Good Grief! The Truth about Psychic Injury

People say there is not a right way to grieve and I agree, but I also believe there is a wrong way because I did it the wrong way once and can clearly see the impact of that on my life. I have had two significant episodes with grief during my life. I am not talking about losing a grandparent or dear friend who has reached the end of their natural life span and dies an expected death. I am talking about the kind of life altering grief that comes with an unexpected, tragic death. My mother died in a car accident when I was twelve. I struggled with grief for years. Actually, I take that back. I made grief my friend. I used it to drive me in fact. I was comfortable with it because it meant I didn’t have to let go of my mother and move on. The problem was there’s really no way to suppress one emotion and not the others. So, while I had a lid on the grief, there was also a lid on my ability to experience joy. Eventually, the trade-off wasn’t worth it. With the help of my husband and a good counselor, I was finally able to come to terms with my grief and find joy in my life and relationships again. However, when it came to my relationships, my people, I still operated under the false belief that if I took care of them well enough, loved them enough, made all the right decisions, that I would not lose the ones I loved again. Yeah, I know, irrational, but grief has an element of irrationality to it and without some objective checks and balances the grieving mind can convince itself of anything in order to feel safe and attempt to avoid being hurt by loss again.

This time was different. I knew I had made mistakes in how I previously dealt with grief, and I was determined to get it right. I began seeing a grief counselor the week after Paul died and continue to do so. I joined a grief group at church called GriefShare. I read books about grief. I confronted the painful stuff head on, early and often. I took a deep dive. Some people call this leaning in. I’ve worked hard at it, and the experience has been powerfully different.

Let’s talk about psychic injury. Grief is an injury to the brain, the psyche. You have been injured and steps must be taken in order to heal properly. When you break your leg, you get treatment, a cast, medication, physical therapy, and see a doctor regularly to monitor the healing process. Your brain, your psyche, needs the same attention. Grief can be defined as a transient state of mental disorder. In my opinion, that is fair. The word disorganization could be substituted for disorder. There is a fog that comes with grief. It is difficult to concentrate or think straight. In the early days after Paul’s death, several people told me grief comes in waves. I had no idea what they meant. Now, I do. In fact, sometimes, in my mind, I am standing on shore, and I can see the wave coming in the distance. There’s nothing I can do. It’s coming, and there’s nothing I can do to stop that wave of grief and overwhelming sadness any more than I could stop a real life wave coming toward shore on a day at the beach. It’s coming. The only real question is How long will I be under? How long will it toss and tumble me beneath the surface before I am able to come up for air. When the wave arrives, crashing through my mind and my life, some of the things I hear myself say frequently are “I don’t want to do this. I don’t want to do any of this!” and “My thoughts are not my own. Thoughts, images press in without being invited, and I can’t push them away.” My husband’s illness and death was traumatic, and I experience flashbacks. I have moments when I am back in his hospital room, and it is real. All of my senses are involved, and I can feel every moment of it again. I have learned that this is normal, and as time has gone on, the flashbacks are fewer and farther between. Grief can also be complex. It can be complicated by identity and attachment issues. I met my husband when I was very young having just turned eighteen years old. We spent 30 years together. A lot of my personal identity was wrapped up in our relationship. Complex grief apparently occurs when the departed and the bereaved were unusually close to one another. Hmmmm, I would say we definitely resemble that remark.

Here’s what you can do to take care of yourself while your psyche heals.

  • Rest as much as possible. Grief is exhausting! If you need medication to help you sleep, that’s ok, but do so with the intention of it being temporary. Put an expiration date on any medicinal intervention. Take time off from work as needed, if possible. If it’s not possible to take time off because, well, life happens, then make time during the day to have a mindfulness walk or a mindfulness moment. My mindfulness walks include three phases: gratitude, reflection on places where I have fallen short, and petitions.
  • Exercise is crucial. It doesn’t matter what it is, but consider something that is social because building new relationships and making new connections is also crucial. I enjoyed playing tennis before Paul passed away, and I made sure to continue, but I also started walking or running daily. I took it a step further and joined a local running club. I enjoyed yoga before Paul died, too, and continued that as well. ANY exercise you do will help in all kinds of ways. I even tried “goat yoga” and a kickboxing class! Talk about working out your emotions! My main tip here is to just not take it too seriously. You might have to make yourself do it, but you won’t regret it. You will feel better!
  • Eat healthy foods, or at least don’t eat too much junk food. Remember, your mind is in the midst of a healing process and needs good fuel.
  • Learn as much as you can about grief. Reading about the grieving process and listening to the perspectives of others can be very reassuring that your experiences, while unique, are a normal and natural part of being human. It is also reassuring to know that people do recover and you can, too!

