One woman’s Story:
“The other night in my dream, my sister wasn’t dead. She came back into town and had found a way to live with her terminal illness. She had aged in the ten years since I last saw her, but she was obviously healthy.
I couldn’t understand why she had simply gone away to find this cure instead of taking us with her. She left her husband and a daughter too and the husband had since remarried. In fact, he married someone my sister had suggested.
The daughter had been angry about it and still struggled with her relationship with the step-mother. I felt so conflicted after spending years trying to help my niece adjust only to learn my sister had basically abandoned her. And me.
In the dream, I felt happy to see my sister and very lost. How could she possibly have just gone away and been living elsewhere happily? It was a betrayal, though a soft one, tempered by my relief at seeing her.
I wanted to tell her all the things I’d missed telling her these past ten years, the epiphanies and revelations I had had growing older as a woman, a thing we always thought we’d do together. And yet, it felt hollow thinking that all that time she had, in fact, been a phone call away, not dead and in Heaven or wherever else I’d been telling myself she was all along. She just had not given me her forwarding telephone number.
When I woke up, I felt even worse, remembering she was no where on this earth. We were permanently separated by an impassable chasm, a chasm I didn’t any longer know if I even believed would be bridged after my own death. I carried that empty feeling with me all the rest of that day.
I swear, it has been years since I had one of those dreams where she is alive in it and then I have to wake up and lose her all over again. Every other time I’ve dreamed of her, I’ve been simply happy to see her in the dream. For as far as I’ve come after losing her, I would think these kind of painful things would stop happening.”
This story (used here with permission) highlights some of the realities of bereavement.
Even after what seems like a long span of time, the subconscious mind – here at work in the form of a nighttime dream – expresses its anxieties. If you’ve lost someone important, you’ve likely experienced this as well. Even if that loss is through a break-up or divorce.
Dreams, songs, smells, emotional life events…all of these can trigger sadness, longing, and deep melancholy. As in the dream above, they can also trigger more complex emotions: bewilderment, betrayal, or relief tempered by anger and confusion.
It could be that when things like this happen, as my friend experienced, you feel like you “should be further along” or this kind of thing shouldn’t really be happening anymore. You may have expected this kind of thing (and even been told it would happen) during the first year or so after a loss.
But if it has been a significant amount of time since you experienced the loss, this could feel like a senseless intrusion and it might make you wonder if you have “gotten over” the loss.
Whether you had support when your loss was fresh or you just got through it and it got gradually better, it’s never a bad time to remind yourself of a couple realities that can help.
- Grief has many stages that do not occur in a linear fashion. Kubler-Ross’s Denial, Bargaining, Anger, Sadness, and Acceptance don’t just happen once. Perhaps you’ve arrived at acceptance and thought you’d never see or smell or taste any of the other stages ever again. It’s okay. It’s normal.
- If you got to a place of Acceptance, you realized this loss was now part of your reality, a portion of your story the facts of which would never be altered. You probably breathed a sigh of relief when you experienced this. If you never have experienced this Acceptance, tell yourself it’s coming. And read on.
- Allowing, or letting something be is a technique in Mindfulness that can help with Loss. Briefly described, it happens when one allows pain, unpleasantness, ill-feeling (or good feelings as well!) to wash over one’s consciousness. One sits with the feeling and notices. One experiences how the feeling shifts…and it will. This can be a powerful way to learn that the human experiences of life do not have to wash us under.
- If you are past this stage of intensity in your grieving, remember the days when it was worse: when you could not stop crying, when you experienced more sadness than you felt able to handle, perhaps you could barely function. Maybe you were hit with wave after wave of those ill feelings washing over you and it felt like you might drown in them. If you ARE past those days, notice! It isn’t as bad as it once was, is it?
- If you are right in the middle of that wave-upon-wave survival, be assured, this will change. It will not stay this intense forever. And keep reading.
- If it has stayed too intense, do get some support, whether from a therapist who can give you individual attention and guide you through dealing with your specific experiences, or in a group setting. Being in one or the other does not have to last a long time. Many loss/recovery groups have a specific duration. If you’ve never done this, you will likely be surprised how healing it can be. If any of your feelings seem too big or not safe, get professional help.
- If there is a time to take good care of yourself, this is it. Be gentle with yourself. Be kind. Do things that are important and nourishing for you. It is not enough just to pay attention to others – children, perhaps other grieving family members- although many people do this. Care for yourself as a first priority.
The reality is that Loss sucks big time.
It hurts like no other human experience. And yet, it is a human experience. Many people navigate it and continue to live a rich life. All of us are vulnerable to the tenderness of Loss cycling around again when we least expect it. If you haven’t been able to get this far in your process, maybe now is the time to sit with someone who knows how to help.