We all know the proposed and disputed stages of grief. In fact, they may be the only acceptable topic surrounding grief in our society because they seem to fit so neatly into a prescribed order and timeline. We love the concept of stages because it has order. We reject the complex mess of emotions and non-existent timeline that is true grief because it is the opposite of order.
Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. If only our hearts could be so regimented to follow these steps, arrive at acceptance, and be done with it. The fact is, these are human emotions, and they do not fit neatly into any box. We do more damage to ourselves and our loved ones when we expect them (or expect ourselves) to grieve quietly and "correctly." In fairness, the stages of grief were/are nothing more than a theory, and our lives don't always perfectly line up with intellectual theories.
In my own grief, I can certainly pinpoint moments that I have experienced each of these emotions. They didn't happen in this distinct order, and I still feel each of them from time to time, only with less intensity.
But if I condense my grief and categorize it, I would create another stage to represent the searching. After each of my big losses, my mom's death and later the death of my brother, there were clear times that I felt an overwhelming urge to search for them. Does this fit into Denial? I would argue that it does not. I knew they were gone, and yet I searched. I searched for photos and cards, letters they had written, and videos where I could hear them laugh again—voicemails and old Facebook posts. I would be on a mission to find more. Each piece found felt so validating, as if they were tiny little pieces of what I had lost.
When my mom died, I was living in a small cape cod-style house. It had a small attic area with a slanted ceiling, so you couldn't even stand up in that space. It is where we had stuffed boxes of papers and photo albums when we had moved in and not known where to put them. After her death, I spent hours there. I spent time in that small dusty enclosed space on several occasions. I sat surrounded by boxes and totes and a sense of hope that I would find more of her to soothe the pain. As if the photos of her and cards she had written to me could be sewn together into a blanket to wrap around myself. I searched until I felt that I had found everything, and then I put those tiny pieces of her back into boxes.
Years later, I was living in a different house and grieving a different loss. This time it was my younger brother who suddenly left our lives. I found myself in our basement, among more boxes full of photo albums and parts of our lives that we had stowed away. I took them each out slowly, wanting to savor each part of him that I could find. The smiling baby photos. The bashful teenage years when he would cover his face. Each of these was precious. For hours I would search. In some ways going from the attic of my first loss to the basement of my second loss felt appropriate. They are the bookends of my grief.
My physical searches for them amidst our things came with another component that is less tangible but equally present in both losses—the search within myself. For me, these were long walks and hikes in nature with nothing other than my thoughts and my grief. It is on those meandering walks that I would search my memories and my heart. For me, these searches always came second. I needed to find everything in the physical world that contained some part of them before I could do the more difficult searching on the inside.
These phases of searching were crucial to my grieving process and helped me move forward in my new reality. To me, this process has been equally as important as the more commonly known phases of grief.
I would love to know if others share this experience. Have you found yourself in a state of searching after your loved one has died? Share your experience in the comments if you are comfortable.