By: Ellen Frankel, LCSW
“Things break all the time. Glass, and dishes, and fingernails. Cars and contracts and potato chips. You can break a record, a horse, a dollar. You can break the ice. There are coffee breaks and lunch breaks and prison breaks. Day breaks, waves break, voices break. Chains can be broken. So can silence and fever. Promises break. Hearts break. Fault lines: these are the places where the earth breaks apart, these are the spots where earthquakes originate, where volcanoes are born. Or in other words: the world is crumbling under us; it’s the solid ground beneath our feet that’s an illusion.”
— Jodi Picoult
A few years back, I was listening to a client as she reflected on the loss of her mother, and likened her grief to an earthquake. Her analogy resonated in my head as well as my heart. Soon after, I was speaking with a woman who is grieving the death of her 18-year-old son. She shared with me that during her first year of mourning, she felt pulled to travel to India and Nepal, and, having spent time in both places myself, we talked at length about both her grief and the spiritual pull of these lands. At one point, she shared that she was in Nepal at the time of the 2015 earthquake. Later that day, as I reflected on loss, I realized that the grief process is like an earthquake with a series of five seismic shifts.
When someone we love dies, it is as if the once solid ground beneath our feet falls away.
Whether the death of our loved one is sudden or expected, it is shocking and we shake with the disbelief that the line between life and death has been crossed. Sometimes it is difficult to stand, and our knees buckle as we collapse to the ground that suddenly feels like it can no longer provide support; it may feel like the floor will continue falling out from under us, and refuse to let us land. Perhaps we reach for something to hold on to as we struggle to get our bearings in a world that has been turned upside down. Our loved one was here, and now he/she is gone. The world we knew and trusted has been so profoundly altered that it may feel like we are falling through an abyss, and nothing will ever feel solid and safe again. The walls come crashing down, and we tremble in fear and in grief.
After the initial shaking of the quake stops, we must be mindful of aftershocks. We step outside and now feel the Earth beneath our feet. We take our first tentative steps. Calls to share the news; decisions that must be made; plans for a funeral or memorial service, all while we try to move in a world that is much less solid than we once thought. As we continue living in the world without our loved one physically present, we experience aftershocks of their death: Parents who watch their child’s friends go to prom and attend high school graduation, while their own daughter will never have the chance to buy her prom dress or don her graduation gown; the woman who reports, “it’s a world of couples,” as she experiences the loneliness of weekends since her husband died the previous year. When we grieve the death of a loved one, we are often grieving both their death and the future we imagined they would have, and we would have with them. When we toss a pebble in a pond, we can watch the ripples that pebble creates. Those concentric circles are like the aftershocks in our grief. In the center is the primary loss of our loved one, and those concentric circles are like the aftershocks in our grief of all of the secondary losses that occur. Just as we mourn the death of our loved one, so too must we mourn the secondary losses, the loss upon loss, the grief upon grief.
We now live on a fault line. Grief is not linear. It is much more like a roller coaster and we experience various grief reactions on the physical, emotional and spiritual levels. We may feel it in our emotional sadness, as we release sacred tears of grief. We may feel it in our bodies, as we have trouble sleeping or eating, or experience headaches along with our heartaches. Maybe we feel our loss on the spiritual level as we question what we hold true, perhaps we move toward religion, or move away from it. We often become acutely aware of the new fault line on which we live during, “the year of firsts,” and the grief symptoms we had already been experiencing may become exacerbated at various points. When it’s the holiday season with parties and celebrations and the cultural pressure to “be of good cheer” abounds, the person in grief is navigating the first Thanksgiving, or Christmas or Hanukkah without their loved one present. Those mourning will experience their loved one’s birthday, yet instead of turning 22, or 52 or 102, they will say, “he/she would have been 22, or 52 or 102. There are anniversaries, and Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, and there is, what one client of mine named, the Anti-Versary; the date of their loved one’s death. These new fault lines are often challenging, while at the same time, new ways of loving and honoring the person you are grieving often emerge. New traditions develop, often by finding ways of loving in separation rather than presence. Maybe a chair is set at the table for your loved one, or a special toast is made, or everyone at the table is invited to share a memory of the person they are grieving. It’s been said that a person dies two deaths. Once when they physically leave this world, and once when their stories stop being told. These fault lines, while often painful, can also become a built in source of remembering and sharing stories of the loved one, providing opportunities for finding meaning in mourning.
