Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Just When You Thought It Was Safe ......

...... it's suddenly not.

I have always described grief and grieving as standing in the ocean.  In the beginning I wasn't able to keep standing because of the relentless pounding of the waves.  They came at me one after another.  It felt as if I were in the middle of a a typhoon, or a hurricane.  I've been in the middle of a hurricane since then ..... and I think it still applies.

I couldn't withstand the waves ..... they kept knocking me over and pulling me under.  It was all I could do to try to reach above the water line and get a breath before I was pulled under again.
In the beginning all I could do was dog paddle and barely keep my face above the water.

And then the water started calming down.  The waves still came, but they were a bit further apart.  Some days I was able to get to my feet ...... and even stay standing through a wave.  Not always, but some days.
And then more days.

I grew stronger with the passage of time.  I stood easier.  The waves still came, but they were rarely able to knock me down.
They'd knock me off balance, to be sure, and they'd threaten to pull me under with their force and pull, but I managed to stay on my feet.

Strength takes time.
It cannot be rushed.
It cannot be purchased.
It cannot be borrowed.
It has to be earned.

We are each earning strength with every day that passes ...... and finds us still here.
When we notice that we're stronger and that the waves are less frequent, we think that we're on the mend (so to speak).  We think that we'll start feeling better and better.
And maybe, at close to a year,  we may start to believe that the waves have gone.

But, contrary to popular thought, grief does not disappear on the day you hit the one year mark.
The tears do not automatically dry up because of the passage of 365 days.
The pain does not fade out after 52 weeks.
A broken heart doesn't heal in 12 months' time.

In fact, for many people, the pain gets worse after a year.
The depression gets darker.
The tears flow quickly.

I wish I had known that.
I wish someone had told me that the shock that numbs you during the first year (to some extent) is the thing that disappears at one year.  The numbness that most likely helped you survive, leaves your heart unprotected and exposed to the pain of the holidays and special days.

I wish I had known.
I wouldn't have thought that there was something wrong with me.
I wouldn't have thought that I'd feel that way forever.
I wouldn't have wanted to die so very much (a little, probably, but not as much as I did).

One day, at around 17 months,  I walked into my therapist's office.  I broke down and asked her what the hell was wrong with me.  I was at one and a half years, why didn't I feel ANY better?  Why was I still depressed and sad and not "better"?
She got up, looked through her files and then pulled out this sheet and handed it to me:

And I felt like I had been understood by someone ....... by whoever made this graph.  I felt validated and I knew, in that moment, that there was nothing wrong with me.  I knew that, without a doubt, I was normal.
And that felt great.

Look at that graph.  The bottom line represent the passage of time.  The line on the left side represents the intensity of grief upon the loss of a spouse (or maybe anyone, though I think it's really for a spouse).

It starts on the day your spouse died.  See how high the intensity is?  And how high it stays?  Yes, it goes up and down, but not very much.  The grief is intense, but then at around the 10 month mark or so, it gets less intense.  Not a lot, but a bit.

And then ...... here's the part that made me feel like a huge weight had been lifted from me ...... look at the 15-18 month mark.  Check out how high the intensity level spikes on the graph.  It goes up higher than it's ever been before ..... even in the first days.  It takes a huge spike.  And the grief hurts ...... a lot.
But ...... here's the part that made me feel hopeful:  it spikes to its highest point, yes ...... but then it drops almost as quickly as it spiked.  And it drops a lot.  It goes far lower than its ever been since that day.  And then it stays down.
Yes, it spikes at some times, but those spikes are nothing compared to the ones that came before.
It's at that point that you know you will survive.

And it's at that point that you'll realize ...... that the water is a bit safer than it was before.

But until then, those of you who are still in the toss and the pulling of the relentless waves ...... know that we are here.  And that we've been there.  I want to take your hand and hold you up, above the waves.
I want to give you my strength, but I can't.  You have to live through this, and so earn your strength.  But I'm still here, as are the rest who've made it further on this road.  And we are cheering you on. You are loved.  You matter.  And you will survive ...... even on the days you don't want to.

