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.
Sometimes I’d be in the middle of a mundane task, such as house-cleaning, and I swear I’d hear my name called. I’d turn around but no one was there. This happened more than three times and was extremely creepy.
Was I being pranked? Hearing ghosts from the beyond? Cracking up?
The American Cancer Society calls incidents of hearing voices, or auditory hallucinations, a sign of “major depression” resulting from a loved one’s passing.
If you develop this symptom, don’t panic, but do seek help from a qualified mental health therapist, the ACS suggests.
3. The five stages of grief (denial, anger, bargaining, depression, acceptance) don’t happen in logical order.
I’d heard about the stages of grief established by author Elizabeth Kubler-Ross for years and, as a perfectionist, expected to graduate from one to the next in organised succession. As if.
What I didn’t know is the stages are completely random and disorganised. Feelings of anger, depression and denial can strike all at once in an afternoon, or swing back and forth over weeks and months.
You might have a terrible, exhausting couple of weeks only to wake up and look forward to a movie or designer coffee.
This is it. I’ve reached acceptance, you might think, only to hear your mum or dad’s favourite song on the radio and start bawling in your car.
That’s frustrating but perfectly okay. Grief ebbs and flows, numerous hospice counsellors told me.
“Be patient with the process. Don’t pressure yourself with expectations. Accept that you need to experience your pain, your emotions, and your own way of healing − all in your own time,” the ACS says.
4. I developed a pretty crippling case of social anxiety.
I’d done many things people told me were brave – like move 4000 kilometres across the country to a city where I didn’t know anyone, and, as a journalist, interview politicians and celebrities.
So, I was shell-shocked when my grief made me feel anxious and vulnerable outside my front door. Well-meaning friends invited me out for lunches, movies and cocktail hours, but after an hour or so, I just wanted to scurry home and hunker down inside.
I felt like a failure, until I read this quote by author C.S. Lewis: “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.”
Lewis is famous for writing the vivid children’s fantasies The Chronicles of Narnia, but he wrote more than 20 other books, including A Grief Observed, a soul-searching quest that revealed his disenchantment with religion after his wife died from cancer.
5. Paradoxically, I became obsessed with Halloween haunted houses (in October) and zombie TV shows (The Walking Dead). Call it scream therapy.
For someone who dreaded going out, I certainly enjoyed a roaring, good fright. I fell in love with the gory, apocalyptic TV series The Walking Dead. In October, I visited as many haunted hayrides, theme-park horror nights and zombie mazes as possible.
I screamed my head off and loved it. I shrieked till my throat was raw. It felt cathartic and exhilarating, as if I could just scream enough, the real-life pain and loss would flee my soul like an unwelcome spirit.
That didn’t happen. (See No. 3.) But I did get pretty good at staring down mask-wearing creeps with chainsaws.
6. I craved plastic surgery, Botox, cosmetic fillers; anything to reinvent myself.
With sadness, anger, resentment and despair oozing out of my pores 24/7, could you blame me if I wanted a change?
I shot Botox into my forehead frown lines and cosmetic fillers into my cheeks after my mum died. I was tired of looking as tired as grief makes you feel. I craved a reboot. When I visited a plastic surgeon about a possible partial neck and facelift, he laughed, telling me not to worry yet. I had my doubts but didn’t pursue it.
Sounds vain and self-indulgent, doesn’t it? Easy, Judgy the Bear.
Turns out it’s a little-known but legitimate symptom of mourning. New York psychotherapist and abandonment specialist Susan Anderson created her own five stages of grief after she lost her husband.
In the fourth stage, “reorganising,” she explains how she and her fellow support group members attempted to rejuvenate their wilted spirits:
“We reinvested our emotional energy in new people, new things, all in an attempt to reinvent life’s purpose. We also worked on revamping ourselves. Some of us changed hair styles, some went to plastic surgeons, some went on diets (finding willpower difficult to summon due to the ongoing emotional turmoil of this phase).”
These symptoms may sound scary or silly, but the silver lining is they’re temporary, as long as you treat yourself gently and allow yourself to adjust to the new normal. A bereavement or grief counselor, available through your local hospice chapter, can also help you sort and make sense out of your feelings.
“Expressing emotion is important. Some keep a journal. Others might write letters to a departed loved one. Over time, your heart will find balance again. But it will be different than before because you are not the same,” writes Gary Roe on his Caring for Grieving Hearts blog.
And that’s better than mind games.
This article was originally published on SheSaid and was republished here with full permission.
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