Helping Grief Become Mourning

Grief vs. Mourning

I think it was The Mourner’s Dance that first made the distinction (to me) between grief and mourning.

“Grief” is what we feel inside: sadness, anger, confusion, shock, denial … whatever those feelings might be.

“Mourning” is the expression of those feelings. The most obvious example is crying because we feel sad, but mourning can also be telling a funny story about a loved one who has died, or (as I did this week) signing up for a class because you know the person you loved would have wanted to learn that skill. Mourning is an action inspired by those internal emotions.

I find it helpful to distinguish between grief and mourning because it explains my own reaction to Brock’s death so well. There is huge sadness (along with many other feelings) inside me, but the shock and numbness I’ve been feeling make it almost impossible to let these feelings out. This hasn’t felt right or healthy to me, which is one of the reasons I signed up for a bereavement support group.

We read and discussed this grief vs. mourning distinction at the third meeting of my support group this week. We took the discussion further, thanks to our Understanding Your Grief workbook, as follows:

Grief is not a bad thing.

I know that there’s this big scary ball of sadness inside my chest, and it’s human nature to want to ignore it and (if possible) make it go away. Speaking of which, here are some quotes from our workbook, by Alan Wolfelt:

“You have probably been taught that pain is an indication that something is wrong and that you should find ways to alleviate the pain.”

“Far too many people view grief as something to be overcome, rather than experienced.”

But, according to this workbook, grief is not a bad thing: it’s a natural thing. Of course there’s sadness inside me: I just lost my life partner.  It would be unnatural (and unhealthy) to deny that sadness.

You can actively help grief come out.

Since this grief will erupt out on its own, possibly in unexpected ways and at unexpected times, I/we can choose to be a “passive witness” to this grief or an “active participant.” I don’t know about you, but I like the word “active” better.

In other words: instead of trying to smother that sadness and get rid of it, a “healthy” way to deal with grief is to let it come out, maybe even in a controlled, intentional way.

One of the best sentences in our workbook this week (which I underlined) was:

“You will naturally grieve, but you will probably have to make a conscious effort to mourn.”

Yes! That’s a prescription I can follow. I can accept responsibility for letting my grief out. In fact, I can find ways to remember Brock that are happy and enjoyable, not just sad.

So here are some ideas I’ve come up with over the past few days, to help me mourn Brock (and therefore express this grief bottled up inside me):

  • Make a “Brock and Heather” photo album of actual, hard copy photos, like what I made for Isaac.
  • Encourage family and friends to celebrate Brock’s birthday on March 31 by sharing a list of potential ways to remember and honour him (e.g. watch his favourite movies, dance to specific songs, quit your day job to follow your dream, etc.).
  • Find a way to commemorate our 12 year anniversary on April 2.
  • Ensure there’s a place in our house plan for a “Brock Memory Corner” (in addition to having his photos around our home) where I can put special items to help us remember him daily.
  • Once our new house is somewhat landscaped, sprinkle some of Brock’s remains in a safe spot, maybe with a chair or bench that we can sit on.

I also gave myself some credit because I already do proactive mourning things, including:

  • writing on this website;
  • sharing memories and Brock-meaningful moments on our In Memory of Brock McLeod Facebook page;
  • write to Brock in a journal (especially when I need to make a decision and wish he were here to make it with me);
  • keep photos of Brock around so I can see his sexy smile and smile back at him; and
  • share memories with Isaac of his daddy, and tell him stories that include Brock.

A big thought to end on …

I’m glad you’re here with me, reading along, as I go through all this. I appreciate your support and love.

More importantly, I hope reading all this will help you in your own life, because death and loss will inevitably be part of your life if it isn’t already.

I started reading another book by Wolfelt yesterday, called Healing a Spouse’s Grieving Heart: 100 Practical Ideas After Your Husband or Wife Dies, and there’s this horrible, excellent quote from C.S. Lewis at the beginning:

“Bereavement is a universal and integral part of our experience of love. It follows marriage as normally as marriage follows courtship or as autumn follows summer. It is not a truncation of the process but one of the phases …”

-C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

I don’t want to scare you or make you sad, but it’s a true statement that every love partnership will include a stage of bereavement (unless you’re lucky enough to die at the same time).

We’re all in this together.

I saw this picture on my sister’s fridge today. We took it during our epic Canada road trip in June 2016, at the Athabasca Glacier on the Icefields Parkway in Alberta.

The Poison is the Medicine

It’s probably horrible to refer to my kid as “poison,” but there we are.

I went to the second weekly meeting of our bereavement support group today, and one of the themes that arose is the need for those of us in mourning to be gentle with ourselves. Our brains might not be working properly, we might not feel how we think we should feel, and possibly our single goal for each day is to make it through the day. We are supposed to be patient with ourselves. Mourning is a multi-stage journey, and how we are today is not how we’ll be weeks, months or years from now.

My immediate response to this was anger and resentment. I often don’t feel like I have the luxury of being gentle or patient with myself, because I have a four-year-old son who is in the middle of major life transitions. Isaac lost his dad four months ago, moved with me across the province, started a new preschool and is surrounded by a completely different set of family and friends.

Most of his toys and books are buried in our storage locker, which he told me tonight makes him “frustrated” and want to hit.

The Poison

No matter how much slack I want to give myself during this grieving process, I never feel like I can let it all loose because I have a son to take care of and comfort. I can’t get drunk, spend the day in bed or subsist on crusty bread, blue cheese and salami.

Sometimes I crave a week of solitude, just so I can sit still with the loss of Brock and do whatever I need to, to get all this sadness out.

And, in fact, I could run away for a week. But Isaac would miss me. And my job, at least for the immediate future, is to give him some stability and structure.

