The psychological process of coping with a significant loss is called “grief work.”Dr Adam Blatner, “Some Principles of Grief Work“.
Today my therapist said something very validating. We were talking about productivity, and I said I know that as a concept it’s tied up in capitalism and devalues human experience blah blah blah, but that I still find it frustrating that at the moment I can “do” so much less. I’m pretty self-aware, so I said I knew that a big reason for this was because I have had to expend a lot of my mental energy remaining emotionally stable. I am naturally relatively resilient, I think, but also, a lot of my resilience comes from work that is ongoing. My therapist said that in terms of productivity, the work I’m doing right now is probably the most productive I’ve ever been.
It made me thoughtful. I’m already familiar with the concept of “grief work” – that is, the process of working through grief – and very much acknowledge it to myself as work. It involves a lot of conscious effort to experience different stages of grief, to process them, and then to be able to move beyond them. It’s work that involves a lot of repetition, because you don’t just finish with one stage of grief and then move on to the next. You come back around and around to the same stages, though often at a different angle, and then periodically something brand new will rear its head. Learning to manage these experiences, rather than be simply relentlessly buffeted by them, is real work.
I suppose, though, I’ve tended to think of this as the conscious work of going through grief. I had given less weight to the unconscious work I do on a daily basis, that which is going on in the background. In my therapy session I said these days I feel like my iPhone, which is a couple of years old and whose battery isn’t great any more. I start each day with the battery charged but it runs down so fast. And even if I have a day to myself where I can stay plugged in, fully charged, that doesn’t seem to impact on the battery’s life the next day. I suppose, to continue this awkward analogy, grief is like a huge background app that drains the battery. It’s not an app you can stop, only minimise, but even when it runs in the background it munches through your battery life.
The larger point of this, I suppose, is that this isn’t an experience exclusive to grief by bereavement, although the experience of feeling absolutely drained by the loss of a loved one seems to be a fairly universal one for at least the first few months and often longer. In our current pandemic-ridden world, experience of loss is all around us. It’s unsurprising if you’re not feeling able to be your full self, in one way or another, because this isn’t just about work output – it’s about having the energy for everything that matters to you. I don’t have a solution, but I do have the friendly advice that I’ll try to apply to myself too: appreciate the real hard work that you are doing just by living with whatever your loss is, and be realistic about what that then gives you the energy leftover to do. Something has to give. I have prioritised my mental health and my daughter’s well-being in this crappy journey of suicide loss, but it’s meant I’ve had to leave a lot of other things I value by the wayside. I’m hoping, eventually, that I’ll be able to pick them back up. In the meantime, I keep working on – and looking out for recharge points where I can, because there’s no glory in working until my battery is zero. It’s ok to ask for help, or seek rest, well before that.
If you like my work…
This describes very well not only grief but also mental ill-health, which I have suffered , on and off for many, many years. I am thankfully much better since I retired from the stress of working abuse cases as a Social Worker with Older People
When my mental health was bad, the emotional energy it took just to get through each day was massive and left little room for anything else.
Of course, I suspect you will know this, from the experience of your beloved late husband.
Wishing you strength, as ever