An assessment of the landscape must be made. There is no timeline for grief. What might be true for one person may or may not hold true for another, and this holds true in the emotional as well as logistical experience of grief. One mourner visits his wife’s grave every day; another hasn’t been back to the cemetery since the burial a year ago. One woman joins a support group to share her grief with others while another woman reports that the idea of sitting with others and talking about their losses feels like a terrible way to spend an evening. Some people want to be around others, and some want to be alone, and some want a little of both. Well-intentioned family members and friends might tell those grieving what they should or should not do. It’s important to listen to the voice within to move through this new landscape in a way that supports the individual’s grief journey, regardless of the advice of others about what they should do, and when they should do it. While some report feeling lighter after cleaning out their loved one’s closet, another reports that it’s been a year since her death and he continues to find comfort opening the closet and seeing his wife’s clothes in place. While those in grief must face the new landscape at home, they must also face the new landscape outside. A young woman I work with who is grieving the death of her husband has been experimenting with going back to the places she and her husband loved. Can she walk into her and her husband’s favorite restaurant with a friend? Or is that too much for her at this point? Another woman wrestles with whether she can walk by the playground she used to take her son to, where he loved to swing on the swings. For many, the landscape might look like it has always looked. The restaurant is still standing with diners going in and out, the playground is still full of the shouts of children. But to the grieving person, the landscape is altered; the restaurant or the playground holds memories so great and so dear and so sharp. They are so much more than restaurant and playground. While the earthquake shifted the world for those in its wake, who are now bearing witness to the unbearable pain of loss, for others not affected by the Earth’s tremors at that time, the landscape appears unshaken. A while back I heard that in a village in Fiji, when someone dies, the town square flies a flag to mark the passing. But what truly touched me was what I learned next. Once the villagers have learned of the death, everyone goes home to change something in their house to symbolically mark this death. For example, a vase is moved from one table to another, or a photo is moved to another room, all to signify that a death in the town has occurred and nothing is the same as it was.
We must move through the pain of the rubble and find our foundation. At some point, we must explore the rubble and look under the rocks of destruction, despite how scary this may feel. We need to take in what we lost, and also to touch what remains. What needs to be cleared out, what is too unstable and unsafe to keep, and what feels like a solid step from which to begin rebuilding? Perhaps the foundation we choose to work with has many cracks, but feels like a solid place to begin. Maybe just sitting on that foundation with its cracks for a while is enough. After all, it is the cracks that let in the light. A Chassid rabbi once said, “There is nothing so whole as a broken heart.” And so now, we move forward in the task of rebuilding with the intention of honoring the past as we move toward our sacred future. A client who was grieving the death of her adult daughter once told me that friends would tell her, “You’ll get over the grief.” She told me she said to them “I will never get over the grief, but I will move through it.” She understood that her life would be forever changed, and that she wouldn’t want it any other way. When we can hold our own pain in such a way, when we can honor it and speak our truth about it, we can grow in new and unexpected ways. Rumi, the 13th Century Sufi Mystic said:
“My heart is so small, it’s almost invisible. How can You place such big sorrows in it?
“Look,” He answered, “your eyes are even smaller, yet they behold the world.”
Part of the grieving process is to find the sparks within the darkness, the treasures within the rubble, to stand on a ground that you now know has the potential to shift, and to still shout out “YES!” to the world, and to your place in it, as you carry your loved one in your broken, whole heart.
Ellen Frankel, LCSW is the bereavement coordinator at All Care Hospice and the author of numerous books including both non-fiction and fiction. To learn more about grief support offerings at All Care Center for Grief and Loss call Ellen at 781-244-1198 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.