A while ago, someone asked me, what is the most common way that bereaved individuals describe their experience of grief? I thought for a few moments. It was not, as I reflected, the words one would generally expect – sad, lonely, or unhappy. The word that so many people use to describe their experience of grief was weird. Ir makes sense. So much of the experience of grief is so strange. We may experience all sorts of reactions – strong, intense emotions that seem to wash over us in waves. There may be times at the least provocation we cry. Other times, we may wonder why we are not weeping or why we have not burst out into tears. We may feel that everything is surreal – that we are going through the motions but strangely unconnected to anything or anyone around us. We may struggle to find some meaning and purpose in our life. We may feel like we are in some sort of a fog. It may be difficult to concentrate or focus. Even physically we may feel different – somehow aware of every ache and pain. We may even have weird experiences. There may be moments we feel the presence of the person who died. We may dream of the person or hear a voice or sound that reminds us of that individual. We may find that others treat us differently. They may seem uncomfortable as they approach us, not knowing what to say. They may feel awkward around us wondering if we will burst into tears at something said.
Our world now seems so strange and different. The things we once took for granted, such as eating, watching television, going out, or even sleeping, now seem so far removed from how they once were. It is like we have to learn everything, every experience anew. They very experience of grief seems weird. We seem to be on a roller coaster constantly going up and down. Margaret Stroebe and Hans Schut, two researchers from the Netherlands, describe grief as a “dual process” – mourning a loss even as we adjust to a new life. I see that duality so frequently in my grief groups as people experience these twin mandates of grief; for example, the widow who at one moment describes her loneliness at the loss of her spouse even as she celebrates the triumph of a first driver’s license. When we grieve we bounce back and forth between these dual demands. That, too, seems weird.
Grief is a strange experience. That is why validation is so important. As we share our grief with others – confidants, family members, counselors, or in self-help groups or as we read about grief, we realize that we are not alone in our experiences. That knowledge may not make the experience less strange, but we do know that it is normal to be weird. To live life without someone we love – someone who was an important part of our life is weird.
Kenneth J, Doka, PhD, Mdiv, is Senior Consultant to HFA and a Professor of Gerontology at the College of New Rochelle in New York.