The first month after your loved one dies is perhaps one of the scariest,
most dreaded times in a person’s life.
Losing a spouse, a parent, a child is devastating. But somehow, you will get through.
I know you don’t think you will.
But there’s this little thing called breathing. Your body does it whether you want it to or not.
Your heart can be breaking, your gut wrenched, and you can feel as if you will truly lose your mind–and your body will continue to take its next breath. There will be times when you don’t want to breathe. You don’t want to live–the pain is so intense. Just let your body get your through for now.
It’s a divine design–to keep our heart and lungs on automatic.
I’m sure I would have either forgotten or opted not to breathe, not to allow my heart to pump if I had any say in the matter. But this sheer involuntary response is the only way to go on during those early days of grief.
Death comes in many forms–by way of an accident, or after a long agonizing illness–it’s never easy.
Even when you’ve been caregiving for years and you know your loved one is no longer suffering, almost everyone has a difficult time letting go.
Why? Why is it so difficult to watch death take those we love–even after pain and suffering, and even old age?
I believe because there’s something in us that deeply believes in the eternal.
Our brains do not compute that life is simply cut off. I’m not basing this on any particular religion or theology–I’m basing this on biology–we cannot comprehend that someone we know and love was here yesterday–and is not here today. Those who look at this purely scientific would say that it’s mere habit–but something in me feels that it’s more.
Why, after practicing a lifetime of faith, and believing with all our hearts that we will see our loved one again–is it still so hard to stand next to their lifeless, breathless body and kiss them goodbye?
The same reason a toddler cries for his/her mother. We don’t like separation.
And those early days of separation are very, very difficult.
What’s it like? That first month?
Experiencing a death of someone we love–at any age, and for any reason, usually means that we go into shock. Not only have I experienced the death of several loved ones, like you, I have many family and friends who have also experience grief and loss.
By looking at these first few days and weeks, we can begin to see a pattern–in ourselves and others. It’s less scary to know that we’re not alone, and that our bizarre thoughts and actions are something others experience as well.
What is shock?
It’s our body’s response to trauma or pain.
Physically, speaking, shock is when the body isn’t getting enough oxygen. It can occur after an injury when the body shuts down (the blood stays close to the heart to preserve life at its core level–or it can occur after a severe emotional trauma.
- A sudden physical or biochemical disturbance that results in inadequate blood flow and oxygenation of an animal’s vital organs.
- A state of profound mental and physical depression consequent to severe physical injury or to emotional disturbance.
If you’ve ever experienced shock (yourself or by witnessing it in another person), one of its prime characteristics is that you’re probably not reacting to pain (physically or emotionally) as you would expect.
Car accident victims can walk around with a head wound or internal injury–and only after minutes or even hours does the body “compute” the damage and begin to react. This may give the person time to rescue a child or get out of a fire.
Emotional trauma shock can present with similar symptoms–the person may talk or act rather normal, even when you would expect them to cry or scream or fall apart. They might eventually do all those things–but it may be weeks or months later. The mind has the ability to stay “in shock” much longer than the body–and it will usually only allow the person to really feel and experience the deepest levels of grief when it’s safe.
The movie, Reign Over Me is a great example of emotional shock.
Adam Sandlerplays a man who lost his wife and children during 9/11. He spends years in “shock,” and the exploration of how this man deals with grief in an unconventional way–and the arguments that the social and mental health community make to try to “fix” him, is interesting.
Every person’s journey with grief and loss is different. Honor yours.
Trust your gut, your shock will get you through.
During the first month you might: (no two people are the same)
- Be able to plan an elaborate funeral or memorial service
- Hold yourself together–be courteous, thoughtful and polite
- Look healthy and strong
- Go back to work days or weeks after your loved one passes
- Feel euphoric–an urgency to get on with life
- Plan a trip, go shopping, or other ordinary things
- Go off with friends and do things you haven’t been able to do in a long time
But…if you observe grief and shock a little closer, you’ll notice things aren’t quite what they appear on the surface.
You might also:
- Feel high strung, nervous, agitated
- Can’t pay attention, get bored or antsy with people
- Suffer from insomnia
- Have a panic or anxiety attack when you’re out in public
- Zone out and not remember where you are
- Feel guilty and think you caused your loved one to die (by taking them to the hospital, or not taking them, or a myriad of other decisions you had to make)
- Forget things–your keys locked in the car, your wallet at the gas station
- Avoid falling apart or crying because you may feel like once you start, you won’t be able to stop
- Have nightmares, even scary dreams of your loved one coming back alive–but not alive
- Become obsessed with something–putting your affairs in order, doing something your loved one nagged you about but you put off–but now you’re doing it to excess
- Do something, anything to feel alive–gamble, go to Vegas, visit online chat rooms, shop too much, eat too much
- You may start to snap at people–or cling–can’t let yourself be alone
- Your emotional pendulum keeps swinging wider and wider
Practical Things You Typically Do The First Month:
- File for and receive the death certificate (that’s tough)
- Contact your life insurance
- Decide when or if to go back to work
- Comfort others around you–children, friends, even when you don’t feel like it
- Cancel credit cards and put your house or car in your name only
- Pay the bills associated with your loved one’s passing–funeral expenses, etc.
- Decide to buy or sell certain items
- Figure out how to pay the bills or deal with repairs–whatever your spouse/loved one did that you now must do
- Catch up with your lfe–if your loved one was ill, there may be many things that need your attention now
- Write thank you notes and figure out how to handle your relationships with this new change
Emotionally You’ll Have To:
- Make calls and let businesses know your loved one has passed
- Talk to many family and friends–and some of them will be awkward and say the “wrong” thing
- Walk back in your house, your bedroom, drive his car–feel his/her presence and be faced with your loss
- Sleep in the bed he’s/she’s no longer in
- Deal with clothes, cars and other personal items–even if you don’t start sorting and deciding what you keep, they are with you–in your house and your life
- Allow your brain and heart to assimilate that your loved one’s not here for you to call–to talk to
- Wake up and think he’s/she’s still there
- Feel alone and lost even when you’re busy
- Figure out who you are now and what to do with your time and energy
- Think about that “first” that is to come–first birthday without him, holiday without her–and make a plan
- Literally survive the best you can
For most people, the first month is a blur.
At times, you’re in bone crushing grief alternting with an odd euphoric gotta-get-out feeling.
You can bite someone’s head off or not even care if the shoes on your feet were on fire.
There’s a lot to do, and that list of wrapping things up and starting anew at least keeps your keep moving. The good news is: you probably won’t remember most of this.
Shock does a whammy on the brain. You may feel like you’ve put your skin on inside out–and your nerve endings are exploding–but later, there will be many things you can’t recall.
Your body is protecting you. Let it. J
As crazy, lost, alone, scattered, numb, and frantic as you feel in those first months, know that as hard as it is to believe, it won’t last forever.
Carol D. O’Dell
Author of Mothering Mother, available on Kindle
Carol is a family advisor at www.Caring.com