I call my first year of grief THE YEAR OF SHOCK.
I had my Earth Angel Team and my Light Angel Team. How was I doing? A wee bit better, but I still felt like I would never recover. Like a person after a horrible accident, bandaged from top to bottom, I felt completely traumatized. My husband had almost died 4 times in 3 years and I had experienced every one of those almost-deaths, painfully, until the final one, when I couldn’t believe he had finally, actually, really left. Me. He left me. How could he do that??? After all I had done to SAVE him???
I sat in my home day after day asking myself this question and going from sadness to anger, back and forth. And then, guilt, for feeling that way, and for letting it happen, as if I had any control over his death.
So what happened during the Year of Shock? My heart cracked open, which is the great gift of losing a loved one. And I realized I could go on.
Luckily for me, I didn’t have children to care for, or a job to go to. I was able to sit with the sadness. This is something that western culture doesn’t allow time for. In most other cultures in the world people are given time to mourn. Our culture acts as if death is no big deal and we should “Move On” “Get Busy” “Find Someone Else”, etc. etc. This is a travesty. A grieving person cannot move on without mourning the loss of the loved one; honoring the loved one, the memories, and missing the tangible, physical presence of the loved one.
After my first visit with the therapist at the clinic, I was scheduled for an appointment with a doctor, so I could have my vitals checked. The tests found me to be in pretty good physical shape considering what I’d been through. I’d lost a lot of weight in the 3 months since Hawk died, but, in my case, that was actually a good thing because during the stress of my care giving years I had put on an extra 20 lbs. Losing the weight was better for my heart and other organs.
What wasn’t healthy was my mental state. I was in a constant state of anxiety, I couldn’t sleep or eat, and I continued to have very negative thoughts about trucks hitting me and being okay with that. It felt like a very dark time. The doctor and I discussed antidepressants, but I was highly against them at the time. Being a natural healer, I have a very low opinion of pharmaceuticals and especially antidepressants. In addition, I had read many articles saying that grief needs to be felt, and using antidepressants forestalls the grieving process. Both the therapist and the doctor felt that I needed something to stabilize myself, but they respected my beliefs and put no pressure on me. It was left open as an option.
A month later I was feeling no better. I still had massive anxiety which I had never experienced before in my life. I’d always been able to “get over things” with my WILL POWER. I have so much compassion now for people who have anxiety disorders. I came to realize that I was experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder or PTSD. After years of literally being on the edge waiting for the other shoe to drop my brain was now processing everyday experiences as possible traumas. There were triggers everywhere.
I hadn’t even known about triggers before this. I was always helping others, a healer and a caregiver. I loved people. Now, I couldn’t be out in public or around strangers. I couldn’t carry on a conversation. I couldn’t focus and had to ask my friends to help me take care of things around the house or pay my bills. I remember getting up the courage to go to the grocery store and just crying in front of the clerk. It was something small, but whatever it was, it triggered my PTSD.
I began to research and understand PTSD, but the knowledge couldn’t seem to stop the episodes. By this time, I began to accept that maybe my condition was bigger than I could handle on my own. I wasn’t sleeping, which was making things worse. PTSD and sleep deprivation are a bad combination. I felt helpless and hopeless.
A friend from my Qigong class told me about a local grief counselor who had helped her when her brother died. She had also been sent down the dark spiral and this grief counselor had saved her life. Her name is Lily, and she saved my life too.
I called Lily and she stayed on the phone with me for an hour, no charge, just purely wanting to help me. I could feel it. I could feel she was what I needed at that time. I took the soonest appointment she had available.
It had been three months since Hawk died and even though I began my appointments with Lily, I wasn’t sleeping and continued to have PTSD and severe anxiety. At least now I had someone I could sit with and talk about my grief. I continued to see the therapist at the clinic once a week, and it was these two women, part of my EARTH ANGEL TEAM, that taught me the concept of grief “recovery”. It was possible. They gave me tools to handle my grief, which I will share here on my blog.
I was a challenging patient though because of the extreme PTSD that I have. My doctor, a wonderful, understanding human being (hint: Earth Angel), had explained to me that I wasn’t experiencing just the normal grief from the loss of my husband, which was bad enough. He said that my serotonin levels were completely depleted because of the constant traumas over the past three and a half years. My adrenals had been reacting, going into fight or flight constantly, so they were depleted as well. It’s like trying to pick yourself up by your bootstraps, only you can’t find the boots! In other words, my usual strategies of fixing things on my own, or using my will power to get through things, simply wasn’t working anymore. No matter how much I believed my old strategies for coping would work, I had a chemical imbalance. I needed a little help, a “bridge” he called it, to stabilize.
