When my mum began treatment for end-stage liver cancer, I knew the odds of her survival weren’t good. As she grew thinner and weaker, I employed a slightly twisted mind game to try to steel myself for the unthinkable.
Okay, Mum’s gone, I’d tell myself without warning. Now, how do you feel?
If I could get used to her absence before it happened, I reasoned, it would lessen the grief. The trouble is you can’t prepare for a parent’s death with mental fire drills.
You can start therapy, get married, move away or even play mind games with yourself, but no matter how grown-up or prepared you think you are, it’s impossible to imagine living without the people you’ve known your entire life. The grownups who changed your diapers, bought your first training bra and perhaps helped you diaper your own children.
Maybe I’d seen too many movies, but the perfectionist in me naively expected to feel the typical cinematic weepiness and exhaustion, but then zoom through the classic five stages (denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance).
What I wish someone had told me is that real grief isn’t anything like in the movies. It twists and turns and squeezes you so hard from the inside out, some days you might think you’ll faint or go crazy.
You won’t. But here are six weird grief symptoms I experienced after my mum died…
1. It felt like a Mini Cooper was parked on my chest. I, literally, had trouble breathing.
Sadness after a breakup is sharp but bearable. Sadness after a parent’s death?
Some days it felt like a crushing weight on my chest that grew heavier as the day wore on. By the afternoon, I felt as if I had to take deep yoga breaths just to walk from my front door to the mailbox.
Other days, my breath felt ragged and perpetually caught in my chest. I was relatively healthy, didn’t have bronchitis and I wasn’t asthmatic. Why was I suddenly breathing like Darth Vader?
Straining just to inhale oxygen is called “air hunger,” according to Texas grief counselor and Please Be Patient, I’m Grieving author Gary Roe. It’s “the feeling of not being able to get enough air,” he says on his website.
Incredibly, this is usually not a life-threatening condition, unless you have a history of heart disease or metabolic syndrome — increased blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess body fat around the waist and abnormal cholesterol. Air hunger is the body’s reaction to a traumatic emotional loss.
2. I heard voices (mostly mine, but still. Eek.).
It’s normal to have a running monologue in your head of to-do lists, music lyrics and opinions about Kim Kardashian. But, after my mum’s death, my internal chatter seemed to go haywire.