It was the worst experience of my life. I thought I would die from the pain. Sam dumped me after 14 months.
When we meet it was as the old saying goes, fireworks and an intensity I had not known in my previous relationship at University. He was 6 years younger than me but funny and wise and joyful.
When he told me outside his friend’s house one cold night I could not believe it. I went through many of the commonly described stages of grief:
First it was a shock reaction, I felt that my mind had just been unzipped from the world and I was free floating, this was surreal. Then came bargaining, as I called him the next day and tried to fathom what had gone down, get a reprieve, and answers to that big ugly gnawing monster – WHY? The waves of grief swelled in me, from the tips of my toes to the top of my head and extracted themselves from my body in violent sobs. I could not eat, I slept early, and woke up early and did not know what to do with my useless hurting self. I would ring his house at 6am and pour my heart out to his Mum . When I think of it now, I cringe with shame ! Really HIS mum ?!
I had a huge handbag of emotional pain that I was forced to carry around with me and could not put down for a nanosecond of relief. The moments of purging numbness after the crying lasted too short a time, like those seconds after you have just vomited before the nausea starts to grip you again. Waking up in the morning was the worst. That delicious second of not knowing before the inevitable, “Oh yes, this is my new reality”. I wanted to stay asleep until the pain was washed out of my system.
I needed to medicate to be upright and mobile and it helped to control the tears and extreme anxiety to a degree. The people around me were mildly grudgingly supportive. One friend took me to work with her, only to ask me to leave as I was crying at my desk. I had a strange visceral sense of my emotional mind maturing. I felt it also as a physical sensation, my hands growing in front of my eyes. Almost as if I was shedding an old emotional skin and becoming a different wiser me. I went from laughing with abandon, to laughing with a worldly knowing, and the laughter was somehow tainted now. “Ah now I see…. life experiences can really cut into your soul, can’t they?’
Then came the insipid functioning depression.
I zombie walked through all the things people tell you to do. I joined a theatre group, tried to go out with the few friends I had, tried to read inspirational books, and kept telling myself it will get better in 3 months. Three months later a friend mentioned “ him” with his new girlfriend, I felt myself disintegrate and I was back at day one, sobbing and obsessively ruminating. If I could avoid talking about him or thinking of him I was tentatively safe. I was furious with her, how dare you take me back! I was told that I was shelving the pain not dealing with it. I didn’t even know what this meant. I went out for dinner with a woman who knew him and one of my other friends. She mentioned him once, I felt I could not breathe and left them both in the restaurant while I went for a walk.
It took me two years to feel fully “normal” but not happy. After 9 months, I caught myself singing in the car and knew I was back. I also felt a grey cloud lift from my head- yes, it’s a cliché but it’s true. I didn’t even know it was there until I felt it leave.
I had left my previous two-and-a-half-year relationship without so much as shedding a tear. What was so different about this one?
I , and others , were uncomfortable and surprised at the ferocity and the raw primal display of my grief. A boyfriend really? Come on, your Mum didn’t die, did she? I felt guilty and weak.
Why was the effect so profound and soul annihilating for me? Other people seem to cope better with relationship break ups…. They eat tons of ice-cream from the container, laugh/cry on the phone to their bestie, drink wine until they pass out, then they say “f***K him!” and go out dancing.
It took me a while to answer this. One day many years later, I was reading a book on grief and Loss and it jumped up from the page like a splash and hit me in the eye.
Aha… I had experienced complicated grief. Grief takes many shapes and complicated or prolonged grief is the sort of mourning that has extra legs to it. The period of mourning is intense, obsessive, lasts longer than most grief periods and can stop a person functioning through its unfolding, as well as sometimes freezing the individual in an endless cycle of pain responses that is relentless and unchanging in nature. It is often associated with other connected issues around the grief experiences, which in some ways lends itself also to the notion of “compounded” grief.
1.A death, where the person was in conflict at the time with the deceased individual or had unresolved issues with their relationship.
- Traumatic death, where the individual died suddenly in a horrifying way, violent way, freak accident or in an unexplained or unjust way.
- The loss means the end of a role for the person who is left behind, such as a carer, parent, only friend, spouse, close relative and the person suddenly finds they must take control of things that the deceased person once did, such as finance controller, homemaker, main breadwinner.
- Guilt. The person still alive could have somehow prevented the death. For example, a car crash where the person driving survives but their passenger dies.
- The loss is associated with another number of losses prior to, and in relative quick succession after the death or loss, such a job loss, status loss, financial loss, loss of health, death of a pet, loved one etc.
- The person has a bio-genetic predisposition to emotional dysregulation associated with mental health issues.
So why me?
Let’s back track a little, I had been in a high-profile job on TV for two and a half years which came to an end only to find me waitressing in a horrible restaurant in another city afterwards. What a crash! I eventually got a job touring theatre and loved it. I felt immense relief as I really had little training as a performer and did not believe I was talented. I also now had Sam!
Then I was told by the theatre company I would be touring Australia for 80 per cent of the following year so would not be home much at all. Sam was not impressed. He wanted me to stay, give up the touring. So, I did.
It was the worst decision I could have made. Sam dumped me 6 months later. I had experienced, three losses in a row, two great jobs, and a boyfriend in the space of two years. Couple this with loneliness and lack of confidence.
Complicated grief is the sort of grief that comes with layers and creates that cumulative effect of too much to deal with in too short a time, a bit like labour without the period of calm before the next contraction.
Berit Brogaard, D.M.Sci., Ph.D. writes, /www.psychologytoday.com/blog/the-mysteries-love
The emotional responses to a severe breakup can resemble the responses to death. But death is not the only trigger of grief. Grief can occur after any kind of loss: The loss of a job, the loss of a limb, the loss of your home or the loss of a relationship. Complicated grief is like obsessive-compulsive disorder. Low levels of serotonin cause the obsessive thinking and yearning for the person or the relationship, and the dopamine responses that this kind of obsessive thinking and yearning give rise to cause the grief to continue.
It never occurred to me that I may have been suffering complicated grief. In fact, I didn’t even know it was “normal “grief at the time. Many people, hate diagnoses, and we all seem to pin ourselves these days with designer disorders, but I embrace them. They can give meaning and essence to intense feelings and for me legitimise the extent of pain and suffering IN ME, not seen in the responses of others with similar life struggles. Remembering that nothing happens to us in a vacuum and our individual back stories are as unique as our fingerprints is imperative to foster compassion and support. I will never again compare anyone’s life stressors and responses with mine. What looks identical on the outside has very different ingredients -always.
Grief is like a tooth filling- you get one eventually no matter how much you brush your teeth . Grieving takes time, but its what you do with that time that is most important. Talking through your feelings will help to lessen the burden and gradually heal you through what is a very natural process.
Grieving and can’t cope ? Call me I can help. 0408120830