At this point, I was seeing three therapists – my grief counselor, my therapist from the clinic, and a new therapist who practiced EMDR, or Eye Movement Desensitization Reprocessing. Someone had recommended this for my PTSD. I tried it a few times, but I found that it only exacerbated my anxiety. It wasn’t the right therapy for my personal situation, and I quickly gave that up.
The first month after Hawk died, I was a zombie. My friends brought me food and gave me herbs and other natural products to help me get a few hours sleep here and there. Eventually I was able to move around the house, but the anxiety and fear were so intense, one friend suggested I ask my doctor for some Xanax. He said no because benzoxazepines are highly addictive. Instead, he prescribed Hydroxyzine, which is basically like Benadryl in a pill. He said it would help with my anxiety and that it wasn’t addictive. Looking back, I’m so appreciative of my doctor’s advice. The Hydroxyzine did help. I could take two low dose pills at night and get a bit of sleep.
I’ve never been one to turn to drugs for help, unless I have severe pain, then I will take some ibuprofen. I have to say that the Hydroxyzine was a blessing at that time. I also began to turn to all the natural healing modalities that I knew of. My nervous system was a wreck, obviously, so I sought out healing that I intuitively knew would be calming and act like a sedative. Acupuncture was my first “go to” because I have always resonated with it and weekly sessions were very calming for me. My acupuncturist knew Hawk and had an especial compassion for me (hint: Earth Angel). After each session I would feel peaceful for a few hours. I felt if I strung enough sessions together perhaps I would feel peaceful all the time.
It's funny because even though I love relaxing music I wasn’t able to listen to anything, or to watch a film or read a book. It’s as if any type of stimulation was too much for my nervous system. I was naturally led to modalities that were calming and healing.
I had been practicing Qigong for several years and I continued once I was able to get out of the house. The class was a place where I felt safe. I had good friends there. I found it very helpful to keep the energy moving. I also went to a Restorative Yoga for Trauma class which my friend taught. All of the women in the class had experienced some trauma and were seeking help, so it also felt like a very safe place to be. With my PTSD, feeling safe was very important for me.
Since I was a Cranial Sacral therapist for years, I knew how incredibly helpful it can be for nervous system issues. I had helped many people over the years myself, so I sought out a CS therapist which was extremely healing. Another therapy that is very helpful for the nervous system is Network Chiropractic. I will go into each one of the healing modalities I used in a future post.
I want to stop here and say that I realize that my circumstances allowed me the time to engage in these healing modalities. When Hawk died I got survivor benefits from social security which was a blessing. We own our home, and we had some savings, which allowed me the necessary time to GIVE MYSELF to heal. Each person has individual circumstances, but I believe finding the time to heal, in whatever way works, is important. It may look like I went a little overboard with my healing, but I felt I would have died otherwise, so I was forced to learn that I COME FIRST.
Putting myself first? WHAT??? This was a very new concept for me. It meant tuning into my needs at every moment. I started forcing myself to cook food and eat it. I got up, got dressed and went to my various therapists, classes and healers. TAKING CARE OF ME became my priority, and I’m sure Hawk and my other guides and Light Angels were helping me along. Each day I would come home after my various classes and therapies and sit in a comfortable chair for two or three hours. I would put my right hand on my 3rd chakra (solar plexus) and my left hand on my 4th chakra (heart) and breathe deeply in and out. It is very grounding. Sometimes I would fall asleep. I did this every day and continue to do it as often as I can.
In spite of all my best efforts, the PTSD was still a BIG problem. Anxiety and fear continued to plague me. My doctor suggested Prozac, an antidepressant that has been around for 25 years with no side effects. He really understood my extreme reluctance to take any drugs that I felt would affect my brain. He suggested I take the smallest dose, 10 milligrams. I took it for two weeks and it did nothing. The anxiety and sleepless nights continued. That's when I asked for the Xanax and got the Hydroxyzine instead, which did help me get to sleep, but would only last 4 or 5 hours. My doctor was suggesting that I up the dose of the Prozac. He explained that everyone’s constitution was different and many people have to try several different antidepressants before they find one that works for them.
I was really torn. All my life I had tried to heal myself naturally, usually with great results. For some reason I felt like taking an antidepressant meant I was giving up.
