Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Persistence of Grief and Mourning; Remembering How to be Happy

I was reading an article about how new experiences create new pathways in the brain. It was focused on positive new experiences, ones that would enhance one's life and help to keep the brain functioning. It talked about learning new things, trying new things.

What it didn't say was what happens to us when new experiences are thrust upon us that are negative, traumatic, or terrible. How do those experiences create new pathways in the brain? They do.

It occurred to me that the intensity of grief and mourning for someone as close and loved as a son, or for others a daughter, spouse, sister or brother, parent, someone deeply loved and part of one's life, must create new pathways of sadness and longing that are indelibly etched upon the brain.

When we are mourning our losses, we go over and over those pathways, over and over the ground, asking questions, trying to over and over to remember every detail and nuance, trying to understand and fathom how death could have taken away someone so loved. Each time we go over those details, think of our loved one, feel our grief, those pathways are strengthened. It can become an obsession.

Each time we think about the death; each time we think about our sorrow, it is reinforced, strengthened to rise again and again.

It's hard to get past grief because the neural connections we formed as the bonds with our loved one are still there, still yearning for that contact, and now, added to them, is a whole new set of sad ones related to their death and all that surrounds death; the funeral, disposing of their belongings, contacting friends and relatives, taking care of their affairs.

How can we get past it, when we are in essence practicing our grief a dozen times a day?

Some people never do get over it. They mourn and are sad the rest of their lives. Some get past it, manage to function, but are brought back to their grief when a reminder catches them. And some are able to move on after a time.

I've given a lot of thought to how they do it. I think first and foremost they have to want to get past their grief and sadness. They must have other good things in their lives and they must have hope. But I think the most important aspect of recovery is a conscious decision to work at it.

How does one do that? When we are depressed or sad, we don't feel like doing any of the things that would help. We don't want to be with people. We don't want to socialize. We don't want to have fun, because nothing sounds like fun. We don't want to exercise. In fact we don't want to do much of anything and we don't care about much, either. No matter what someone outside our grief might say we have that is positive and good (and regardless of whether we know we have much to be grateful for), we see and feel the hurt, the loss, the pain.

We have to also be able to forgive ourselves for wanting to return to a normal life, because there is a guilt about being happy when someone you love is dead.

Although I have come to see that much, what I don't know is how a person gets to that point, a point where he or she is able to do the things that will help them heal, to want to live again, to try to turn away from those strong and demanding mental pathways to something new and happier.

How does one "give up grief" when it has become the "habit" of the brain?

Does time heal? Yes, the acuteness of grief subsides, but what is left in its place? Sometimes lethargy, depression, and sadness. Sometimes they fade and the grieving person emerges into a new life at some point.

I think that partly what happens is determined by that conscious decision, which can only come when the deepest grief has passed, but another part is beyond our control. There are things in the brain we cannot begin to control. If we are saddled with a genetic disposition to depression, the death may well be the "switch" that turns on a lifelong battle with depression. Even when it is not a deep depression, it can sap the joy out of life and dampen down its pleasures.

I think Leif fell into depression when he lost his loves, not through death, but never-the-less through the death of relationships he so badly needed and wanted. To be cut off from love is excruciatingly painful.

For those of us recovering, we also have to somehow remember how to be happy. That sounds foolish to someone who hasn't been in this situation. Why would anyone have to remember how to be happy? But it's true.

I started thinking about that a few days ago while swimming outdoors at sunset. They sky was beautiful, the water warm, the evening balmy. Although I was glad to be swimming, I realized that I wasn't feeling the happiness and joy I used to feel in that very place and situation before Leif died, back in those days when I would look forward to a text message "conversation" with him later in the evening. I decided I needed to try to remember how I felt when I was happy, to remember what happiness was.

At first, I could remember WHEN I had been happy, and I could recount to myself things that had made me happy, but I didn't feel it. It still had the subdued, flat feeling of a mildly depressed person.

But I kept trying. On bicycle rides, instead of just looking down at the street and pedaling along, I made myself remember how I used to enjoy looking at the houses and yards to see what kind of landscaping they had, at the ponds, at the clouds, so often beautiful in Florida, and the birds. I remembered how I loved to listen to the mockingbirds sing. I didn't feel as I once did, but I began remembering that I HAD felt it and recalling what it was like.

In the pool, I remembered how I loved to float on my back and look at the clouds, swim toward the palm trees and marvel at how it was like being on vacation for a short time each day.

At home I remembered how good it felt to accomplish a task, not just what I had to get done each day, but something more, and something creative. So I created two photo books and began to work on getting some other things done that have been waiting for a long time.

This wasn't easy, especially the "getting things done" part. And it's not without backsliding. I don't yet feel as happy and energetic and motivated as I did before Leif died, and I don't know if I ever will. Even if I do, I know there will be days and moments of sadness and longing.

But I do know that I can find happy times again and that I have given myself permission to be happy. I do know that it is partly a choice, but partly a fight with my own brain and feelings.

Leif left a huge hole in my life. That isn't going to change, but I was thinking about another situation with someone I know and how she ought to make the best of her situation, and as so often happens to me, I turned the reasoning on myself. I asked myself, "Am I making the best of my situation?" I had to answer, "No."

So I am trying. It isn't easy and it won't be quick, but as I look back on the past 27 months, I recognize happy moments, however small or fleeting, along the way. I remember the first really happy trip Peter and I took in April 2009, to St. Augustine, and the best one since Leif died, to Germany in May 2010.

The tides of emotion will continue to ebb and flow. The rollercoaster ride isn't over. I know I am not yet a happy person, but I do have happy moments and I am working to have more of them.
The photo of Leif was taken in our living room in Honolulu, Hawaii in about 1984 when Leif was nine years old.

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