The Roller Coaster of Grief

Dear Dr. Neimeyer.

Today marks eight months since I lost my husband. He was only 46 years old. I still am having a difficult time realizing he is not coming back. The first few months after he was gone, I had to leave work every single day at lunch to cry in my car and I mean really cry and sob like a baby. I had an overwhelming crushing pain. I just loved my best friend so much and miss him more as more time goes on.

So, here is my question: Is it normal to still feel that crushing pain at times? Sometimes something will trigger a memory of my husband and out of blue, boom I have a sneak attack of grief and cry almost as if it is happening again–that deep, painful cry. There are certain songs that make me really sad and I can go to a dark place and get really down. The next day I feel fine, then the next day I don’t. I never know from day to day how I will feel.

I do feel much stronger than in the first few months. I do at times though have intrusive thoughts; such as seeing the doctors trying to resuscitate my husband, or seeing him lying there after he passed, etc. Is this something I should talk to my counselor about? I do see a counselor and that does seem to help, but I’m not sure if there is anything that can help with these unwanted memories. Well, I guess that is two questions.

Thank you kindly,

Yvette

Dear Yvette,

Just as you describe and as countless bereaved people can attest, grief is a roller coaster of emotions, with unpredictable ups and downs from one day to the next, sometimes seemingly random, and sometimes in response to triggers or reminders of the loss. My friend and colleague Therese Rando talks about these “sneak attacks” of distress as “STUG reactions,” which stands for “Sudden Temporary Upsurges of Grief,” waves of painful emotion that wash over us with something like their original intensity, even long after the loss occurred. Importantly, however, these typically become less frequent as the months go on, with more “good days” than “bad” as we consolidate a “new normal.”

In light of this, what might you do to track or facilitate your progress in adaptation? One idea would be to keep a simple “grief monitoring diary,” in which you record your mood on a 0-10 scale each day, with 0 representing no experience of grief, and 10 equalling the most anguishing grief you have ever felt, making a simple rating by entering this number on your calendar each day. Be sure to do this at about the same time each day, as you may find, as many bereaved people do, that their mood changes as the day goes on (for example, waking up feeling depressed, but having this lighten as they move actively into their routine). Alternatively, you could record your average or peak level of grief for the day just before going to bed at night. Whichever of these systems you adopt, you can readily chart your progress just by adding up the numbers for each week, and see how these go up or down across a period of a few months. Very likely what you’ll find is that the “light grief” days will grow more common, and that the average daily grief will reduce as you move forward.

A second idea goes beyond monitoring to setting an intention. That is, rather than wait to be blindsided by a “sneak attack” of grief, invite it in. That is, set aside a few specific times each week to spend with your grief–times that you will not be disturbed, and can give your mourning its due. For example, you might choose a few periods of an hour each to spend with memorabilia or photos of your husband, write an AfterTalk letter to him, journal, or listen to music that was special to you both. Then schedule in advance a time to end this experience, and shift back into daily life by taking a vigorous walk, joining a friend for a movie, or going out for a meal. By intentionally shifting attention alternately to your loss and your life you will gradually gain more control over when and how you grieve, without simply trying to repress or eliminate it. Ultimately, feeling more comfortable with moments of mourning should result.

Finally, you ask about dealing with the specifically troubling thoughts and images of your husband during his failed resuscitation and while lying on his death bed, and whether this is something worth working on with your counselor. I strongly support your intuitive sense that this could be both helpful and necessary, inviting a prolonged exposure to these scenes by a counselor familiar with such interventions for traumatic memories. Essentially, this would involve creating a safe relationship and “container” for a close review of the images and thoughts, along with the strong and probably painful emotions they trigger. By doing to for a significant period (of 15 minutes or more, perhaps on multiple occasions), the memories can begin to lose much of their anguishing intensity without being erased. In other words, courageous willingness to invite and “sit with” the images, rather than trying to avoid them, can begin to replace misery with mastery, and reinforce your resilience in the wake of loss.

Dr. Neimeyer

One comment on “The Roller Coaster of Grief

  1. My husband passed away on June 25th this year. I understand completely the roller coaster of grieving. I was shielded (by my son who is haunted by the memory) from the rescue workers in our living room working on my husband. He had not been ill, but had an mri two weeks before because he was not able to remember things well. He passed from a stroke and/or brain bleed (they weren’t sure which happened first). They said the blood surrounded the brain and was going into the spine.
    I feel so empty at times. I still look for him to come into work at lunch on certain days. I know he won’t but it was a routine .
    I do set aside times to purposely remember and grieve, but sometimes I get ambushed by a thought, a smell, a voice or a phrase. My 7 yr old grandson is having a more difficult time. He is seeing a behavior therapist, but I told my daughter, he needs a grief counselor. I got my grandson a note book for him to write Poppy about anything he wants. And a sketchbook to draw him pictures. It has helped a little, but he is still angry.
    Thank you for your advice. And God bless.

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