Looking back, I realize that is exactly what it was and exactly what I needed at the time. I needed to GIVE UP thinking that I could fix my grief. Rather, I needed to give in to it. I needed to STOP and REST. I was exhausted from grief, from 3 and half years as a caregiver, from not sleeping. I talked with friends and family and tried to get advice on what I should do. I didn’t want to impair my grieving process by anesthetizing myself – many articles I read suggested this is what would happen. I feared I might become catatonic or changed in some awful way. I listened to many stories from different people on their experiences with antidepressants. It was my cousin who turned the tide for me. I consider her to be a very mentally healthy, stable person. Twenty years ago she had experienced a very traumatic divorce. She said she took Prozac for 6 months and it saved her life. My therapist kept saying that it could act as a bridge to stabilize me. I began to open the door to that possibility. I knew I needed help. I wasn’t getting any better, only worse. What could I lose?
I saw my doctor again and he upped the dose to 20 milligrams. The first night I took it my life changed. I felt better the next day. It felt like a miracle. I couldn’t believe it. Another letting go - letting go of old beliefs and allowing newness in. Instantly, I wasn’t fearful anymore. I could go out in public and interact with people. I began to be able to sleep at night for a few hours at a time. I still woke up a lot, but I was able to go back to sleep. With sleep comes higher functioning during the day. As the months went by, even though I was still deeply grieving, I was able to function in my daily life. There it was again, that small ember that wanted me to live.
My doctor explained that what happens in extreme trauma, like what I’d experienced, is that serotonin levels decrease until there is none left to cope with stress, especially if there is not enough serotonin to begin with. This is common in people who have experienced traumatic childhoods, which was definitely my case. Traumatic experiences pile one upon the other until the nervous system reaches a breaking point, hence the old terminology “nervous breakdown”.
It’s complicated, but low serotonin levels involve your entire endocrine system including your adrenals, cortisone and other hormones. I was basically sick and getting sicker by the day. And the lack of sleep wasn’t helping – it’s during deep sleep that your body repairs itself, emotionally and physically.
This might be a good time to mention that there is no separation between the physical and emotional. If people do not allow themselves to grieve, it will probably show up in the body somewhere.
Prozac is an SSRI (Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitor). In simple terms, SSRI’s slow down the uptake of serotonin, thereby inducing your body to make more to replace what is missing. There are many antidepressants on the market and it is quite varied which ones work for which people. The doctor said that some people try several before they find one that works for them.
For whatever reason, whether earthly or heavenly, or a combination of both, 20mg of Prozac was magic for me. I began to be able to sleep a few hours during the night, my appetite increased and I could carry on a conversation almost better than I ever had my whole life! I noticed I felt much more confident and the anxiety definitely began to dissipate. I felt so grateful, and I realized that everything I was doing to help myself was a sign that I DID want to continue going on living. Whereas, before, well…like I said…a truck would have been fine with me.
My truck never came though. For one year I took the same dose of Prozac every day. I started to go out more and added some more Earth Angels to my life. Here is a list of what I did the first year of my grief to help myself, besides taking the Prozac:
1. Behavioral Therapist once a week. (The one that took me into her office during crisis.)
2. Grief Counselor once a week.
3. Grief Group – once a week for 12 weeks
4. Qigong Classes – 3 times per week plus at home
5. Acupuncture – once or twice a week
6. Cranial Sacral Therapy – once a week
7. Network Chiropractic – once a week
8. Restorative Yoga for Trauma – once a week plus at home
9. 2 or 3 hours of just sitting with myself, feeling, every day
10. 3 mile walk in nature every day
I spoke only to my therapist and grief counselor about my grieving process. I learned that friends would soon grow tired of my grief. It’s only natural because grief is personal. They were compassionate and loving, but after a while I learned that it was better for me to just enjoy my time with them, going out to lunch or going for a walk, rather than pour out my grief to them every time I saw them.
It may seem like all these therapies would be incredibly expensive, and I guess they could be, but because I was a healer, I was able to do trades or work out other arrangements. Some practitioners let me make payments, some charged me “friend” rates. There are so many ways to exchange for healing sessions; house cleaning, errand running, hair cutting, the list goes on and on. Of course, in the first few months, my therapies were gifted to me out of the goodness of hearts and I am eternally grateful to everyone who stepped forward to help me during those times. I honestly do not know how I would have made it without my EARTH ANGELS!
As I move forward and heal I hope to be more emotionally available again to help others. One thing I've learned throughout my grief recovery is that a person cannot give from an empty cup. Our cups are at varying degrees of fullness at different times in our lives. When our cup is below empty, we need to fill it. When our cups are overflowing, we are more able to give. It's important to know at what level our cup is so that we don't become depleted. Thankfully, there are many helpers out there whose cups are full when we need them!