It won't be long ...... before you'll know that it's safe to go back in the water.
I'll see you there.


  1. JANINE! This post has helped me so much. Thank you for the chart! I am at 22 months. You described my spring and my summer. I would drive to the cottage and cry most of the way. What was wrong with me? I felt so sad - started to feel like this would be my life - misery and that nothing would ever feel good. Every gently happy moment would get swept away by grief. It kind of scared me. I am a very strong and positive person. People tell me they can't believe what I have lived through. But inside I often thought - I can't go on, I don't know if I will make it, I don't know if I even want to.
    Sometimes I just felt like looking out at the length of my life without him seemed hopelessly long.
    But lately - things are changing. . .slowly I am seeing the goodness in life again. I am seeing things that are beautiful on my walks and instead of saying painfully "Oh, how I wish you were here with me to see this?"
    Now I stop and look and say "See. See how beautiful this is? " I close my eyes and picture his face and say "all for you. I see it all for you".

    Janine, you have been such an inspiration. You are not afraid to say the truth. Or yet, dare to say we struggle but you will survive!
    Thank you. Your comments, your posts, this blog kept me alive on the highest peaks of grief - when I wanted to jump and fall and drown.
    Now - now I climb to the top and I see where I have been but I don't want to fall - I want to fly again.
    I dare to believe I will.

    Thank you!

    1. Anon, I'm glad that this post and the chart helped you. Not everyone will experience the same kind of pain, or the degree of grief that others feel. But for those, like you (and me), who find themselves floundering in the second year and thinking that this amount of pain will be with them for the rest of their lives ......
      this graph is a life saver.
      It won't apply to everyone.
      Nothing does.
      But for those to whom it does apply ..... it's a huge relief.
      And I know, without a doubt, that you will fly again.

  2. I am so glad to see that graph! Several people lately have said things like "But it's easier now than in the beginning, right?" to which I've said, "Actually, it feels nearly as bad as the beginning, only it's minus the protective shock. AND I don't miss him LESS the longer he's away. I miss him more. Same as if your living spouse was just geographically away for 14 months instead of dead.
    It's so great to see that huge down-trend on the graph after the year mark.
    I know a graph can't accurately predict how my particular grief will pan out, but it's still good to see it. And to hear others talk about how it gets better at a certain point. Just so long as there's a point to look forward to.

    1. Cassie,
      I'm happy that the graph gave you hope. That was the point. To let everyone know that there is an end to this depth of pain. It's not at the same time for everyone. Nothing is. But it's out there. It may not be on a certain date (it never is), and it may not be when we want it to occur, but it will occur. Slowly, but surely.
      The pain of grief will not end. Maybe ever. I don't know ...... I'm only 4+ years out.
      But ...... the depth of that pain will end.
      That was the point.
      There is hope.
      I'm here to prove it.
      And if I'm here ...... then anyone can be here.

  3. I read this and I look at the graph and you know, I have a wry grin on my face right now. Why? Because I buck every single trend. That peak will be over 6 years done the timeline for me. Maybe.

    I have been totally absorbed in the fight for truth and answers and medico-legal whatsits, and inquests and papers calling and me refusing to talk and lawyers and experts and yes, I could be a cardiac surgeon and yes, I could be a lawyer. Barrister even. And yes, my research is being used by others caught up in this maelstrom with me, and yes, it is over 6 - SIX years....

    And in all that time, I have squashed down every emotion. First, to protect my kids. Then because judges and lawyers do not take well to heaving masses of emotion, and I have stated facts. Reminded them of events. Instigated class action suits and uncovered more medical mistakes, and I have had to price a husband. A father. You have no idea how that tore me apart. Sat in at conferences....

    And yet I know the grief waits. Waits. And how will I manage to survive the wave when it hits? How will I manage to ride it, and not be swamped?

    I have no idea. No idea. Every now and then there is a slight crack in the facade and I muster all my energy and breathe and regain the calm I need to function. Breathe. I know he would be proud of me. Maybe, just maybe the long long battle will be over soon, and truth and justice will win. Who knows. God, God knows I need it to be so. And only God has seen me this far. And then there I will be, finally free to scatter his ashes on the ocean he sailed for so many decades and watch them drift away, as he did. And turn to face a future. I pray it is so.

