What does grief feel like?



Grief is personal.
You’ve probably read the 7 or 9 or whatever stages of grief but the truth is each person grieves differently and the stages happen in no particular order or not at all or all at once. When my dad died helpful people asked me why on Earth I wasn’t crying. I didn’t cry at all, not a single tear, for the first couple of weeks. After that I did, but never as much as would be considered by the general population the “correct amount”. Rather than sitting in a corner to sob what I wanted was to run. It was a fight; or a flight. It didn’t feel like I had lost someone. It felt like I was in danger.

The whole world is on another planet far, far away from yours.
It felt like time had slowed way down for me. I would compare it to being suspended under water, complete with muffled sounds, languid movement and refracted light. But the rest of the world keeps moving, fast, and the sheer frenzy of it exerts an unintended, relentless, exhausting pressure.

My dad died December 15, 2014, and through a few weeks that mostly felt unreal, everywhere I went cheery people would ask “how is your holiday going?” “What are you doing for New Years?” “Are you enjoying your time off?” and every time it caught me completely unprepared. It wiped me out.

Simple things can be hard.
We had to go through and sort my father’s things, his house, his clothes, his drawers and files. It might have been easier had we not felt like plunderers, invaders transgressing on a privacy he always guarded with such sacredness.

People tell you “things get better”.
You’d think this would bring someone solace. But here is the catch: in a way, your feelings are part of what is left of the other person. As such, you don’t want to get better. Not right away, anyway. Also, it feels like feeling better too quickly would be an act of betrayal. So saying “things will get better” can be an affront.

People say “don’t be sad”.
I don’t understand why we are so afraid of feelings. Happy is OK, but sad has to be “addressed”. It must “move on”. It calls for a “solution”. But sad is not a problem.

I’m sad, and I’m not ready to not be sad. I am going to sit here with my big bag of sad for as long as it wants to hang out with me. I consider sad to be essential. It respects the truth within me, and as such, it is beautiful.

(Of course I am not talking about clinical depression or a grief that has stayed with a person for whatever length is no longer “normal”. I am talking about natural feelings associated with losing someone you deeply loved and wanting to sort through every one in your own way. For clinical depression, talk to a doctor. I’m no doctor.)

People say “cheer up”. Or even “suck it up.”
I know they mean well, but this feels like you are being slapped. It’s a form of aggression. This sadness is mine, and you can’t touch it. So back off. But thank you.

You feel (and this is so horrible it hurts to write it) like you are going to forget the person that you lost.
It’s so shocking for a person to be there and then to not be there that it feels like everything they were will disappear. I fear I won’t remember my father’s voice or the glint in his eye or his clean smell or his soft white handkerchiefs or the way he put his foot up on something to tie his shoelace or the frequently astounding things he used to say when I asked for his opinion. 

So what does a grieving person want? For the whole world to grind to a halt? Why, yes. We want, in words of W.H. Auden, to “stop all the clocks.” We want “an airplane to scribble on the sky the message He is Dead”. We want “the stars put out, the moon packed up, the sun dismantled, the ocean poured away.” But we understand this isn’t reasonable, so ask instead for patience as we very slowly step back out into this new world that no longer includes a person who once determined its shape.