My Grief Has Taken Centre Stage

"No one ever told me that grief felt so much like fear.”  - C. S. Lewis

When I received the invitation to my friend’s birthday party my first thought was to politely decline. I knew this friend was one of the few who would really understand. After all, she is one of my safe people  (I’m very blessed to have 5 of them) with whom I can be completely open and honest, without fear and without having to measure or sanitise what I am thinking or feeling).

Part of me wanted to try being around other people in a nice and relaxed setting, celebrating a good friend who means so much to me. It did take a lot of mental preparation and positive self talk to get my mind and my body to push through the fear and anxiety of going out to a party. Ordinary things that I would’ve done without batting an eyelid, such as putting make-up on, choosing an outfit, driving there, getting out of the car, entering the venue and greeting people, have become frightening mammoth tasks with huge anxiety triggering potential.

Plastering a smile on my too heavily made-up face and overly conscious of my dresses’ V line, I recite a familiar inner monologue as my clammy hand reaches out to grab a glass of wine: “Don’t talk about grieving...don’t mention that your husband died 21 months and 8 days ago… don’t crack when people ask ‘how are you’… don’t be a party pooper…”

A small group of friends are happy to see me. They chat away, but I am too preoccupied with my heart drumming fast inside my chest and the sweat pouring out of my armpits to engage with their talk. Someone makes a joke about better put a holt to their joyous conversation and reluctantly return to their husbands’ side. They all laugh. I don’t.

“You look well…” Someone says “ You look really well. It's great to see you out, enjoying yourself. Do you think you are over all the stages of grief?”

“Stages of grief?” I am confused and not sure how to answer. “No. I haven’t...”

“Yet” is his quick reply. “You will, I can tell you are on your way to mending… you look well.”

I reach for another glass of wine thinking "Is there drinking yourself into oblivion stage of grief?

People often talk to me about the five stages of grief. Elizabeth Kübler- Ross came up with this theory based on her work experience with terminally ill patients. The five stages are supposed to be experienced chronologically: first denial, second anger, then bargaining, followed by depression and finally acceptance. It’s widely believed that a grieving person, who is suffering from depression and anxiety due to the death of a loved one, will experience those stages in a linear, chronological and hopefully sanitised and fuss-free pattern. And once you go through all the stages (which should take about one year), you will bounce back to your normal self again, and life will as good as gold. This cannot be further from the truth.

The Kugler-Ross model is a theory designed to suggest a progression of the emotional states experienced by those who were facing their own death. Later in her life, Kübler-Ross noted that the stages are not a linear and predictable progression and that she regretted writing them in a way that was misunderstood."Kübler-Ross originally saw these stages as reflecting how people cope with illness and dying," observed grief researcher Kenneth J. Doka, "not as reflections of how people grieve.

The stages of grief were meant to help those who are dying not for those who have to carry on living after the death of someone significant for them. This is not to say that I personally haven’t felt denial, anger, depression and all the rest. I do wrestle with those emotions on a regular basis. But they are not clear cut as what people think. I may experience the five stages of grief in any given day, jumping like a circus flea from one to five, to three, to one again, and so on and so forth.

That is because grief is not limited to five emotional stages. Grief can also trigger remorse for what should or shouldn’t, gratitude for the good moments, extreme sadness for all the losses with the big loss, and the list goes on. For me, grief also brought a lot of anxiety and fear. So much fear. And the fear that is constantly present manifests itself through anxious thoughts and panic attacks.

For people who never experience the trauma of losing the love of their life, or a child, or a parent, or a best friend, or a favourite cousin or uncle, or grandparent, it can be hard to understand and hard to empathise.

It’s not a mind over matter thing. It's not a choice to be stuck or unstuck. It’s not a lack of motivation. It’s grief, and grief, with all its complexities, cannot be explained, treated or fixed, it can only be experienced.

It would be much easier if the five stages of grief were an applicable formula, but grief doesn’t play by the rules and it doesn’t give a shit about anyone else’s expectations. My grief doesn’t manifest itself in a simple progression through set stages. My grief has taken the centre stage. It has changed the arch of my story and it doesn’t behave according to the ‘proper’ script. From the point of no return, when grief entered my life’s stage, it has constantly introduced new plot twists filled with a myriad of emotions, challenges and distresses, of which anxiety and fear play the roles of cruel villains.

But I am also aware that in any good story, a villain is a character whose evil motives and actions are important to the plot. Behind every great hero, there is a great villain. So in the moments when I feel calm and the anxieties are a bay, I dare to believe that the villains are playing an important role in shaping me to become someone who can rise to the challenges, someone who may be able to show empathy and care for others, someone who is resilient enough to carry the weight of grief.

In her book Anxiety: the missing stage of grief, author and psychologist Claire Bidwell-Smith states: “Anxiety that stems from loss is more common than most people realise. When someone we love dies, our world turns upside down on multiple levels. The shock of everything that comes with losing someone significant is a powerful catalyst for all the feelings of fear and dread that constitute anxiety… you are not alone in experiencing anxiety after loss. Your loss could have happened just months ago, or you could still be grappling with the effects of a loss that occurred years earlier. Losing someone we love is an experience that stays with us all of our lives, and the broader implications of a significant loss can manifest in all manner of life changes and behavioural and emotional triggers.”

Knowing that anxiety and fear are common in grief and that many people wrestle with them, has helped me to not feel so down on myself. I am not sucking at grieving, I am not losing the plot. On the contrary, I am finding ways to re-write my story, to survive, to cope with the anxiety, and to find the courage to show up and celebrate the good moments of life with people who matter to me, even if I have to do it afraid.

Tatiana Hotere