    1. Oh Linds, this has been such a very long road for you. I know that. I've kept up with you and I hurt for you.
      Even though you have not been able to sit in and with your grief, you have earned strength. So much strength.
      I believe that when the time comes for you to finally face, and sit with, your grief ...... that strength will help you to survive the waves.
      You are not alone.
      And you will come out on the other side.
      It won't be easy, but it will be do-able.
      And I'll be cheering you on the entire time.
      You are loved.

  4. Janine, thank you for this. I've been a complete basket case for the last 2 weeks....things were looking up a little, not quite as many bad days, then WHAM! came that wave. I asked my doctor the same thing yesterday as I was in tears in her office -- what the hell is wrong with me? why am I not BETTER? I'll be at 15 months in 16 days....not that I'm counting, of course. But I was thinking, shouldn't I be getting BETTER, not worse? This chart is very reassuring. Perhaps I'm normal after all...whatever that means these days. Thank you, thank you, thank you for sharing it. Hugs and love and prayers for peace. ~Carolynne

    1. Carolynne, Thank you so much for taking the time to comment. I'm glad that this post and chart gave you encouragement. Of course we all don't follow this chart exactly ...... none of us follows anything exactly. But there is hope. And that's what matters.
      Yes, you are normal. Perfectly normal.
      Whatever that means ..... indeed.

  5. 10 years. Even though I might be able to go to a photocopier and notch the chart down by percentage in size, still applies. Wish someone would have show me a chart like that at my worst moments of year 2. Thank you for posting such a helpful and encouraging blog today.

    Always, Leslie

    1. Leslie,
      Thank you so much for sharing your experience. I'm sure that if we all could record our "notches" on this chart, we'd have thousands of notches. No two people grieve exactly the same.
      And yet we do grieve.
      The chart was meant to give hope. I, too, wish that I'd seen it earlier. It would've helped tremendously.
      But at least I saw it.
      And it gave me hope.
      And that's what matters.

  6. I am at 4 months today :'( I had to go to the courthouse for something today and a young couple was before me in line..... Applying for their marriage license. And there I sat with death certificate in hand to try to get over another hurdle. I never know what will set the tears flowing but this sure did.

    1. Tami,
      Four months. So very early. I'm so sorry that you're here. And so sorry that you have to be here. But I'm glad that you've found hope and encouragement here. You will survive. You can see so many here who have. And if anyone feels the way I felt ...... then they, too, know that anyone can survive. Especially if they have hope. Not hope that the pain will totally end at a certain point in time.
      But hope that it will be easier to carry. Hope that they will be strong enough to withstand the pull of the waves.
      Or at least most of them.
      That's a lot of hope.

  7. one of the best posts ever. yes I too wish I knew in advance how much worse it would be in the second year. Year 4 now and the waves do still hit (being pulled under by one the past few weeks as a matter of fact) but I know now that they will end, that I will come out the other side and can keep on moving forward. Thanks again for being such an inspiration!

    1. Beth, Thank you (again) for your loving and encouraging words. Yes, it would've been nice if we could've seen this chart early on, but at least we can get it out there for those who are just now joining us on this path.
      And even though we didn't know how "normal" our grief was, we can look back and understand it now.
      I think hope can be applied ..... retroactively.

  8. Thank you for posting this! I'm a little past 3 months... and the waves are knocking me over...but, for now, I get up pretty quick. Sometimes though, I just lay there and let the pain wash over an through me. *I* know that's ok. It freaks everyone else out :D
    The chart is a good reminder that there's no 'end' to this.

    1. Sue, I'm glad that you know it's ok to just lay there and let the pain wash over you. That's huge.
      And that's what matters.
      Even if no one else understands.
      You are the person who matters right now.
      So keep laying there ...... for as long as you need.

  9. Great post, Janine. So helpful to keep this fresh for those newly in our club. I've just turned the 3 yr mark last week, and still get hit with the wave (when they hit it's still really really bad) but fortunately not as often. I just wish we could let family & friends, co-workers etc. understand that grief doesn't disappear after year one. We still need support sometimes even more so.

