My mom died unexpectedly at the beginning of this year. She had a heart attack. I’m grateful that our last call was positive and that we told each other that we loved one another. But that barely softens the blow.
I’ve been struggling with what and how to express all of the things I am feeling. I earn my living as a design researcher, as someone who identifies and models user experiences: i frame things, find meaning and make connections. I feel like all of my frames are broken, that everything is just experience without meaning.
I have been so desperate to find something-anything-that articulates some of this new emotional terrain. There’s been some luck but not much. And there are only so many books about grief one can read without wanting scream all of the time. So it seemed kind of fitting, maybe, that I ‘model’ my own experience with grief. Perhaps this will be useful to someone else, someone in the throes of grief or someone dealing with a grieving person.
8 Experience Principles of Grief, or All the Feels That I’m Having that You Might Have Too
1. Your Vulnerability Makes You Feel Exposed All of the Time: You think everyone is watching you all of time, that they see you for the scared, sad person you are (or imagine yourself to be). It’s not like feeling naked in public. For me, it’s feeling like I am without skin in public, as though I am exposed anatomy, just muscle and nerves. Nothing more.
2. There is No Longer a Buffer Between You and Death: As long as your parent is alive you will feel like you have more time. Your sense of your own demise will be theoretical - of course you know you’re going to die. But now you feel it. Everywhere. All of the time. Every time you look in the mirror, you are reminded of it. And when both of your parents and family are gone, you will feel like you are the last of your tribe.
3. People will Disappoint You: People you expected to step up and be there for you will disappoint you. Some will barely acknowledge that your mother died, that it’s destroyed you. They’ll talk about themselves instead, never bothering to ask you about yourself. Worse, they’ll forget that your mother died. They’ll drop you a facebook note when it’s convenient for them, when they can process it. You’ll learn to stop expecting anything from anyone. This will astonish you. Truly. It will inspire rages and diatribes within you. It will confirm your suspicions that people are selfish, that most people your age are emotionally underdeveloped.
4. Some People will Surprise You: Those who you least expect to be there for you, to be supportive, will surprise you. They’ll write you incredibly kind and warm emails welcoming you back to work or invite you over for a meal. They’ll hug you and despite the awkwardness, it’s wonderful. They’ll offer up their own stories of loss. New bridges will be made.
5. People will Avoid you because your experience will remind them of a truth they don’t want to face. You don’t blame them because this truth is awful. Nonetheless, this rejection will hurt a thousandfold because you need people more than ever right now. And nothing will make you withdraw like the truth that you-your pain-are a downer, a fucking killjoy.
6. You will Lower Expectations of Yourself: I used to expect 200% of myself all of the time. Not healthy, I know. I held others to high standards as well. Now, I struggle to get through the day. If I am able to dress myself and look like I haven’t cried all night, I consider this a victory. The energy I spend trying to prevent my grief, anger and sadness from pouring out of me and into everything around me leaves me exhausted. I start each day at a deficit. Sadly, no one seems the wiser.
7. You Will
Want Need Others to Take The Lead: Identifying my mother’s body at the morgue and deciding on what kind of funeral she would have were the most difficult things I’ve ever done. It left me feeling like I’ve made whatever decisions I need to make for the year. Whatever impulse I had in me to lead or make ‘big’ decisions is on hiatus. I don’t want to have to text you that I need you, that I need a drink or a hug. I don’t want to reach out to people, to ask for help because frankly I don’t want to be rejected. Asking a grieving person to tell you what they need from you is a losing proposition. I can barely tell myself what I need let alone guide you. Putting the onus on a grieving person to reach out is actually a shitty and selfish thing to do. Make the decision. I’ll tell you if it’s the wrong one.
8. You Will Lose Your Sense of Self: Your sadness will feel endless. You will feel grounded in nothing. You will want to go back to who you were before it happened. You can’t. You struggle to imagine that place, that person. You will feel so completely and totally lost. And everything will feel silly, shallow and distant. You will want to scream all of the time but you don’t. You will sneak off to cry, to mourn. You will avoid mirrors. People will tell you they miss the old you. And nothing will hurt more than that because it’s true, because you do too.