Last week someone asked me what has been the most unexpected part of grieving for Robert. Thought it such a great question, as until Robert died I thought I knew a little bit about intense grief. I had as a young child experienced my grandparents dying within a month of each other, then there was anticipatory grief before my father died of dementia, and then the death of Robert’s sister, my beloved sister-in-law. All were tough but nothing like the grief I am now feeling. This grief is so painful, so hard and really will last forever. So to be asked to share what it feels like meant a lot. For a moment I didn’t know how to reply, and then all I could think of were the physical symptoms. These had been so unexpected.
- Brain Fog – in the first few months the feeling of disorientation, forgetfulness, inability to concentrate and the mental fog was with me virtually all the time. There were moments – such as a couple of hours in the morning when I could make calls and do some paperwork but it was limited. I wasn’t that surprised by the mental fog in those first few months. What was unexpected is that it is still with me over 9 months later. Somehow I thought after 6 months it would magically dissipate. It doesn’t. It might lift slightly, but that ability to juggle loads throughout the week, to spend day after day on the computer and handle complex paperwork has gone for now. And from what I have read about intense grief is that this is perfectly normal, and actually I am doing incredibly well this early into my grief.
- Weight of grief – it really is a thing. There are days when I can physically feel it on my shoulders pushing down, and there have been moments when it has actually crushed me to the floor. I cope by acknowledging it, and then depending on the weight either resting or going for a short walk.
- Aches and pains – in the days and weeks leading up to and following anniversaries and special days my hip bursitis and arthritis in my hands is much worse. I have cushions and mattress toppers to help minimize, and ‘devil’s claw’ ointment works a treat. Rest is also essential when there are bad flare ups, but otherwise walking is one the things that really help. In the past I would also have tried my pilates, but that’s a type of movement and exercise I still find very difficult to do emotionally. Who knew that grief appears in the body and affects movement like this. I didn’t until now, but it’s quite normal.
- Tinnitus – if I don’t build into my week sufficient time for rest and self care my tinnitus flares up. For me it sounds like an HGV is outside the house, or maybe an airplane flying over. It is incredibly loud and debilitating. Fortunately I am able to make it go away quickly now by simply acknowledging the noise and then doing some form of self care to manage the stress in my body. Self care varies day to day but include watching a film, having a luxurious bath, listening to an audio book (still can’t read books!), using aromatherapy, eating chocolate and even baking. So if you know someone in early grief do send them care packages, even months later it will help.
- Noise sensitivity – over Christmas I struggled with the family having the TV on and talking. It felt so overwhelming, I had to leave the room frequently. I’ve also noticed that some friends I am avoiding because they speak loudly. I recall it being something Robert struggled with lots, and it almost feels like he has passed this on to me!
- Anxiety attacks – around three months they were occurring regularly whenever I had something planned outside of the house, was asked to make a future plan, deal with something complex or a visitor to the house was delayed. They were awful. Fortunately they are less frequent now. My bereavement counsellor suggested I told people that I might need to say no at short notice, and also share the impact of them being delayed so they kept me updated. This immediately took the pressure off, and consequently the attacks now only occur occasionally in those circumstances. With regards future planning and paperwork it’s 50/50 as to whether or not anxiety hits, and I simply have to listen to the body and take it slow. Again who knew though grief did this.
- Broken heart – there were a couple of days in the third, maybe fourth month as the shock began to wear off when I felt intense pain. It was like a knot had suddenly formed or something was breaking inside. I knew it was grief.
- Eyesight – I have had them checked and the optician advises very little change since last check up. However I find I am struggling much more with small print, and they often feel tired. After a particularly challenging day, when the tears don’t stop, then they ache.
- Sleeping patterns – sleep, until now, has never been a problem for me. I now have to have a really strict nighttime routine and use audio books to help me fall back to sleep if I wake in the night. But even with all of this some weeks it is broken night after broken night. I did use sleeping tablets immediately following Robert’s death, and I suspect I will be using them again as the year anniversary gets ever closer.
- Exhaustion – this one is obviously connected to poor sleep but also it is as a direct result of the trauma and the day to day living with intense grief. Getting up and doing things is surprisingly tiring, and some days I simply have to go back to bed to rest or even sleep. Early intense grief is like a chronic health condition.
I really hope you don’t get to discover how hard this is mentally and physically. But if you have become a member of this community, then my heart aches for you.
I’ve been fortunate as right from the start, I have had access to fantastic bereavement counselling, and I have also discovered some great grief books and online grief communities. This has meant that whilst the physical symptoms are unexpected and extremely challenging, I at least now know they are all perfectly normal. Intense grief is a full body experience, and given mine started with a sudden traumatic experience, it is not surprising that I have many. Fortunately, although I am not sure how, I am functioning at a basic level most days even when all the symptoms are present.
It is though going to take time for my body to physically ‘repair’ from the trauma of what occurred, and some of my symptoms may never leave. It is also going to take time to build my mental and emotional resilience. In time I will hopefully begin to figure out who the new me is and what my new life without Robert will look like. Both it and me are going to be different from what I was and from what I had envisaged for my future. That change is why words like healing, recovery and moving on are so challenging. I cannot return to what I was, my world has irrevocably altered. Phrases which reflect that I now live with and carry grief make more sense and most importantly make me feel heard.
This post is a reminder to myself and the world around me that there is no urgency for me to evolve and that there is also no time limit on grieving. This is my grief and my experience, and it is as unique and extraordinary as my love for Robert. I do wish though it wasn’t quite so hard some days.
PS I have turned off comments deliberately as today I need to share without judgement or comment.