Posted by: Jody Glynn Patrick | 01/17/2010

Our new “grief” default: Why later deaths leave us numb or raw, disengaged or overwrought.

I didn’t cry as hard or as long as I expected, the day my younger brother Bob died. We knew it was coming. Though a relatively young man, he had advanced medical problems and was a hospice care patient. That was two years ago.

When my son Daniel (then 16) died 20 years ago, well… I still cry over that. And I cried a river (or so it felt like to me) when I was 18 and standing beside my grandmother’s casket many years before that. What changed, then, for the family members following my son’s death?

There were very few tears for my mother, when she died 10 years ago. Or for my father or step-father, or an aunt and uncle, when they died. I cried a little, but I didn’t feel very much. I pushed those feelings way, way down and made funeral arrangements or attended services as a gesture of comfort to other family members.

Grief sometimes comes out sideways

Between all of those later family deaths, a business acquaintance died. I fell apart at his service, approaching the coffin. I cried so hard that his wife (and her friends) probably wondered if we’d ever had an affair. No. We’d only had one lunch together beyond professional emails.

Others may have thought my obvious distress at that funeral was because he died of cancer; maybe I couldn’t hold back survivor guilt or empathetic tears. But no. I think I cried because it was emotionally “safe” to cry there.

Also, his death had been somewhat unexpected. He had cancer, but he was young and seemed to be rebounding.  So I wasn’t as prepared as I thougt in terms of “goodbye”. Yet I also knew I could cry without my knees buckling, without my heart freezing in my chest. I could cry without having to bury part of myself with the body in the coffin. Still, I could not stifle my sobs. I did try; no one wants to make a fool of themselves at a colleague’s funeral or become a distraction. But I could not stop crying throughout the service.

Grief…. I am often unpredictably under-whelmed or overwhelmed by it.

What is “over the top” grief?

A very responsible young man bought an English Bulldog puppy — an expensive investment. But he loved the dog and things seemed to be working out. Life got more complicated when this young man met and married my daughter, who is not fond of snorting, knee-riding, slobbering dogs. And this dog, it seemed, could knock squirrels out of trees with his farts.  Whew!

A year later, there was a new baby and two careers with differing shifts, a new home (with lots of stairs and new carpets) and “the baby is napping but the dog needs to go out”. They tried a few placements for the dog, but he was always sent home.

Finally my daughter called, at her wit’s end, asking if I would take him. I had just bought a tiny golden Pomeranian but agreed to help them out. Though only three years old, he already had the usual breed problems of airway constriction, hip joint pain, and arthritis.  But our new little bitty puppy was very social, and the bulldog at least might offer companionship for him — with a lot of initial supervision.

The dog settled in almost immediately and he and the little doggie became instant best friends. We soon discovered the real joy of his companionship and general good nature.

Fast forward six months: my son-in-law wants his dog back on a trial basis. Their child is older, he has upcoming vacation time, and he misses his pet. My daughter is still uncertain about it, but marriage is compromise.

Result? I’m grieving the pending separation as if were an approaching crisis. When my son-in-law said he wanted the dog, I said “sure” but later, alone, I paced the floors, distraught. Old feelings surfaced,  like “maybe I don’t deserve to keep him with me”. I wondered how that fit into God’s plan and why I was chosen to take him in and to love him, only to give him back?

Sound familiar? It was the same guilt and anger I had felt, secretly, after my son died.

Later, I marveled at crying over returning a dog to his rightful owner when I barely cried over the death of my brother. And I wondered, not for the first time, what is wrong with me? When will my reactions to separation ever return to “normal”?

What is a “normal” grief default setting?

Giving back the dog represents, to me, the loss of a beloved presence in my daily life. Because I didn’t see that separation coming, I couldn’t prepare myself emotionally in advance by compartmentalizing and turning off those strong attachment feelings. Nor will I be able to after the fact.

Instead, I fell into a familiar and dreaded pit — and that pit is a deep, dark hole.  There is little light in this hole, and so everything feels magnified and larger than life.

After my son’s death, I instinctively put up a force field to protect myself from feeling grief of that magnitude ever again (or so I hoped). At the slightest hint that a loss could be on the horizon (when my mother was dying of cancer, for example, or when a romantic relationship seemed sure to fail), I turned “off” emotionally. But when a surprise loss hits me upside the head, I still feel like a mosquito trapped in a bug zapper. I fall into a profound sadness and my tears fall.

The polarization of feelings, and the resulting emotional roller coaster, is natural. It’s important to know and acknowledge that. This dilemma of loving too little or caring too much may be with me (and possibly you?) forever. Coping with a traumatic separation often means reliving it for a bereaved parent — or learning to sidestep it. It’s hard to “manage” it. Let alone “deal with it.”

Distancing ourselves from grief is a natural way to protect the core – and everything the body does instinctually, mentally and physically, is intended to protect the core life energy. But grief will not be denied. It will be expressed, eventually. Bottled up or shut “off”, it may resurface as an extreme reaction to a loss of a job, a lost opportunity, or a returned pet. I believe that accepting or understanding that altered reality – a changed part of ourselves – will help move us toward a more peaceful and sane existence, and to a greater compassion for ourselves.

And really… can’t we use any help we can get?

Point this week: Go easy on yourself. Be compassionate and understanding about the depth and breadth of the loss you have suffered.  Then work to identify your patterns and to address any problems you become aware of.


  1. Today is the 8th anniversary of our son’s death. I thought I had my feelings under control. My usual way to deal with this day is to get out of town…go to Florida….walk a beach…just meditate at a different spot. This wasn’t possible this year, so I filled my days with business meetings, events, and things to wipe out the possibility of dwelling on that awful day that I had to say good bye to my beloved son.

    I thought I was doing well, until I had a phone call from one of my daughters, yesterday, who asked me “What’s the date today?” And I replied the 17th. She then asked, “What’s the date tomorrow?” And I replied “The 18th”. Wondering where she was going with this. Then she stated very clearly…”January 18th!”. And I was a “goner”. She said to me, “Mom, that’s wonderful…that you didn’t remember…you’re healing. David will be OK with this.” All I could tell her is that “I will certainly remember tomorrow!” And, I tried to let it go….but it haunted me all night. I had a hard time resting….finally just got up and sat and thought about this.

    I made commitments almost back to back for today, thinking it was a good thing. Now, I’m wondering if I’ll “break down” in front of some people I barely know?? Will I keep it together today? Will I act like a sane person?

    For the past few yearsl, I had reasoned with myself that I would not treat today like it’s a memorial day. I would rather celebrate David’s birthday…with a real celebration that I had the privelege of being his mother, here on Earth, for 33 years. I like to spend that day remembering all the good things. Instead, here I am, early this morning, thinking of that awful day…wondering if David had been with me…could I have saved him?

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