I think I have learnt a lot about grief in the last year. I have definitely learnt a lot about how grief affects me. I suspect that my consensus is very similar to what most people who feel grief would think: it is not pretty.
It is not pretty mostly because grief doesn’t like to be alone. Grief likes to bring things along with it for you to cope with while you’re also busy coping with grief itself. It brings shame, loneliness, anxiety, panic, mental blocking, stress and sickness along with it. Grief is not kind. Grief is not pretty.
What is hard for me to talk about, and I think hard for people to understand, is that when I lost Stella I lost a very large part of myself. This is where the shame comes in, because it’s not really ‘normal’ for an attachment of this nature to affix itself to a dog. Dogs are lovely and people like them and people get sad when they die. But people move on, people get new dogs because life is like that.
I could’t do that. And I had so many mixed feelings about it. I was ashamed of both the fact that I couldn’t move on and the fact that I wanted to move on. I was ashamed of the idea of having to explain how I felt and why I still felt it and why it wasn’t going away. I was ashamed of still feeling like crying at least once a day, if not every couple days. I re-learnt how to hold myself back, like in the old days of hardships. I learnt to hide it, for the most part anyway. My family knew, but I hid it from the rest of the world. I hid it from friends (what friends?) and work and university. I tried to push it aside and forget about it.
But I can’t forget. Grief will not let me forget. This is where the loneliness comes in. Despite how long I had now gone without Stella, I was still feeling a crippling loneliness. A special kind of loneliness that comes when you lose someone specific in your life that you had there for so long. I’ve experienced this in the past with heartbreak, but that at least was by choice. This was different. This was someone that had been taken from me. This was not my choice. When she disappeared, she took part of me with her. The part that I had carved into myself when she entered my life. Now a piece of me is missing. Now there is nothing there.
This is where the anxiety comes in. Because if there was something missing, how was I ever going to get it back? By now I have pretty much accepted that Stella is gone forever. But the anxiety over never being able to get over this is and was crippling. My grief was so extreme that I was concerned that it would never go away. And the problem here is that the longer this went on, the worse the anxiety got. Because I wasn’t feeling any better over time. Time was not helping. In fact, one of my worst ‘episodes’ of grief was only about a month ago, eighteen months after she’d already disappeared.
This is where the panic comes in. Because I was so anxious and so lonely and so sad my brain could not effectively cope with the level of grief. I began to feel a terrifying feeling come over me; a feeling that once I started to be sad, once I started to cry, that I’d never be able to stop. It became a terrible unknown to me and when I was faced with it, I felt legitimate panic. I would lie in bed late at night, alone, hyperventilating because I could feel it starting up. I could feel the sobs working their way to my mouth, to escape from me. It still happens, occasionally.
This is where the mental blocking comes in. To save myself from that terrible unknown, I learnt to block it out. Not only had I learnt to hide it from the world, I learnt to hide it from myself. I purposely evaded mentions of Stella. If I felt myself getting too sad, I forced myself to move on to something else.
This is where the stress comes in. With all of this shit going on in my head all the time while also trying to cope with major life changes anyway, I began to live in a constant state of stress. I began worrying and obsessing about money, about owing money to people, about budgeting. I worried about getting enough hours at work to make enough to eat. I worried about not being able to handle four units at university which ultimately led to me dropping two of them. I worried about not getting good enough grades. I worried that I was wasting everybody’s time.
This is where the sickness comes in. Such high amounts of stress ultimately led to my body physically becoming unable to cope. As soon as I was back in Melbourne, back to ‘normal life’, the sheer magnitude of what I was dealing with came on in full force and manifested itself through sickness. I got very sick and I have stayed that way all year. Suddenly everything I was putting in my mouth was harming me. I was feeling nauseated by the simplest foods. I lost a bunch of weight that I have so far not been able to put back on. I started experiencing all kinds of symptoms that made day to day life difficult and made eating unpleasant. Eating, cooking, food — things that I had found such joy in suddenly became things that I began to resent. There didn’t seem to be a pattern to what was making me ill; almost everything I ate had some negative effect. I was sick, I was stressed and I was grieving.
2012 was not my year.
It’s only been the last few months that I’ve been able to get on top of a lot of these issues. I am still not healed, I am still not well, but I am on my way there, at least. It took me a long time to figure out this pattern, to work out what had happened to me and why I had become the husk of my former self. But the answer is quite simple, really: Grief. I am grieving.
This experience has taught me that grief is not pretty. It is not easy. It is not simple. It is not black and white. It does not just mean you are sad. It can mutate into a terrible monster that you might not have been mentally or physically capable of dealing with. It will damage you in ways that you did not expect and do not know how to fix. What took very little time to damage will take much, much longer to repair.
I will never, ever judge someone’s grief now. I like to think that I wouldn’t have before, but I feel rather intimate with grief now and I can say wholeheartedly that I will not judge the grieving. Not ever. I will allow them to do what they have to do to cope. That is all they can do.
I am proud of my accomplishments last year. They are worth more when you consider that I was cloaked in grief the whole time, I think.
And Stella? I will never forget her. I am trying to let myself feel everything for her. I am trying to be OK. But it’s not pretty.