Living in grief, if it is anything, is sheer exhaustion.
It is doing something- living- that every cell in your body screams against. Not because you are suicidal, but just because you do not feel alive. It is something you must convince yourself to do on a conscious level- “Yes, I am alive. I am here. I have to get up out of bed and live today.” People who are not grieving, except for perhaps the severely depressed, do not have to have this thought consciously.
I found a perfect description for why it is so tiring in a book I’ve been reading about the seven most important skills for children to learn called “Mind in the Making.” Skill number one is focus and self-control. The fourth point in the chapter is called “Inhibitory Control.” It reads:
“Think about your day so far and tally up the times you were on automatic pilot- when you didn’t really have to think or make tough decisions about what you were doing, such as getting up, getting dressed, brushing your teeth, or getting your favorite food for breakfast. These tasks didn’t require much conscious focus or self-control; you just did them.”
Not so for the griever. Every act- getting up, getting dressed, eating, takes deliberate effort and focus. The limbic part of the brain is always on overdrive and there is little room for anything else.
It goes on:
“Now think about the times that were just the opposite- where you had to make a real effort to stick with the task and be intentional about what you wanted to achieve. These times demanded what is called inhibitory control- or what some researchers, such as Mary Rothbart of the University of Oregon, refer to as effortful control.”
Yes, effortful control. The examples given: you inhibit when you pay attention to your child even though a conversation with a friend is distracting you; you inhibit your strong inclination to give up after a failure; you inhibit your behavior and think before you act; you continue doing something even though you’re bored or otherwise uninterested.
Effortful control. When your’e grieving, it requires this kind of control almost 24/7. Yes, not only paying attention to your child when you’re upset about a conversation with a friend, but singing with her, reading with her, laughing with her, and caring for her when inside you are trying to process the fact that her eyes look just like her father’s and he is now dead? Yes, not only not giving up after a failure, but not giving up when you feel as though you are done. Yes, filtering your actions and words- inhibiting the desire to scream or cry in public. And yes, continuing to do something- which in this case is live- even though everything in you calls to the contrary.
Effortful control. I would also liken it to trying to walk a straight line to prove you are sober when you are obviously quite drunk. That is the kind of effort it takes each day. For me personally, I’ve noticed the three toughest times- the ones that feel like I am climbing a mountain are: 1) getting up out of bed in the morning 2) getting out of my chair at the table after we eat a meal so I can clean up. 3) Getting out of the car after we pull into our parking lot. Sometimes Audrey asks me, “Mommy, why are we sitting here?” “Mommy just needs a minute…”
And the most challenging task requiring the highest level of inhibitory control that I face: standing at your grave and believing that you are not there. When all evidence is against it- that you are not lost, but found. That for you, it is not the end, but the beginning.
“This is the end– but for me the beginning — of life.”
Last recorded words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer to a friend right before being hanged by the Nazis for a plot to kill Hitler.