The Medicine

THEN it occurred to me, as I ate my way through the tin of chocolate cookies at hospice, that while Isaac makes this whole grieving thing more difficult, he is also what is pulling me through it.

Brock and I planned this move to Invermere for Isaac. Regardless of all my own reasons for coming here, if I didn’t have Isaac to consider I would probably set off on the Appalachian Trail this year. I wouldn’t be building a house here, or settling in for the next 15 years. It’s comforting to have this plan. I don’t ever feel lost or overwhelmed with decisions, because they’ve already been made. And I like our plan.

If I didn’t have Isaac, I wouldn’t have to get out of bed every morning (he likes to turn on all the lights to ensure I’m awake). I wouldn’t have the structure in my days (thanks to his preschool and various activities) that makes it possible for me to write and finish my first ever mystery novel.

Yes, having Isaac in my life forces me to function at a level above where I would like right now, but he also helps me grieve Brock. He talks about his dad every few days, telling me stories or clarifying memories while we drive around or read in bed. These mentions are random and therefore I don’t have my defences up: he forces me to remember, and it’s painful. Making Isaac’s Christmas gift, a photo album of “dad and Isaac” pictures, was a therapy session unto itself.

It’s All About the Dose

I Googled “poison is the medicine” for kicks and it comes from toxicology, specifically its father Paracelsus, a Swiss physician born in 1493-ish, who wrote:

“Sola dosis facit venenum”

Which Wikipedia translates as:

“Only the dose makes the poison.”

I interpret this to mean that my regular outsourcing of Isaac to preschool, gymnastics, swimming & skating & skiing lessons, Aunt Evy and his grandparents is a good thing.

And I suppose the fact that I use that alone time NOT to eat salami and drink martinis and sob in bed, but rather to write and attend a support group and read mysteries, is a good sign.

Maybe the dose is exactly right.

The hardest Christmas present I’ve ever made: a photo album for Isaac of all his photos with his dad.

The Circle of Grief

My homework for meeting #2 of my bereavement support group is to read the first 19 pages of Alan D. Wolfelt’s Understanding Your Grief: Ten Essential Touchstones for Finding Hope and Healing Your Heart.

Page 18 says this:

… if you avoid your pain, the people around you will not have to “be with” you in your pain or experience their own pain. While this may be more comfortable for them, it would prove to be unhealthy for you.

Dr. Wolfelt’s point is that grieving people often repress their grief due to peer pressure from folks saying “buck up! Get over it.”

But my experience has been the opposite. If anything, reading this makes me see that my own numbness after Brock’s death made it harder (maybe impossible) for our friends and family to mourn, at least when they were with me.

Because: the circle of grief.

What is the circle of grief?

I (think I) first read about the circle of grief in a blog post by my amazing writer friend Cindy, who has chronicled her and her husband’s difficult experience with infertility. The circle of grief (or “ring theory”) model looks like this:

circle of grief model
I did not draw this graphic. I borrowed it from the Interwebs. Thanks, Interwebs!

The idea is that the person most affected by a horrible event (say, Brock when he was diagnosed with cancer, or me and Isaac when Brock died) is at the centre of this model. The next ring out would be our family, then our closest friends, then more friends, then colleagues and farm customers, etc.

Wherever you are in the model, you are allowed to “dump” on the people in rings outside of your own: you can lean on them for support, cry and rage. But you can’t “dump” on someone in a ring closer to the centre than your own. Your job is to support those people. So if the person at the centre is, say, at a 0 emotionally (on a scale of 0-10), then you have to be at least a 1. If they’re having a good day and are at a 6, you have to be 7+ when you’re around them.

I’ve found the circle of grief model very helpful in understanding how to behave in emotionally difficult situations (e.g. funerals) and also when comforting friends when they’re going through hard times, but it was a tricky rule to follow when Brock was dying. He was the centre of that event, and my job was to support him, not to “dump” on him, but he had been my best friend, confidante and life partner for 11 years and it was very hard to break that habit. I had to separate myself from that 50-50 partnership in order to be his caregiver and support person. The loss of that partnership was yet another loss to grieve.

So! Back to my point: when I was the centre, after Brock died, our family and friends were standing by, ready to support me. And they did this in many ways, through the memorial service and helping us move to the East Kootenays. But because I was numb and not grieving in an expected way, that left my rings of supporters a bit stuck. I was (usually) functioning at an 8, so that forced them to be a 9 or 10 around me.

As Patti said one evening, when a group of my lady friends gathered, and I cried briefly, my crying “gave them permission” to cry themselves. (On our 0-10 scale, I dipped to a 1, but only for a few minutes.)

But by not crying most of the time, my friends and family didn’t have that permission most of the time.

Which is not to say that they didn’t grieve when they were apart from me. I sure hope they did, and are working through their own grief at losing Brock.

As you know, I felt self-conscious and awkward about my unexpected, numb response for months. I wanted to set the tone for how Brock’s loss impacted our community/world (it was such a loss!), but I wasn’t able to do that, because my brain and heart didn’t know how to handle that huge magnitude of loss.

So if I’m the centre of this particular catastrophe, the catastrophe of losing Brock at age 38 to cancer, then I want you “ringers” to know that my numbness is thawing. I’m trying really hard to figure out how to let myself feel the sadness (despite my default perky nature) and make a future where Brock can still be part of my and Isaac’s lives, in a good way.

I think of Brock every single day. And lately I’ve been able to cry every single day too, because everything reminds me of him, even though we’re now living in a different town surrounded by different people.

So, if you haven’t already, you can turn around now, and lean on the people in the next ring.

Brock & Heather get hitched (April 9, 2012).

writing since 1986ish