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The Wave Part II: Avoidance to Acceptance

November 24, 2020

Time stood still for Anne. Everyone else’s lives kept moving. She could see others in their boat talking to each other, laughing and making plans. Eventually, everyone’s voices began to get muffled. The darkness of the storm turned to a gray hue. The shock was wearing off. Out of sheer survival she began to tread water and pull on whatever it was that was anchoring her. 

Now this was scarier to endure. The reality that Tom wasn’t there screamed above the other noises. The other waves were coming. She knew this. She calculated how much she could and could not tolerate. The task at hand was to muster enough strength to find a target, something to begin to swim toward it. Find safety. Away from the negative voices so that she could find her voice; to hear more clearly that still small voice. Anne can feel everything at this point. Anne struggles to find a target, someplace to beach, to recoup. She knows once she is there, there is going to be another fight. She can’t think of that now. She looks down through the murky water and can only barely make out what is around her ankle; she knows she has to swim with it but it’s very weighted. With every wave that hits, it either brings a form of physical pain or memories of what was or the reality of what is or the fear of what is to come.


Avoidance

Robert N. Niemeyer, who is one of the most recent pioneers of Grief research for the past 20 years, postulates that the initial shock of one’s death is characterized by avoidant behavior. At best, avoidance can last for weeks or months. There is an unbelief, a - kind- of dissociative state of the mind and spirit that occurs when someone has been traumatized. Anne and many client’s like her recall hearing themselves say, “No, NO, NO” over and over again. They admit not recognizing the sound of their own voice. In the NBC series, This is Us, Mandy Moore’s character was standing in front of the vending machine when she was told that her husband had just died. Her character proceeds to continue to eat the piece of chocolate she had just gotten out of the machine. One griever recounts to me that after she hung up the phone on the person who told her her husband had died, she went over and sat back down on the couch to continue watching Outlander.

Many grievers recall the waves of physical pain to the point where they cannot be consoled by a loved one or accept a hug. It physically hurts to be touched. One griever explained, “When my sister was hugging me, I felt like I was going to suffocate. I couldn’t catch my breath and I jerked away from her…I could see the pain in her eyes- she didn’t understand. I didn’t understand.” For some, their health deteriorates quickly and does not recover such as in stories of older couples dying within days, weeks or months of their partner’s death. One griever knows when she will be hit with a wave of grief after she is hit with the tell-tale sign of a migraine.

In the first blog I wrote, it reflected on Anne and how she couldn’t see Tom anymore and kept looking for him. Some grievers will keep looking at their phone for a text from their loved one. One griever remembers how she dressed up for her former lover’s funeral, “I wore my hair the way he would like and the dress that he loved seeing me in; it was if we were going on date.” Griever’s actions or lack of actions may seem odd and out of character from the outside looking in. They may have a hard time remembering conversations or the smallest of vocabulary words. A griever may be able to sit on the couch one minute and participate in an ordinary conversation one minute and then appear a million miles away. For some survivors, the griever’s belongings become incredibly important. 

Anger is usually associated with avoidance. Anger that your loved one’s death is completely out of your control is like an arrow that is dislodged from your heart and targeted to an external force. To whatever or whoever is to blame or responsible for the loved one’s death. Grievers begin to explain “Walking into the Twilight Zone” with close friends and family members as each begin to turn on each other. Harsh, ugly and borderline evil words and deeds are exchanged. One mom admits to saying to her surviving son, “I wish it was you that died and not him.” 

Acceptance

“I don’t know what you said Anne this past year but I know you were there….I feel like I am just now coming out of a fog,” These words and many like them are expressed by grievers who have found themselves to be present in accepting one’s new perspective of their lives. Many survivors of grief in the state of acceptance describe it as “coming out of a fog.” Others have described the feeling as if they are recognizing themselves again and feel as if they can begin to shuffle forward and make more contact with the outside world. Acceptance is not “letting go”; There is an ugly connotation in this phrase that suggests you stop loving the person who has died. Many have expressed feeling guilty in the acceptance presence because it feels like one betrays their loved one for even feeling the possibility that one can keep going. Also, the work on acceptance is not above “arriving” at it but moving in it. Yet there have been those who have looked at me horrified and wishing for the fog to come back because in acceptance is the realization that not only is the loved one gone, but they themselves are not the same. The work of reconstructing themselves again and building a new identity is the business of their lives now.

What does acceptance look like and what do you do with it? This is usually the question that is being brought up in the therapy session the most. Concepts such as “stages” and “tasks” are usually received in the general population because our natural human desire is to move from pain as quickly as possible. We have this ingrained proverbial need “to do something” in order to obtain access to peace. However, the more you take the perspective and accept the ever present trouble of grief, the more it is loosened and the more you can make moves toward that peace.

In her work, “The 4 Facets of Grief”, Ruth E Field, LCSW gives a list of helpful tips to begin the work of acceptance. Here are a few:

  1. It may be time to explore that greater power than you. Asking for this exploration in and of itself in prayer will help with building tolerance for this Anneurney.
  2. Learn what you can about the facts of your loved one’s death. Caution: this can consume you. Please choose someone you feel safe with to help you to not get sucked into this vortex.
  3. Start a grief blog. Don’t feel led to publish it; no more added pressure. But one day someone may begin the healing process because you were brave enough to say words out loud.
  4. Acceptant your sensations and feelings and thoughts without judgment.
  5. Write a letter to your loved one. Make a scrapbook or a video log of your favorite pictures with music in the background to accompany paying homage to your loved one; especially as it relates to your relationship.
  6. Learn and practice mindfulness, exercise and rest and take care of yourself in small and big ways every day.
  7. Anneurnal thoughts and feelings. Anneurnal as you go when you feel led. Anneurnal aspects of grief and the death of your loved one that you cannot change.
  8. Find distractions that are healthy and helpful to take breaks from the distress.

Helpful Resources: The 4 Facets of Grief; Heal Your Heart, Rebuild Your World and Find New Pathways to Joy.

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