I borrowed this definition (below) from a therapist’s website. Until recently, I had never heard of a Grief Burst. Until recently, I’d also never experienced a Grief Burst but in the last month, I’ve had two.
A Grief Burst is an unexpected huge burst of emotion that you can’t escape.
It grabs you suddenly and takes you by surprise.
Often it happens somewhere you don’t want to be grieving.
Each of my Grief Bursts happened (unexpectedly) at breakfast time – what’s that about? And, like the definition says, there was no getting away from it, no avoiding it; I just had to let it pass on through me, like a sonic boom. That’s what it felt like to me, like a bowling-ball sized sound wave blew through my chest and just as suddenly, left the room. I was stunned.
I was suddenly awash in tears – not a condition I remember in my recent past. I’m generally pretty well equilibrated emotionally. I am not very volatile or inclined to have a melt-down, but there I was, entirely stunned by this well-named experience, the Grief Burst.
Each time my husband was with me – consistently the impetus of my grief. Clearly, I was (as the definition adds) not somewhere I wanted to be grieving – first at a restaurant where we were trying to enjoy a Sunday Brunch, the second was in a grocery store café where we were sharing coffee.
It was a very uncomfortable, unexplainable and unwelcome experience each time, but since those occurrences I’ve learned more about both grief and my reactions to it.
Dr. Alan Wolfelt, director of the Center for Loss & Life Transition, has been credited with this quote:
“Grief is the internal thoughts and feelings we experience when someone we love dies. Mourning, on the other hand, is taking the internal experience of grief and expressing it outside ourselves. Many people in our culture grieve, but they do not mourn. Instead of being encouraged to express their grief outwardly, they are often greeted with messages like ‘carry on,’ ‘keep your chin up,’ and ‘keep busy.’ So, they end up grieving within themselves in isolation, instead of mourning outside of themselves in the presence of loving companions.”
I think this statement (about grief) is particularly true for those of us who HAVEN’T yet “lost” our loved-one. We live in a state of what’s called anticipatory grief (waiting for the end) and experiencing ambiguous grief (repeatedly experiencing a host of tiny losses).
Living with someone moving through the stages of dementia means that they are essentially dying in front of us, inch by inch. The grieving process is prolonged because the losses accumulate slowly over time – and then reveal themselves again when death finally arrives.
Wolfelt’s final comment, the benefits of mourning in the presence of loving companions, is something I’ve truly noticed about my own grief. It is “better” when I’m in the presence (or when my grief is seen & recognized) by people who understand what the journey has been like – loving companions.
I believe (whether in grief or some other manifestation of pain) that what each of us needs is to be seen. That’s true even if we’re busy hiding our pain, suffering in silence, and trying to keep it out of other’s view. The need to be seen is an essential need we humans share.
So, what’s the self-care message in all this discovery about grief? Three things come to mind:
- If you’re grieving don’t struggle to keep it a private matter – find your loving companions for the journey and share your pain with them!
- If you’re friends or family for a caregiver of someone with a neurodegenerative disease (any of the dementias and many other diagnoses) where the losses accumulate and there’s little hope for things to get better, acknowledge that they’re in grief! See them, even if they don’t seem to want to be seen!
- Let grief have it’s space! It will show up when you least expect it, it may hit you like a sonic boom (like my Grief Burst) and knock you off your emotional equilibrium – be open to that! Your nervous system knows what it needs, let grief take whatever time it needs!
You have been part of my community of loving companions. This journey is long. If you know someone who’s a caregiver and struggling, be sure to tell them about my work – I’m happy to share the journey with them!