Grief Part Three: It’s Hugs All the Way Down

Being an in-law is weird. Legitimately weird. You find the person that you want to spend the rest of your life with and that’s wonderful, but there are relationships attached to that person. For good or ill, you get an additional family to the one you grew up with. I am lucky to have lovely in-laws. We get along quite well and like each other. But it is still true that I didn’t grow up with the people that I have been related to for the last five years.

Normally, this is not a problem. Death is not a normal situation and thus weirdness ensues.  But not, interestingly, from the family itself.

I am in the curious position of being an inside outsider. I am close to the family but not intimate with it. In spite of knowing them for ten years, I have less history with my in-laws than any of the friends my husband grew up with. And there are a lot of friends. A. Lot. Of. Friends.

When a bereavement happens, friends tend to hug you. I have no problem with this. I am very fond of getting and receiving hugs. Any of my friends can attest to this. It turns out, I have a caveat: I need to know the person first. Now, there are a lot of people down here that I do know. I’ve hung out with many of my husband’s childhood friends and I consider them friends as well. This caveat does not apply to them; it applies to those I’ve met maybe twice and even then only to say hello.

To me, physical contact is a very important thing and should not be used if you are not already on good terms with the person in question. Part of this is from being an introvert, part from being shy, and part from “oh no, why are you touching me, please don’t do that!” I did not know this about myself, but hugs from strangers cause a stress reaction in me. I suppose that shouldn’t come as a surprise.

Physical contact is one of my love languages. I am keenly aware that it is not everyone’s and thus do not use it lightly. If I don’t feel comfortable around you, or more to the point, if I’m not absolutely sure you are ok with it, I won’t do anything beyond a handshake or a high-five. Boundaries are important to me and I do my best to respect others’. When a stranger hugs me, that boundary is not being respected. And that is super stressful.

Now, I realize that is not the intent. The intent can fall under two categories, as far as I can tell. First, the hugger could be trying to grant some comfort to the bereaved. That is understandable (though I can think of a number of ways to get a better result). I have noticed that no one seems to know what to do for a bereaved family and if a hug is what you can think of, it makes sense.

The second option is slightly more speculative. The hugger might be trying to receive solace from the bereaved. It’s not that I suspect selfishness on the part of the hugger. You have to keep in mind that while the family is arguably the most affected, a death in the community affects everyone. We are by no means the only ones who need comfort. So in the act of a hug, a person might be trying to create a moment of togetherness by which the healing process can start. If this is the case, I doubt it’s a conscious thought.

The memorial is on Friday. I’m probably going to get hugged a lot, mostly by strangers. And I won’t pull away, because I know it’s coming from a place of love. But please, if you tangentially know someone who’s lost someone, don’t hug them. It may not be beneficial.

Grief Part Two: Shock Value

The morning that Molly died, I went into shock. From what I can tell, this is a fairly normal reaction to emotional trauma. My brain was trying to protect me from additional damage by shutting down some of my normal reactions. As a result, I experienced numbness, derealization, fatigue, anxiety and some flashbacks. I was prepared for everything but the numbness.

Shock isn’t all bad. Like I said above, it’s a defensive reaction. It helps you deal with trauma slowly, bit by bit, in a way that’s more manageable (and hopefully not crippling like it would be otherwise). But each symptom has its upsides and downsides. The rest of this post will be an overview of what I was/am feeling, and how that is affecting me in various ways.

Flashbacks were the least frequent problem. It only happened once or twice. I have no idea what the purpose of a flashback is outside of storytelling. In a story, it gives you pertinent information and backstory. In real life, it’s reliving an (often) horrible experience. I’ve had them before, after my husband was hospitalized from an acute asthma attack a few years ago. Flashbacks are not fun. In me, they tend to inspire panic. Happily, that didn’t happen this time.

Anxiety is my constant companion, so I don’t think this can really be attributed to shock. Next.

