In his book, A Grief Observed, C.S. shares his journey of grief after the death of his wife. “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. I am not afraid, but the sensation is like being afraid. The same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness, the yawning. I keep on swallowing.” As I stood in a hospital beside Butch and watched him take his last breath, I felt terror. I thought it was pain, but that would come later. In that moment, surrounded by people who loved me, I was drowning in fear.
Becoming us without them will take a different path for each person. The twists and turns will unfold in a unique way and at just the right time. We may step off the path and set up camp along the way. Only the stories of those who have seen the way ahead give us the courage to break camp and keep moving.
Butch was someone that others would happily follow across the continent on a wagon train with full confidence that he could deliver everyone safely to the new frontier. The modern equivalent of that was our traveling miles across the country in old cars with the absolute confidence that he could fix anything that broke. His father taught him what he called “Oklahoma Engineering.” If you didn’t have the tool you needed, just make one. He inherited the tools handed down from his grandfather and his father. When he died, we found not only classic old tools, but many objects that were very clever, but definitely one of a kind. Even after he had the money to buy what he needed, he often crafted or modified what he needed, just for the challenge. Now that he is gone, when I don’t know how to do something immediately, I ask myself, “What would Butch do?” Miraculously, I discover that being married to MacGyver is somewhat contagious. I actually come up with ideas based on watching him for years and solve tricky problems on my own. In other cases, I thank God for YouTube, and the men that step up when I need them, to help me with what I can’t do myself.
I hadn’t fully understood how inherently afraid I was until he died. I didn’t know how much courage I borrowed from him. In the beginning of the grieving process, it made sense that I was so miserable. We had been together since we were 17, fought through three rounds of marriage counseling to be different than generations past, and had arrived at a place of comfort and intimacy by age 64 (Better late than never). We believed there were many good years ahead of us. Losing that was terrible.
Entering the third year in the grieving process, I noticed that much of what I was feeling seemed as strong or stronger than at the beginning. Being a trauma therapist, I began trying to figure that out. People reminded me that grief takes as long as it needs, and I was probably expecting too much of myself in terms of “getting over it.” It wasn’t that it felt bad that was the problem. It just felt “off.”
In a therapy session of my own, I realized, that as the daughter of an extremely insecure mother, I had absorbed her fear. It didn’t help that she was often verbally abusive, assuring me that my breach birth was an indication that I couldn’t even be born right. I tried very hard to be good enough to earn her love. This included the classis oldest child tactic of parenting my younger siblings in my role as the best little enabler you ever met. Overwhelmed by life, she often threatened to leave if “somebody didn’t do something.” We lived in a wind tunnel, always waiting for someone to flip the invisible switch that would send us all into the chaos of her outbursts. I came to understand that I lived with a sense of impending disaster my whole life. A part of me was relieved when bad things happened because the waiting was over…..briefly.
Another therapist and I were given the opportunity to do a workshop recently, on the topic of anxiety and grief. Looking at grief through the lens of trauma and what we now know about how the nervous system adapts to traumatic events helped me put the pieces of my own grief puzzle together. Reading about concepts like mindful grieving and radical acceptance flipped a switch, and the light dawned. There are certainly moments when the pain of missing Butch feels like a sudden stab with a burning poker. But most of the time, what I was feeling was fear, not pain.
The nervous system has a very clever way of forcing us to take care of ourselves. The pain of a sunburn keeps us from further damaging our injured skin until we heal. But it is clear that if we are still protecting our skin as if it was newly burned weeks after the burn, it is fear of pain, not actual pain that is the problem. The pain following a loss works in much the same way. Our entire world is turned upside down. Someone who was an important part of the rhythm of life is gone and we are in shock. The very nature of grief causes us to slow down, pull back, and protect ourselves from further damage until we heal enough to go back out into life and start again. If we grew up in a family that modeled safety and belonging and taught us to be resilient in tough times, we rebound from loss very differently than those who are not. The former grow from the loss and come out better and stronger. The later fortify their defenses to prevent the next loss from occurring. It feels like a matter of survival. Since loss is inevitable, the only hope is to avoid being hurt again by avoiding risk altogether. The natural urges to step back out into life must be thwarted. The nervous system responds to that survival terror and uses pain to force us to “take care of ourselves.”
I realized that I was drowning in the fear of pain, not pain itself. Trying to find myself and the new person I was becoming felt like loosing Butch a little bit more with each step forward. Periods of enjoying my new resilience and confidence were followed by days of paralysis and procrastination. Like many trauma survivors, I was standing in a cage constructed by the fear of the next disaster, unable to see that there wasn’t even a lock on the door. It felt like leaving the cage would result in my running completely off the edge of the Earth. Strangely, just saying all that out loud while writing and delivering the information in the workshop helped me differentiate between actual pain and fear. I immediately realized that I couldn’t lose Butch, even if I tried. Strictly speaking, my nervous system has been formed by millions of interactions with him that aren’t going anywhere. I can add millions more interactions with life to my story and Butch will remain safely stored.
Somehow people equate “moving on” with entering a new relationship. But if that is all we do, then the new relationship is a patch, not a repair. If we do not fully discover and explore “us without them” we miss out on so much. Our grieving mentors and support people help us remind ourselves that doing nothing doesn’t prevent pain, it guarantees it. As we take small risks and survive, we can take larger ones. As we allow ourselves to grow into what we were created to be all along, we become resilient. At each new juncture, we fight the fear that calls itself pain. This allows us to have more compassion for ourselves when we feel the actual pain that will be with us for a lifetime.
Only when we are able to enter deeply and expectantly into relationship with ourselves are we fit to be in relationship with God and others.