    1. Hi Roseann,
      Yes, it would be nice if those around us knew that grief never really ends ...... that we're never truly "healed".
      Maybe we should all make a copy of this chart ...... several copies. And then we should laminate them and carry them with us wherever we go.
      We could then give them to anyone we meet who seems to think we should be "better" by now.
      Whatever that means.

  10. Thank you Janine. I'm at the 70 DAYS mark, yep just 10 weeks and a wave really hit me today. I'm a teacher and it hit me at school really hard. I had time to get it together but I really wanted to just crawl into a hole and cry. I've heard about the chart and can't imagine the pain, depression and heart ache any worse than it is now. How did you survive it? I'm not in therapy but hope to join a hospice group soon. I'm all alone, no family near by and we did not have children together. Since I've been reading the blog I have learned so much about this grieving process we are going thru and thank you for yours. I dread the long road ahead. diane

    1. Diane, You are so new to this "club" ...... and I (and everyone else) am sorry that you're here. But please try not to look too far ahead ...... I don't want "newer" people to fear what's ahead. To be truthful, I hesitated a long while about posting this chart for exactly that reason. I didn't want people who are a year (or less) out to think that they couldn't survive anything that feels worse. Not everyone will feel worse. Not everyone will follow the track of this graph. We all grieve on our own timeline.
      I just wanted to let you know that if it does feel worse, that's normal.
      And I wanted to let you know that if you do feel worse ...... you won't always. You'll get stronger ...... and so the grief will be easier to carry.
      That's what I wanted you to focus on. The hope.
      It will get easier to carry.
      There will be less waves.
      You may still get knocked down once in a while, but not nearly as much as you do now.
      So try to take it one day at a time. One hour at a time. Put one foot in front of the other. And know that some days you will travel one step forward, and three steps back. Yet other days ...... you will travel 3 steps forward ...... and no steps back.
      It's a journey.
      But it won't always be such a cold, dark and lonely journey.
      So have hope.

  11. So true. At 5+ years out, I can also attest to the part where it's safe to go back in the water. Beautifully written and expressed!

    1. Thank you Mel ...... for your input of your experience ...... and for your kind words.
      They matter.

  12. Great and helpful post! Do you by any chance know where that chart comes from - a book or anything? Thanks!

    1. Anon,
      Thank you for your encouragement. I spent about an hour Googling "grief chart", "grief graph" and "phases of grief", but I couldn't find it. I did find it a couple of years ago, but I didn't note the site.
      I know that it's out there ..... somewhere ...... but I just can't find it now.
      If you, or anyone else, does ...... please let me know where and I'll post it here.

  13. Just a word of caution here about the time line listed on that graph. I have been keeping a journal pretty much every day since the day my husband died suddenly in an accident. Although during this second year I felt like my grief was the worst ever, when looking back over my entries from the first weeks and months, nothing could exceed that exquisite and unremitting pain. The waves can be as high the second year, I agree, but I don't think they're higher (so those of you in the first year of this ordeal, don’t despair). I also think, when they hit (I just "celebrated" the second anniversary of my husband's death), they can drag you right back down to those depths where you hoped you'd never be again. BUT, and here's the important part, they don't hold you down quite so long, and you feel better in the in-between times. I work in public health, and the dogma for a long time has been that grief lasts some specified length of time, and then if you're not better there's something wrong with you. It is now becoming understood that that's not how it works - and I wouldn't want us to hold ourselves to some arbitrary date like two years, and feel betrayed or terrified if we don't miraculously stop getting completely slammed with grief at times even after that date. Here is my lame metaphor: the first year is like that moment right after you drop something heavy on your foot: all you can do is jump around screaming “ow, ow, ow!” You are stunned with pain. The second year, you are functional enough to poke at it and think about how damaged it is, and how you’ve lost your ability to walk, and to explore all the lovely dimensions of the pain. Not pleasant, but progress. That’s as far as I’ve gotten. Perhaps the third year, you learn to set the bone, stop the bleeding, and even (this is my wish) skip a little every now and then.

