Grief is many things to many people. There is no singular experience that defines the process. My own experience since the loss of my son to heroin, three years ago, is different from my wife’s, which again differs from many other bereaved parents that we have come to know. There does, however, seem to be an overall environment and process of grief that describes aspects shared by many. I see it as the “Elephant in the room.”
The internal experience of grief can be liked to finding yourself in a small dark and musty room. At first it feels like a small closet and I find myself constricted in this room by the elephant who now also inhabits this space. It is probably an African elephant as their massive weight can exceed 10,000 pounds. There is really no room for both of us but he is massive and stronger than I, so I find myself squeezed against a wall by his hefty body. It is so tight that I cannot get a breath in and feel as if I will suffocate. I try to adjust my position to get relief but movement is impossible. I fear that I will die here, that no one can survive this. I panic and start hyperventilating but not getting a complete breath. I think to myself Slow your breathing down, Take it easy. You are still alive. Yet I see no way out. His effect over my survival feels all encompassing and overpowering. He is in control, not me.
Moments feel like hours and days like months with no imaginable relief on the horizon. I tell myself to just take one breath at time until I figure something out. This elephant has to move sometime, I think to myself. Eventually, I’m not sure if it is months or years later, (time seems to have no relative meaning now) I begin to feel a slight release of pressure on my chest. He must have shifted the weight of his massive girth to his other leg. My ability to breath gets a little easier. At times I can accomplish a deep breath. There is now an experience of less pressure on my chest, but I still feel him against me and struggle against his musty, acrid odor. He is certainly not about to give me much room to exist in here. He is a tyrant without concern for my well being. He continues to exert control and at times leans in against me, forcing the air out of my lungs as if to remind me who’s boss. I get it. I’m along for the ride. Just go with it and try to survive, even for just today.
Over time it feels as if he lost a few pounds. I can sometimes actually perceive space around his shape. I can see another corner of the room and get a sense that there is space in here. He is less overwhelming, though never out of my personal space or visual perspective. I think I can get through another day. I can breathe a little better.
I can envision that there is room for other concerns that used to occupy my mind like work, paying my bills, and concern for other family members. These thoughts, however, exist as if they are barnacles on the elephants body; separate concerns but intimately connected to him and still dependent on him and his whims.
As his weight slowly diminishes, I can see more open space around his body. I now see a window and affirm that indeed, life is still going on outside. The world has not stood still as I had imagined it did. I can see people going about their business as if nothing is wrong. How can you do that. Don’t you all see that nothing is the same and never will be. Life is not normal anymore. They cannot hear me from my entombment in this room with a massive elephant as my master. I begin to realize that he is here to stay. He has been with me long enough that he now has “squatters rights” and I cannot throw him out. We will have to learn to co-habitate.
Eventually we get into an unspoken agreement. He will stay on his side of the room a let me be for short periods of time so I can focus on other aspects of my life, but never out of my sight. I can always hear him breathing, sense the heat off his body and smell his musky odor. I have tried to “rearrange the furniture” in the room to re-establish a new life and feel a fresh start. This can actually feel good and refreshing to not think about his presence for a while. At times, and often unpredictably, he may decide that he does not like my new attitude and roar up in rage to remind me that he is still the boss. The new arrangement is upended and the remnants of the furniture become scattered about the room. I need to learn to respect his power and allow for his occasional outbursts.
I try to make the most of the times that he may be sleeping so that I can spend time with other thoughts and feelings and maybe get something accomplished. Once in a while lately I find that he’s left for the weekend. His obnoxious odor still fills the air in the room but I can ignore it for a while and try to enjoy the temporary reprieve. He is never away for long, though, and may quickly and unexpectedly reappear up in my face again. He is a needy animal who easily become jealous and demands my attention and respect. At times he feels the need to demonstrate his power by pressing his girth against me, constricting my breathing again. I have come to learn now that he will eventually tire of this and shift his weight off my body.
I’ve heard that elephants have a long lifespan, up to sixty years, and so I need to settle in for the long run. He will always occupy my internal space, but we are learning each others’ needs and whims. I know that he can throw a tantrum at any moment and re-establish his dominance. Though at times caught off guard, I have learned to “let him blow off steam” with the knowledge that after a while he will settle down again and let me breathe. I have accepted that we are roommates for life, but I can now find new routines and opportunities for appreciating life while he sleeps in his corner, though always respecting his unpredictability and power.