Good Grief

Written by Florence Wilde

Given a choice between grief and nothing, I choose grief.

Before I delve into this topic, I first want to let you know that I am okay. I am better than okay, I am happy and grateful. Life is a funny old thing, and the fact that I get to feel and care so profoundly for others, is a real privilege. This article is inspired by my joy for introspecting and connecting one’s shared experiences. Please do feel free to reach out if the following sentiments touch you in some way.

My family and I recently lost a significant member of our unit. This event has caused me, unsurprisingly, to wonder about the experience and process of loss, both finite (death) and non-finite (job loss, relationship breakdown, etc). This experience is one that I don’t think a single soul avoids in their lifetime, and yet it continues to baffle us. The hard truth is, we need loss in order to feel full – of love, joy, attention, belonging, meaning, and then some. The finite nature of life is what makes it so beautiful. Knowing this doesn’t necessarily make it easier to ride the waves of grief, but it does create space to accept that it is happening, albeit slowly. The more we find ourselves coming to terms with loss, the more truly and presently we can enjoy the moments that fill us up. From extravagant experiences, to the sound of your loved one laughing at your joke while you stand in your kitchen drinking coffee. It all matters, and it all does not last.

Why does grief hurt so much? Why does the permanent absence of a loved one with whom you are bonded result in such devastating feelings? All of us, most likely multiple times, will walk the walk of grief. I don’t know about you, but my experience feels like a problem or puzzle that my brain cannot solve, because I need my loved ones like I need food and water. I have found myself flitting between four of the five stages of grief; depression, anger, denial and bargaining, while simultaneously experiencing a state of confusion. For the brain, who thrives on predictability and familiarity, your loved one is both gone and everlasting. Thus, I am currently navigating my life as I understood it (loved one here) and also as I now understand it (loved one gone). This premise leaves one in a state of, you guessed it, confusion.

So, how does the brain walk you through these two realities at the same time? Well, science would explain it by saying that once someone close to us passes, moments such as when we would normally expect them to walk into the room, or be lying next to us in bed upon awakening, our brain continues to fire what we call ‘object-trace cells’, essentially anticipating life as we have known it. This persists until we eventually learn, through time and a new lived experience, that our loved one is never going to be in our physical space again. Our brain, slowly but surely, fires new object cells, replacing the sense of familiarity of our world.

The best way to further explain this is to share the words of Mary-France O’Connor:

‘Imagine the man whose wife has returned home from work at six o’clock every day for years. After her death, when he hears a sound at six o’clock, his brain simply fills in the garage door opening. For that moment, his brain believed his wife was arriving home. And then the truth would bring a fresh wave of grief. It requires additional time for you to consult with other parts of your brain that report your wife is no longer alive and could not possibly be opening the garage door. Sometimes all this occurs so quickly that it is below the threshold of consciousness, and all we know is that we are suddenly overwhelmed with tears. Additionally, our predictions change slowly, because the brain knows better than to update its whole prediction plan based on a single event. Our brain trusts and makes predictions based on our lived experience. When you wake up one morning and your loved one is not in the bed next to you, the idea that she has died is simply not true in terms of probability. For our brain, this is not true on day one, or day two, or for many days after her death. We need enough new lived experiences for our brain to develop new predictions, and that takes time. Your brain continues to note the fact that your loved one is no longer present day after day and uses that information to update its predictions about whether they will be there tomorrow. That is why we say that time heals. But actually, it has less to do with time and more to do with experience. Taking in everything around us, which updates our ‘virtual map’ and what our brain thinks will happen next, is a good start for being resilient in the face of great loss.’

All of this intellectualising is a familiar coping mechanism of mine (as is my dream of becoming a Counselling Psychologist, but let’s not go there right now). Though it doesn’t ease the pain, it does provide me with healthy tools to handle my grief, and it also comforts me to know that I will one day reach the final stage of grief; acceptance. As the science shows, it will take time and new lived experiences, but that’s okay. Hopefully, you reader, will be joining me in creating new lived experiences that will evoke beauty, intimacy and laughter, all of which will in turn evoke feelings of acceptance of and gratitude for my new reality. I would love to hear from you to plan a date that will enrich both of our lives, and in the meantime, if you’d like to help bring a smile to my face, my new wishlist is now available for your perusal.

Flo x