Living well Your Health & Wellness

A psychiatrist’s reflections on grief

Written by Dr. Marc Manseau

In the spring of 2014, I lost my “memere” (the French Canadian term for grandmother). While I had lost grandparents before and have since, my memere’s passing was particularly painful for me. From my earliest memories, she was a constant source of love, support, and joy. She was like a second mother, from taking care of me when I was home from school for a couple weeks with the Chicken Pox, to helping me navigate the choppy social waters of adolescence, to the countless times her quick wit made me laugh. As painful as her death was, it also somehow felt “normal.” She lived to her late seventies, and while I would have wanted her to live longer, I had the sense that she lived a long, rich life. Because she had found out she was dying of pancreatic cancer while still feeling relatively well, I had the opportunity to say goodbye. And I spent the days following her passing with family, celebrating her life and cherishing her memory.

Five months later, my father died suddenly of a heart attack at sixty-one years old. Only catastrophic metaphors seem to work here: it was like being hit by a Mack truck of grief. For all we knew before he died, he was perfectly healthy, with a stellar visit with his primary care physician only weeks prior and very few risk factors for heart disease (e.g., he wasn’t a smoker, obese, or diabetic). His relatively young age and seemingly good health made his sudden death stunning and tragic. I immediately thought about everything he would never get the chance to experience (retirement with my mother, his grandson’s birth, a new home on the coast of Maine). To make matters even worse, he died on his thirty-fifth wedding anniversary. My mother found an un-signed card. (I could go on, but I won’t . . . )

I still wince remembering the details of that day (a psychiatrist would call this a traumatic memory), and the following days and weeks were a blur of blinding shock and grief, during which I sometimes felt like I was underwater emotionally, desperate to catch a breath but unable to surface. It was nothing less than a physical experience, and a deeply alienating one that no one could understand or ease. I hurt for my father, thinking about all the life he was so abruptly deprived. I hurt for myself, in a desperate state of disbelief about the reality that I would never see him again. Most of all, I hurt for my dear mother, who had lost her mother and her life companion in the span of five months. Seeing her in her own place of anguish and wrenching grief, where I could neither reach nor comfort her, was the worst part.

How does one get through this? While grief is a universal human experience, every individual’s suffering is unique and in certain ways incomparable. However, I feel that my own experience five years ago, combined with my training as a psychiatrist, might benefit others. Take it one day at a time; recovering from grief is not a race. Realize that life will never go back to “the way it was before” your loss, so your goal should be to – slowly and carefully – find a “new normal.” You will never stop missing your loved one or hurting over their loss, but trust (even when you can’t imagine it) that your day-to-day experience will get easier. I still think of my father every day, but memories of him are no longer always accompanied by pangs of sadness that take my breath away. And while I don’t believe that trauma makes anyone stronger, healing is possible, and you may even find that you grow in ways that you never would have otherwise.

Take care of yourself, by doing all the things that you don’t want to do. Eat even though you have no appetite. Go to bed early or sleep in. Exercise even if you have no energy. Avoid turning to alcohol or drugs to temporarily numb the pain (they will likely make you feel worse). Do things that you enjoy and find meaningful, even if nothing brings you pleasure and everything seems meaningless. Even though you can’t concentrate, read books about other people’s grief, or books that have nothing to do with loss whatsoever. Interact with friends and family even though you feel like isolating. Let people know how they can help you (otherwise, you will drown in floral arrangements and baked ziti). For instance, you may need help with funeral arrangements, more time off or a lighter load at work for a while, or a few shoulders to cry on. Ask for what you need.

Finally, reach out for more formal help if you’re struggling to feel better and move forward after a month or two. Grief counseling could help, either in a group or one-on-one. And if your grief prevents you from functioning for what feels like a long time or is accompanied by serious symptoms like thoughts of suicide or crippling anxiety, be sure to let your health care provider know. These are signs that you might need mental health treatment to cope with your loss, and the sooner you start it, the better.

Grief is part of the human experience. Everyone who experiences the joy of loving will experience the pain of losing. But even when you’re suffering so much that you can’t imagine going on, it is important to remember that healing is possible, and that you can and will move forward without your loved one, but with their memory and legacy. After all, wouldn’t they want it that way, and isn’t this one of the reasons you loved them so much?

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