  14. Anon,
    Thank you for your input. As I said in my post, everyone's time line is different. There is no one way to grieve, nor is there one way to chart grief. And, in my opinion, grief never just gets easier to handle because we get stronger. There is no magic 2 year mark, just as there is no one year mark.
    But, ON AVERAGE, people who are grieving usually find that the 2nd year is more difficult than the first. Not all people who are grieving. There is no "all", "none", "everyone" or "no one" when it comes to grief.
    My post was just an attempt to let those who are in that second year and experiencing the pain without the shock and numbness know that what they feel is "normal". And for those who are not experiencing grief that way ..... that is also "normal". Grief is what it is.
    People who are in the first year should not be terrified of what is to come, because no one knows what's to come. But if they know that, on the average, the second year can be more difficult, then they won't be terrified if they fall into that "on the average" category. No one told me it would be worse. And so I thought that I would feel as bad as I felt for the rest of my life. And that thought was unacceptable. I'd rather be dead than feel that amount of loss, pain and depression for the next 40+ years. My goal, as always, was to let them know that IF they felt worse the second year ..... that was perfectly normal. To know that is HUGE. To know that it won't last forever is even bigger. And that was the next point.
    Grief is hard.
    It sometimes gets harder.
    But that hardest part will not last forever.
    And ...... there is hope with that last sentence.
    We all need hope.

  15. I wonder that maybe this response curve is delayed when the death is sudden as opposed to slow. I think I was numb for a full 18 months (he died in an accident)and now, at 2.5 years, the hopelessness has set in, and is very intense at times of stress, but still ebbs and flows. In fact, if I read back over the blog I wrote daily for over a year since the accident, my initial response was more along the lines of "magical thinking" before deteriorating as the numbness began to fade. That being said, I think if I just shift the scale on the bottom a bit, I can see that while the waves are high again right now, calmer seas are coming. Thanks Janine.

  16. Thank you Janine, your posts are helping me to understand what I am going through. I lost my first spouse when I was nineteen, after being married less than a year. Losing my second husband of 38 years has left me very hopeless. It has only been 16 months and I expected to be feeling better, which is not happening. I have so many raw emotions. I accepted a very challenging job at the 10 month mark and have spent the past five months being a robot with barely any time for myself. I have been in a numbed state. The only time I really face my grief is when I read yours and other's blogs. I am so grateful to have a place to learn how all of you cope with losing their spouse, I have a lot of confusion and fear that gets in the way of making decisions, all kinds. Well, sometimes it's paralyzing. So I use work as a safe place where I have to act as if everything is ok. When I return home, it is anything but. I have never seen a chart like this, but now I can give myself permission to allow myself to go through my own grieving process and that it's possible to survive and have hope.

  17. we need to put this graph on a t-shirt.

  18. This link has very good info. My only comment is the graph and wave of emotion is sometimes felt within seconds of a minute, and hours of a day, within days of a week and weeks of a month, months of a years and years within years. Always repeating over and over with little relief, and as soon as relief comes it is ripped away, just as before. How to live within this and find happiness..... All on your own!?

  19. This chart is so true - you start to live your life again and People say in the beginning that Time heals and you think what bollocks - but it is true - it is exactly how this blog describes grief as in the waves - you fight to struggle to stay afloat, then you manage it and everyone thinks you are ok, esp after a year and then it sweeps you again

    I'm at at 17mths and last week had a bad week and the graph shows this so well - the pain will never go away and the dark hole will always be the same, but as you start to get on with your life the dark hole gets surrounded by other things and seems smaller and less painful

  20. I agree with Anon above that there is some sort of clinically accepted conclusion that there IS a distinct timeline/pattern to grief and if we are still experiencing deep pain at such-and-such a date,(I believe experts say 18 months!)that we are labeled as "not healing as is customary" and there is something wrong with us. Don't the psychologists label it Complicated Grief, for which they want to medicate us? This is just wrong.
    I say Grieve on, sisters and brothers. Your body and mind are better timekeepers than any clinician's theory. Turn to this community for understanding and support when you need it when others fail you.