It’s such a common experience that I can’t really claim to be surprised, but I’ve always found it noteworthy how many of us mourners think we’re going insane. Not without reason. All your landmarks and sustaining pleasures have evaporated. Suddenly, working in the garden has become a chore, not the habitual refuge it once was. You’ve worn the same slacks now for six days running, but don’t really care because you never leave the house anyway. Last week a presumed friend suggested in thinly veiled terms she considered you a threat to her marriage, and you find yourself railing at God even though you don’t believe She exists. And you’re still reticent to donate your deceased husband’s shoes because he may need them. You know very well he’s not coming back, but better to hold onto them just in case.
What is wrong with you?! Apart from the fact there are good reasons to delay making significant decisions when your mind is in a fog and your energy is in absentia, the bad news is yes, you have lost your mind. But the good news is that it’s a temporary insanity, it’s completely normal and not a crime, and even if it were criminal no jury of your peers (those who “get it”) would convict you.
But most of your acquaintances don’t in fact get it. The support and sympathy so evident in the first months gradually gives way to “you really should be over this by now,” accompanied by impatient implications that there must be something wrong with you. And of course there is. You are suffering, body and mind. “ But remember, your grief is your own, and no one can tell you when it’s time to “move on” or “get over it.” You may have been told “Bob would want you to move on and be happy.” Of course he would, but that has nothing to do with the raw pain you feel now that Bob has been torn from your life. Another well intentioned myth, “You’ve got to be strong!” No you don’t, not now, not yet. What you’ve got to be is yourself. And even if you are by nature emotionally strong, don’t be surprised to find yourself weeping at unexpected times in unexpected places. Grief has rightly been described as a roller coaster ride, not a neat progression of stages.
What about visual hallucinations or hearing voices? Surely that can’t be normal, can it? Actually, they happen with surprising frequency. In his new book “Hallucinations,” New York University neurologist and author of “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” writes that such visions often have “a positive and comforting role” and they may play “an important part in the mourning process.” Especially in the first year or two after a loss when they are most frequent. A friend of Sacks named Ray tells the author of his experience just days after the death of his father, when he awoke in the middle of the night and saw a vision of him sitting on the corner of his bed, wearing his khaki slacks and a tan polo shirt. Ray continued: “He sat there for a moment and then said — did he speak or just convey the thought? — ‘Everything is all right.'” The vision never recurred, but Ray had no doubt of what he had seen. “I do not know whether this was a hallucination or something else,” he told Sacks, “but since I provisionally do not believe in the paranormal, it must have been.” [a hallucination} Less anecdotally, a study at the University of Goteborg found that 82% of elderly subjects experienced hallucinations within the first month of losing their spouse, 71% after 3 months, and 52% after one year, which were generally experienced as pleasant and helpful.
So, hold on tight during that rollercoaster ride. You’ll have your share of high points, but you’ll also be exposed to a range of frightening emotions before you disembark—shock, numbness, despair, isolation, anger, depression, anxiety, sleeplessness, guilt, increased or decreased appetite, and questioning your faith—to name a few. At times you may not recognize yourself and act in uncharacteristic ways. But try not to worry…it’s a temporary insanity.
. “No man is sane who does not know how to be insane on the proper occasions.”
—Henry Ward Beecher