? Yes. But when? It will be different for each person, but a lot of water—sometimes by way of tears, sometimes by way of broken sprinklers—will flow before your particular better arrives.
(Hospice vigorously protects a patient’s privacy. I’ll take care with how I share my experiences. Any names used are fictitious. Events are combined and/or summarized.)by