I didn’t really know that fatigue is a thing that can happen from grief. It makes sense, though. There is a LOT of stress involved with this whole situation. Stress is tiring, Q.E.D. I have had the fun combination of anxiety is keeping me up at night, compounding the fatigue problem, making me take naps, which then makes me stay up later… Yeah. Not awesome.

Did you know that when someone dies, you keep thinking that they are simply in another room or out at a store? It’s bizarre. I know intellectually that she’s gone, but it’s like I keep forgetting. I suppose it helps me not be sad all the time. When I remember, though, it might make me more sad than if I never forgot. I can’t be sure as I don’t have experience with things the other way. I wonder if my brain just can’t accept that she’s gone. I don’t know. Maybe it takes time to change mental habits. Whatever it is, it is jarring.

I said up top that I wasn’t prepared to be numb. Now, I realize that I should have expected that particular reaction, as it’s on all the lists for grief. But I didn’t. Rather, I was desperately hoping that it would not happen.

To understand why, I need to go back a ways. I have what you might call a depressive personality. I don’t have depression, but I do suffer from dejection, worthlessness, worry, guilt, and self-criticism to the point where I probably could be diagnosed with something. Through a lot of therapy, books, and time, I’ve improved to where it’s no longer crippling and I haven’t been suicidal for years. But it’s still there under the surface.

The worst thing was being numb. To me, numbness means that I no longer care what happens to me. It tells me that I’m about to do something very, very stupid because I always got numb when things got too hard. Any time that I feel numb, for any reason, panic starts to rise in the back of my brain. Thoughts start to float through my brain that say, “This time you aren’t going to pull out of it,” “See? You aren’t any better,” “What if you don’t get to feel joy ever again?” etc, etc. It’s an endless monologue in my head of fear.

My mind can’t tell the difference between a normal and an abnormal reason for being numb. So it just reacts as though my world is crumbling to pieces. In a very real way, it is. Everything that I have tried to overcome in the last 15 years gets shattered by one tiny emotion. That is truly and deeply terrifying.

I realize that my reaction is not a normal one and that the majority of people won’t have that particular reaction to being numb. This is teaching me that there are reactions to grief that I never even considered. My past makes my experience of grief different from the other people around me. So theirs makes it different for them. Dealing with grief, it turns out, means dealing with a lot of other issues too.

Grief Part One: How We Speak About Death

I started this blog to have an outlet when I can’t stop thinking about something. Lately, I can’t stop ruminating on death, so consider this part one of my thoughts as they come to me.

My mother-in-law died last week of a long and painful illness.

When I had to tell people that she died, I noticed something: I had a very hard time saying “died”. I wanted to say passed on, went to heaven, fell asleep, or a myriad of other euphemisms. There was a visceral reaction to saying it so bluntly, and in the end I couldn’t bring myself to say it publicly. I would rather have used the same words that we do when someone is fired than be completely forthright.

Why? What is it about death, even speaking about death, that I could hardly even broach the subject?

Part of it is a deep uncomfortability about the whole death thing in the first place. I’ve only had a few people die in my life, and none so close to me as my mother-in-law. I do not know how to deal with this situation. And because of that, I also don’t know how to talk about it.

That part makes sense. But what I realized as well is that actually using the word “died”, even in my own head, made it more real. If I say she went to be with the Lord, it feels like there is a chance for her to return in this life. If I say she died, there is no recovery from that. She’s not coming back. This is only just now starting to sink in. I will never see her again because she died.

I think there is another part to it, too. I wanted to spare other people as much pain as possible. Rather than be blunt, I wanted to break the news gently to all those who have been praying for her and giving us their support. It’s like I wanted to mitigate as much pain as I could by using softer words.

Language is something we use to reveal or hide our emotions. The stronger the emotion, the more there is to hide. Grief is hard to go through, so it follows that speaking about grief is equally hard. I’m only just starting to figure this out. Is it better to be completely forthright, or to cushion my words when talking about her death? I don’t know yet. It probably depends on the situation and the person. For now, I’m waffling between the two and that’s ok. There’s no one way to grieve and therefore no one way to talk about grief. I think the important thing is that I keep talking.