If you are reading this blog and grieving the loss of a loved one, please know you are not alone. I am thinking of you, and praying for you!

Malia

Goat yoga!

About Paul – About Us

On February 12, 2018, I took my husband, Paul, to the hospital with severe abdominal pain. Three days later he was diagnosed with stage 4 adenocarcinoma. Cancer. Rare and aggressive, and on March 18, he passed away. He was brave and strong and faithful to the end.

When I met Paul, I had just turned 18. He had just turned 30. Now, I know what you are thinking because it’s what everyone thought. But thirty years later, our relationship had endured and born fruit, real fruit in our precious son and spiritual fruit in our own lives, and, hopefully, also in the lives of others. So, in that way, one of the first things he taught me, or tried to teach me, was not to be sooooo concerned with what everyone else thought and to chart my own course, our own course. That lesson has served me well. When I met Paul, I had never been west of Atlanta. That was the second lesson. Get out there! Learn new things, have new experiences, enjoy the world! He certainly did. Whether it was gardening in his own back yard or exploring new places, we always enjoyed it more when we were together. He was interested in and fascinated by the world…nature, science, history, people, how things worked. One of our first great adventures together was white water rafting. It was a beautiful summer day in Tennessee. I was excited but also nervous, and by the time we were in the raft and heading for the rapids, I was more than nervous. I was scared. He looked over at me, and it must have been written all over my face because he nudged me and said “Hey, you’re ok. It’s fun!”, and it wasn’t long before I was having the time of my life.

When I was with Paul, I was always having the time of my life. That’s how he was. He made everything more fun. He lit up the room. He had the easiest smile, and holy smokes, those dimples! One day during our hospital stay, a nurse asked how we met. We were telling her how our story began, and she turned to me and said, “You must have been helpless!” and the truth is, I was helplessly in love with him. He was the best thing that ever happened to me. His family took me in, and loved me as their own. His friends took me in, and loved me as their own.

Paul had a generosity of spirit that belied the personal struggles he had endured. He was always so quick to offer encouragement to others. He encouraged me in everything. He gave himself to others so completely. He loved working with kids. He was patient and understanding and lifted others up. He even offered encouragement to his doctors particularly students and young residents. He was intuitive and perceptive, and he had a powerful gift for changing others’ perception of themselves. He had that ability, that amazing ability to make people feel better about themselves. WOW!

He had a quick wit. Cancer took everything from him, his very life, but it could not take his sense of humor. He retained that until the end. He often had his doctors and nurses smiling and laughing. He drew people to him. Doctors, nurses, and technicians came to his room “just to visit”. He was always so easy to be around. Near the end, he woke only briefly from time to time. It was on one of these occasions that he asked for our son, but he had gone home for just a little while to shower and change clothes. I told Paul that he wasn’t there, but he would be back soon and that he was “stuck with me” in the meantime. Paul said, “It could be worse.” I replied, “Yes, I suppose it could be worse.” Not missing a beat, he responded, “There could be two of you”, and smirked. That was Paul, flattering but always reeling you back in.

Paul was not afraid of dying. He was tired of the struggle, and he was ready. He was sad about leaving us. He was worried about how we would manage without him. His last piece of advice to me, the last thing he had to teach me was this… “Now, Malia, you’re going to have to make some friends.”

Fred Rogers said, “The greatest thing that we can do is to help somebody know that they are loved and capable of loving.” And Paul certainly did that. Scott Hamilton, four time cancer survivor, said “We are designed for struggle. We’re better off. We are more in touch with who we are as individuals in the struggle much more than we are in our good fortune.” I have discovered that true healing has occurred when you can be thankful for the suffering, and I am thankful!

Introduction

“Paul had a generosity of spirit. He drew people to him. He was always so easy to be around and had such a great, if a little wicked, sense of humor! Paul loved to cook and go fishing. He loved being out on the boat, rivers, and beaches of the Lowcountry where his soul shined. He loved music, all kinds of music, but what he loved more than anything was his family. He was a devoted father to Aaron and an adoring husband to his wife of 26 years, Malia.”

That’s an excerpt from my husband’s obituary and this blog is about the grief process, but a death and the subsequent grief can take many forms. My mother died when I was twelve years old. My husband died. Those are physical deaths, but there are other types of death. The death of a relationship, divorce or uncoupling. The death of a dream, a career, a beloved pet, and we grieve those losses in ways very similar to the physical loss of a loved one.

This sharing so openly is not easy for me. I am by nature an introvert, not expressive. My friends and colleagues would tell you that I am a very private person, but writing this blog feels like a very necessary element of the grief and healing process. The transparency may be raw and painful at times, dear reader, but my hope is that something I write, something I share will somehow help someone else along the way.

Yours truly, Malia