The Ghosts of Grief

Mother and child

Lately, I just can’t shake this dull, overwhelming sadness that has attached itself to me.

Like some annoying, intractable specter hanging about.

Losing my loved ones. Impending doom. The fear of death and the unknown. Grief for what is yet to come.

The thoughts cloud my brain, tugging at happiness. They beg for attention.

Stop it.

Please. Leave me alone.

My life is good right now.

Within the last year, my first book, a memoir, was published. I’ve been an English teacher for 27 years. This was a dream come true.

My first granddaughter was born several weeks prematurely due to a complication of my oldest daughter’s pregnancy. Today, both of my girls are healthy and thriving, and I understand the grandchild phenomenon. Little Layla has my heart.

My other daughter married the love of her life in one of the most beautiful weddings I’ve ever attended. She is now pregnant with grandchild #2, due this summer, and as her belly grows, ohmygoodness, so does my excitement!

My handsome son, the youngest, is in his second year of college as a chemistry major, living on his own, and holding down a part-time job. I still do his laundry and make him weekly casseroles, but I don’t mind. This way, he still needs his mommy.

I still love my profession, I’m still in love with my husband (second marriage, four years strong), and I still love taking care of the almost-three-acre-homestead of mine, no matter how many snakes are found along its creekside.

Life is good. In fact, 2018 just might have been the best year of my life.

So where is the joy?

Statistics say that at any given time, six of ten people are experiencing the loss of a loved one.

Grief is a part of the human condition and a part of normal, everyday life. It changes, maybe minimizes, but we learn to live with it and function, because believe it or not, experiencing grief doesn’t prepare for future loss. Thus, grief never ends.

 How ironic. The very emotions we feel after someone’s life has ended go on forever.  If you’d have told me two and half years ago that I’d end 2018 still grieving the loss of my mom, I wouldn’t have believed you, though. She passed away in May of 2016 from her second battle with cancer, and I’d made it through the grieving process okay.

 At least I thought so.

Luckily, we had several precious months to spend with her in preparation. My brother and sister and I did whatever we could to give her comfort, helping Dad care for her at home, and Mom tried to make the best of her illness. Still, she died too young (doesn’t everyone?) when you consider the scope of time. She was only 67.

And now I wonder if you can ever really “prepare” for the death of a loved one. Especially your mother. It just doesn’t feel right to live in a world where my mom, a lively, sometimes aggravating spirit, the woman who set the example for the mother and grandmother I am today, no longer exists. I just don’t understand.

Though the grief of losing mom ebbs and flows sporadically, it’s definitely lingered. Maybe even morphed. At times, I’ve even wondered if I was experiencing what experts call “complicated grief,” which can be mentally and physically impairing. Feelings of loss become almost incapacitating and include a combination of the same symptoms found in traumatic distress: deep sadness, trouble carrying out normal routines, withdrawing from social activities, feeling that life holds no meaning or purpose, and irritability or agitation.

To be fair, my own experiences in facing mortality may have something to do with whatever this ‘sort of’ depression is that’s troubling me. Seven years ago, after surviving both a heart attack and near-fatal car accident within six months of each other (both on the heels of telling my now ex-husband I wanted a divorce), I was diagnosed with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which research shows can also trigger death anxiety, or thanatophobia, the fear of death. Especially in conjunction with the death of a loved one.

That’s me. And almost on the daily.

Sure, I’m still participating in life, and yes, I’m still carrying out my normal routines.

But I usually don’t want to be anywhere besides my kitchen or recliner at home, I don’t care to socialize with others beyond my family, and I seem to cry about most everything.  I just feel so down. I’m tired of thinking about death and worrying about what happens after. And I’m frightened to lose everyone who brings me happiness.

Death is no longer an abstract. Life cannot be controlled.

This reality check and my overwhelming fears are sucking the life (no pun intended) right out of me. It’s like I’m in a state of grief with no tangible cause—yet. Like I’m already grieving the losses of everyone that I love. The loss of my own beautiful life.

Maybe that’s why it’s called “complicated grief.” Or maybe it’s more along the lines of a “pre-grief.”  Whatever this is, it’s very real. And I can’t be the only who feels it.

Man, is it enervating.

“Smiles today, Aimee,” my husband tells me after a morning hug. “No grumps, no Debbie-Down-ing, okay? You have so much to be happy about.” It’s almost become a morning ritual, just like the twenty years of Prozac I’ve taken.

He understands it all—my prior trauma, Mom’s death, the recent deaths of two grandfather figures, a rapidly approaching 50th birthday—and its effect on me, though I’m still working on it. And I appreciate his approach, the reminders that I need.

The holidays are here, the year is ending, and January 2019 means I’m a half-century old. I gave in to the silver hair, gave up on the age spots, and can’t wait for the perimenopause hormones and symptoms to quit raging.

I am one gigantic, aging, complicated, pre-grief, hot mess. Literally.

And I suppose I’m reflective to the extreme right now as the first half (hopefully) of my life closes.

But it’s normal to sit back and see what life has brought you, especially at this time of the year. And I’m sure that overcoming the fear of death and loss is quite common in one’s approaching 50’s. Aging is difficult, right? Time goes so fast.

So while I do have much joy in my life to appreciate, and it’s good to keep at my center, maybe this funk, this continued grieving, deserves approval, too. Validation. Maybe it should even be considered as cathartic—a process, a by-product of happiness that recognizes potential loss as scary—as long as one is willing to, at some point, also get rid of its energy for a while.

Acknowledge it, give it the attention it deserves, and then let it go.  

You know that ghost of the future will visit you again; it’s inevitable. But it doesn’t have to haunt you.

Live in the now, in this moment. Be present. It can help. It can bring a sense of calm to the chaos of life. You get to decide.

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