‘Isolation’ seems too feeble a word to describe the part of grief that is aloneness, since it suggests a world out there which we could connect with were it not for our state; it is, rather, the kind of aloneness that tells us there is nobody there at all.
If there’s one thing I know about grief it’s that it is relentless. It seems to have some kind of essence of endlessness within it — like depression. If it is here at all, it must be endless. Like death itself, grief confronts us, in the guts, with eternity. The very incomprehensibility of death to the living body (nearly a quote from Damien Hirst’s famous work: I don’t mean to reference the dead cow, but he simply made the point so well) is another element of that essence. I see grief as a drop of ink in water, slowly turning everything black. There’s a sense of being overtaken, of being powerless.
Intimations of death can come like premonitions, like flashbacks to traumatic memories moving the wrong way in time. They can bring fear in their wake, terror, panic, anxiety. But grief itself once the close person has died (I don’t say ‘loved one’ because it can also be, for example, a hated one) strides confidently straight through fear — the worst has happened. That’s the centre of grief, anyway. The ripples around it can cause fear sure enough, for yourself, and for others. But nothing more can happen to the person we mourn, so it’s an absence of fear we feel — a shocking sudden absence of a feeling we may have been feeling for a long time, say if the person was terminally ill.
Another part of the essence of grief is aloneness. ‘Isolation’ seems too feeble a word, since it implies that there’s a world out there full of people and life, which could be contacted and connected to were it not for our state. The kind of aloneness that is a strand within grief tells us that there is nobody there at all. This kind of aloneness is of course slightly unbelievable and irrational, for as long as we are alive we are never really unconnected from other people, which adds to the sense of incomprehensibility. Of course it may also have a premonition of your own death within it, that aloneness.
But let’s stay with the incomprehensibility. All the cells in your body are striving towards understanding, and all of them are rebuffed. This can continue long after the dominance of that ‘stage’ called denial, the initial shock, has passed. Your mind may realise, your emotions may be busy with anger, with regret, guilt, sadness, despair; but all the time your body can be simply striving to believe what it can’t believe.
Paradoxically, this experience of complete aloneness and incomprehensibility is a deeply shared one. The heart of the experience is, I would hazard to guess, though of course it is unprovable, extremely similar for everyone who feels it. And at some time everybody, unless they die young themselves, feels it. What brutally rips us from human connection, from the one human connection we crave, which is no longer possible, is also a powerful source of human connection with everyone else.
I do believe that grief heals only through connection, probably with humans although not necessarily — connections with animals and with nature also heal — and indirect connections with other humans through art. Literature in particular comes into its own here: it can be a lifeline, even reaching back from people who lived centuries ago. That experience can be encapsulated and kept fresh.
When you try your best not to connect, though, telling yourself to get on with it, using the fact that this happens to everybody to denigrate its importance, the grief also remains encapsulated — but not freshly, as in expressions, rather as stuck feeling. Stuck feelings and a stuck-feeling. All that stuckness gets hidden away, sometimes with great difficulty and sometimes all too easily because we have decided that we should be ‘over it’ by now.
Being over something is never a decision.
You can always make the decision, though, to go back and revisit those feelings, if you sense that there’s still a stuck place in you, and some well of emotion that you fear falling into because it will never end, and because it is pointless, because you can’t turn back the clock, because you can’t bring the person back, and because there’s nothing you can do. It is true there’s no action to be taken here to change the past. But the emotions and the whole world of experience has its own truth, and your body has to keep on living. Expressing the grief that’s already there connects you to the living world. Even if that feels like a betrayal, even if what happened is never going to be comprehensible and never going to be okay, it’s what we need to do.
All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .on and was last reviewed or updated by