There are a multitude of reasons why people suppress their grief. At the time of death, we don’t have the skills to process complex emotions, we lack healthy role models for grieving, or we see ourselves as the strong one in the family, so we’re stoic. We may have an acute or chronic medical illness or suffer with substance use disorder, or other mental illness challenges that consume our energy for mourning. We may be getting a divorce, moving, dealing with the estate of a lost loved one, or completing an important work project. Anything that distracts us causes delayed grief. Some of us just have a nagging sense that we haven’t fully grieved the loss. If we don’t talk about our grief, it isn’t going to disappear. We carry it in our bodies, and into the future.
Our loss may be re-triggered one, two, or twenty years later. Delayed grief can be triggered by many events: another loss, a book, a movie, a friend’s loss, or something as subtle as the way the sun glints off a snowbank just like it did the day our loved one died. The grief is intense and demands to be processed.
In 1981, I was a thirty-one-year-old nurse practitioner returning to work after the birth of my second child, Sarah. I’d been plagued with headaches, random panic attacks and profound fatigue. A fatigue so potent I thought that if I stopped and gave in to it, I’d die. Convinced I was physically ill, I had my blood drawn. But the labs came back normal. Normal! I was angry and confused. What’s wrong with me?
After I’d gotten the results of my blood panel, Sarah and I went to the grocery store and I had a panic attack. When we returned home, a severe thunderstorm held us captive in the car. I turned and studied my baby girl sleeping in her car seat. Captured by her innocence, I began to cry. As I turned to get a Kleenex from my purse, my eyes grazed the front of our house. Suddenly, I was gripped by something stronger than déjà vu. “Dear God,” I cried aloud. Is this what it’s all about? Here I am with another child, in front of another house, with another husband, but all my feelings belong to a different time, ten years earlier in 1971 when my first child died. I leaned over the steering wheel and sobbed. Visions of my abandoned past engulfed me.
In 1971, Ian was diagnosed with megakaryocytic leukemia, a rare, fatal disease. The doctor offered us the hope of remission, so we opted for chemotherapy. It was a nightmare, and Ian died ten weeks later at sixteen and a half months old. My husband left me four months later.
Ian’s death was steeped in silence. My family of origin didn’t cope well with Ian’s death. Showing vulnerable feelings was taboo. We never talked to each other; we talked around each other. Stress became a depolarized magnet pushing us apart. Ian’s name was spoken once, by my father. He told me that over time, I would forget Ian.
The first thing I did after Ian’s funeral was pack his toys and clothes in boxes and give them away. When my uncle had died, my mother and I’d done the same thing. Society seemed to agree. Get rid of painful reminders. Don’t dwell on it. Get busy! That’s how you survive.
I repressed my grief, and for ten years it became a shape shifter, wreaking havoc in my life in ways I didn’t understand. Within a few years I was able to talk to friends and colleagues about Ian’s death in a detached, clinical manner. I pushed children out of my life. I became an expert, telling others how to grieve their losses. Chronic anxiety and depression became lids fending off my grief as they siphoned life-giving energy from me. I forgot the date of Ian’s birth and the anniversary of his death. But every spring, the season in which Ian was diagnosed, underwent chemotherapy, and died, my body remembered. Everything from my fingertips down to my toes ached, even my scalp hurt to touch. Like the general malaise one feels with a fever or the flu, a mysterious illness enveloped me. I had acquired a visceral response to spring.
When the grief resurfaced, I vowed to embrace it. I had tried to grieve Ian’s death on my own; my will stretched and strained and finally pushed me out from beneath a blanket of despair. I had grieved Ian’s death! I held that thought like a trophy with my name engraved upon it.
I decided to look for a therapist. I realized that knowing when you need help is very deep wisdom. I didn’t want Sarah to grow up with a mother who was emotionally distant from her because she couldn’t access her own feelings.
I gained many insights. Although it’s not talked about very often, delayed grief is common. Embracing our unresolved grief is a sign of strength—not weakness. A mark of good health. Like my unresolved grief, it’s common for grief to manifest as physical symptoms.
