By: Ann Estlund
Most widows go through a crazy emotional rollercoaster as they move from one stage to another. One moment they are flying high and the next they are sinking morosely into a pit. They can be on level ground one minute, but the next may find them perching warily on a high wire or chugging up a hill and churning up a pot of steam, ready to blow at the first turn.
Looking back on my own years of grief, and writing articles, a book* and two websites** about it, I believe that each stage of grief has both plusses and minuses. It may take widows a long time to appreciate the plusses, but it could help us to know they are there. Just as it helped to know we were expected to go through stages in grief, it may help to see some of its long-range benefits.
Shock. Almost every widow goes through Shock or Numbness. I felt like I was inside a bubble, looking out at others who performed various tasks for me…phone calls, travel arrangements, meal planning, appointments, decision-making. Even inside that bubble I hurt so much that I couldn’t imagine I was being spared some of grief’s worst wounds. Later I understood.
Both immediate Shock and the die-hard stage of Denial cushion us from too much reality too fast. If these stages lasted too long, we would have major problems; but in smaller doses they provide brief emotional vacations when we really need them. The same is true of another stage I recognized several times in my own grief. I call it “Cockiness,” the pleasant feeling when we swell with pride at how well we are doing. We just know we have licked this thing called grief. “That wasn’t so bad,” we think, right before we fall off another cliff.
Grief is hard work, and it must be done, but brief respites from the dismal pain are therapeutic. I call them “practice sessions,” or “previews of better times ahead,” for when we are healed and walking among normal people. The downside of these “emotional vacations” is that they may be falsely interpreted by our friends and relatives. They may think we are healed and no longer need their tender loving care.
Depression can be the deepest stage of grief, dragging us down into a pit of self doubt and loss of spirit. Knowing it was an expected stage helped me to endure its downside more easily, but it didn’t make it fun. The upside of depression, which is really hard to appreciate until years later, is that this stage–more than any other–seems to provide the most opportunity for self examination and personal growth. It’s the caldron in which we learn that we are strong and we can survive.
Anxiety is a tough stage, and it can hang on interminably, especially for those on their own for the first time. It can build to a crescendo, a panic attack, such as one I had when I thought I was dying of the same thing my husband did. Most widows have one or several of these. I asked the doctor for a few anxiety pills to keep on hand for crises. Left unchecked, panic attacks can grow into agoraphobia…the fear of being outside or of leaving the house. We don’t want that to happen. Anxiety can also play havoc with our health, so, what is the upside of Anxiety? Well, not much…but to stretch it a bit, it does keep us alert so we know what’s going on…and it feels really good when it’s over.
I said a hundred times, “I could never get angry at Bruce for dying!” And then I did, with a vengeance! “How dare he leave me to do all this stuff!” We all go through Anger, and we can lose the support of friends and family if we aren’t careful. Can there be any benefits in it? Yes, it’s a sign we are facing reality head on, breaking through some of that Denial muck, and also we are clearing the air, getting rid of some old baggage around us.
With most Anger comes Guilt! Guilt for thinking of ourselves instead of our late mates. Some widows may have real reasons to feel guilty; most do not. Regardless, work on guilt, with a counselor or therapist if it is serious. So, how can it have an upside? Sometimes analyzing guilt feelings can help in understanding the differences we had with our husbands. I, for example, realized I felt guilty for often overlooking Bruce’s many good points and nagging him about things that simply did not matter.
Think of these grief benefits as the “little bits of sugar that help the medicine go down.”
About the Author:
Annie Estlund is the author of the handbook, For Widows Only. Visit her Web site to learn more about her support group for widows.