I set the intention to say a final goodbye to Ian, and establish a relationship with him based on the reality of his death.When my therapist recommended a grief group, I balked. I thought that the group would judge me given how much time had passed. I couldn’t have been more wrong. They welcomed me with open arms. When it was my turn to speak, I sobbed and repeated the words, “My baby, my baby, my baby.” Eventually, I stopped crying and was able to spit out a few details. I sat before the group, hulled. When I looked into the eyes of those surrounding me, I saw pools of empathy and knew that amongst strangers I’d found a home.
I learned many things. The only way to heal grief is to feel it. And healing takes place within community, not in isolation. Witnessing members courageously express their raw emotions, I redefined strong, as real strength is gained through vulnerability, not in being stoic. The grief group brought my repressed feelings to the surface. Things I’d forgotten about or was reluctant to think about were brought up by others. As I told my story aloud, I saw where I’d gotten hung up.
I had to confront many issues: my magical thinking, my habit of doggedly asking myself “what if?” questions, my anger, and my guilt for allowing Ian to go through chemotherapy.
Magical thinking is connecting two unrelated events causally and making an invalid conclusion. She explained how she thought the fight she’d had with her daughter the night of her accident had caused the collision. I realized I, too, had magical thinking. Two weeks before Ian’s diagnosis, I dreamt I was single, happy, and free. I thought the dream had caused Ian’s cancer. Now I saw how irrational that conclusion was.
I asked myself “what if?” questions. What if we hadn’t treated Ian? Would he have suffered less? What if I had demanded that the medical staff stop Ian’s chemotherapy? What if Ian had been allowed to die at home, rather than in a sterile, cold hospital? As I watched other people struggle with “what if?” questions, I realized how common my struggle was. However, these questions are futile, and dwelling on them stops us from healing.
I confronted my anger. I was like a junkyard dog straining at a leash every time my husband and I fought. Anger was the only acceptable emotion in my family, and I’d bonded to it. Rage gave me a false sense of control. In truth, when I was in a rage, I forfeited my self-control, the ability to think clearly and rationally, and to experience personal growth. My husband, John, was a good role model. When angry, he could talk directly about the issue, without yelling. In order to process my anger over Ian’s death, John bought me a punching bag and hung it in the basement. I pounded on the bag until I touched the sadness beneath my rage and sobbed.
I felt tremendous guilt about choosing chemotherapy for Ian because it only caused more suffering. My therapist recommended that I embrace and talk to the twenty-one-year-old within me, so I could begin to forgive her. Although it was out of my comfort zone, I did it anyway. In my mind I engaged in a conversation with my younger self several times a week. I realized she was forced to make a choice about chemotherapy the same day that Ian was diagnosed with cancer. It was too soon to make a decision, but the doctor had said it was urgent. Young Jacqueline hadn’t known anyone who’d gone through chemotherapy, so she had no frame of reference. She didn’t have the wisdom or perspective I had at thirty-one. I began to see how scared and alone she was. Her parents visited the hospital every other weekend. There were no regular visitors. I praised her for being an attentive mother. She had gone to the hospital every day until she was forced to leave the station at bedtime. She had done everything a good parent could do. Finally, I hugged and forgave myself.
I spent a little over a year in the grief group and processed many memories. In the spring of 1983, I knew I had two more steps to take in my journey. I wanted to return to the hospital where Ian had died, so I could read through his chart, remember his birthday, and acknowledge the anniversary of his death. Next, I wanted to return to the station where Ian had died. Through these rituals, I set the intention to say a final goodbye to Ian, and establish a relationship with him based on the reality of his death.
Because I had felt so alone, I asked a nurse, Sue, to accompany me. Sue worked at the hospital where Ian had died and was able to retrieve his chart. In the front of the record there were well-baby notes about a healthy, happy little boy. I didn’t recognize this Ian. I thought I was given the wrong medical record. Then, I had an astounding revelation. When I blocked out the bad memories, I’d blocked out the good memories with them.
Next, Sue and I visited the hospital station where Ian had died. The station looked the same. After we toured the station and I’d shared memories, I realized that Ian was no longer suffering. When Ian died, I’d picked up his pain and carried it with me for a decade. Knowing Ian was at peace, I could let go of my anguish. I left the hospital filled with sadness and gratitude. Sadness for all I had lost and gratitude for the capacity to begin again.
Jacqueline Werket. Please send your First Person articles to email@example.com.
Last Updated on September 14, 2023