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Feeling Out Of Control During Grief

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I've been thinking a lot lately about how my efforts over the last few years of learning how to recognize what I can and can't control in life seems to recently be showing some fruits of my labors. It really took the death of my daughter to get me to this point, and in hindsight I now understand why. I wrote about it on a grief support site I manage (www.aliveinmemory.org) and wanted to share with all of you in case it might help anyone. Maria

Grief and the Loss of Control

Possibly one of the hardest aspects of grief for me has been that I can’t control it.

I spent the majority of my life trying desperately to control everything in it. I wanted life to be predictable and – above all – peaceful. The problem has been what I tried to control and how I’d gone about it. I spent many, many years trying to control the people and situations around me through careful, strategic use of my own words, actions (or lack thereof), and responses. It was exhausting and depressing. And as you can imagine, it never really worked. Maybe I could temporarily create the illusion of control; but it would never last.

Many, including myself, try to control our lives out of a need to feel safe or secure in our surroundings. Fear of the unknown can be incredibly scary, and even panic-inducing. When situations or people around us cause us to experience uncomfortable feelings like hurt, anxiety, frustration, anger, or guilt, we tend to want to do anything and everything to make those feelings subside. Sometimes, we can take various actions to change the situation or influence the person to behave differently. But sometimes, we are completely at the mercy of unpredictability and the unknown.

Death and grief are one of those times.

On the day my daughter drowned, amid all the chaos of trying to revive her, I remember pleading with whoever happened to be listening to save her. I can hear myself screaming: “Please save her. Please. Please. Oh god. NO. PLEASE SAVE HER. SHE CAN'T DIE,” amid hysterical sobs and falling to my knees. The idea that she was dead and couldn’t be saved was unacceptable. No. Through sheer determination, I would will her back to life. And yet even on that day while I watched the paramedics and then the ER staff desperately work on her, part of me knew she had already died.

The grief that took over in the aftermath of her death was overwhelming. Looking back, I’m not sure what was worse: the excruciating pain of missing my daughter, or the complete and utter lack of control of anything. I couldn’t change what happened and bring her back to life. I couldn’t control my thoughts or emotions and was a complete wreck. Things that used to be automatic and easy, like cooking or showering were unbearable and almost impossible. I could no longer tell my other children that “everything would be ok” when I couldn’t possibly imagine that anything would ever be “ok” again.

But it wasn’t just a loss of control. It was being face-to-face with the unknown. Questions raced through my head. What if I had just stopped to play with her the last time she asked? What if I had brought her with me that morning? Why did it happen to us? Will I ever be ok again? What is going to happen to my family? My other children? My marriage? What happens after we die? Will I ever see her again? None of these questions could be answered. I couldn’t control any of it by choosing the “right” words or actions.

As time went on, my grief took many unexpected twists and turns. I never knew how I would feel from one moment to the next. I never knew what would trigger my emotions and leave me a crying mess, or in an angry rage, or in a state of panic. And the triggers themselves were random and unpredictable. I would desperately try to figure out what triggered me to try to avoid it in the future. But most of the time, I felt completely out of control. And despite attending counseling and support groups, there was nothing I could really do about it.

I’m not sure when I came to terms with it. I’m not sure when I accepted that grief, in its very nature, is unpredictable and uncontrollable. But when I did finally accept it, it had an unexpected result: I felt relief. It was as if a weight had been lifted off my shoulders. Now, when intense grief appears seemingly out of nowhere, I am better able to accept it, process it, seek support for it, and know that it will eventually pass.

I don’t know what the future will bring, but for the first time in my life, I’m ok with that. I no longer hope for the best while expecting the worst. I no longer try to control others with my words and actions. Instead, I try to speak the truth and express my feelings and needs. I’m ok with focusing on the here and now, yet not forsaking planning for the future. It takes less energy. It produces less anxiety. It provides more contentment. It allows me to enjoy the moment.

But I would be lying if I didn’t admit I still wish I could change the past.

I love and miss you Margareta.

Edited by MartyT
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Dear Maria,

Your words helped me in many ways. My husband Doug left almost two years ago on 7 February, 2012. I am only beginning to let go of control of my grief, to get help with my trauma stress related to his leaving, and to begin to accept that I am now alone. Yes, once I begin to learn I cannot control the grief, I am seeking out more help. Thank you for affirming how scary and disorienting grief can be when it arrives without any apparent reason.

There are so many things you said which resonated with my heart, but what touched me most was a visit to your web site, and reading some of the beautiful and loving memories there. You give words to love and to a Mother's sorrow. Bless you. Thank you for sharing with so many. Thank you for sharing with us here.



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  • 3 months later...

Part of my losses include my parents dying within a day and a half of each other. I flew from NY to Florida to visit them both in the hospital. I had no idea what was about to happen was even a remote possibility. As I flew on the plane to FL I was relaxed and even enjoying myself. They were on the same floor in the hospital in rooms next to each other. 24 hours after getting there my father died. 36 hours later my mother died. I was staying in my mother's room with her and so I never left the unit and was present when all this happened. When I got back to NY I was so afraid to sleep in my bedroom. Seeing both of my parents dead in their hospital beds had so traumatized me, I could only let go of the extreme panic by sleeping on the living room floor. I eventually moved my bed into the living room. My bedroom and bed reminded me of their hospital rooms and dead bodies. One thing grief does is make us very vulnerable and hence I started to experience severe panic. I believed I was now going to die. Not from health problems per se but die based on the way I felt. My feelings told me I was dying or about to die. Traumatized and in shock for a long time I was in physically in the present but functioning in an other worldly mentality. I couldn't function, couldn't keep up with my hygiene and my emotions told me my life was now a horror movie. While in the midst of this and prior to this I lost two more family members. One 8 months before my parents and then one less than a year after. I am in counseling now 2x per week. I need it badly. I am recovering from trauma. Panic attacks are common where I feel I must go to the local mental health emergency room (I haven't yet because they don't offer anything other than you get to see a psychiatrist and I can't be bothered...so I think I still have some of my marbles) but I discovered hotlines and call them when I begin to panic. Fears of the future have taken hold and a delightful assortment of grief and trauma surviving behaviors. When Humpty Dumpty fell off the wall he had to be put back together again. He had gotten broken. Tremendous grief, trauma breaks us. And we have to be repaired. How that is done varies from person to person. However I do know for sure now what "breaking under the strain" means first hand. I have an aging cat with a chronic illness and started crying tonight that the stress of taking care of her and anticipating her death was too much for me to handle alone. And yet, alone I am. I don't have a significant other nor do I have the kind of close friends or relatives who can be a part of my journey with Emerald. I visited a neighbor tonight and opened up but that was short lived. While talking to her she got a text message on her cell phone and said "Oh, this is not good. I am sorry but I am going to have to call my daughter". And so she kind of gently rushed me out of the apartment and I came back to mine. I am glad I reached out but was struck by the irony of technology. She got a text message on her phone while I was opening up to her which resulted in me being cut off and told her text message was not good and she was going to have to proceed with that but she was sorry. I am glad I can see the humor in the way technology isn't always the best thing. Damn those text messages! :)

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Unless it was life or death, your neighbor should have dealt with her text AFTER you left, not rushed you out of there! I am so sorry that was your experience. One of the problems we have with all of the texting is people unable to connect, which is ironic because that's what they're supposedly doing with texting, but it's like they can't connect on a deep level, only a superficial one.

So I'm not the only one that has a hard time with the "bed"...since my husband passed nine years ago, I sleep in a recliner. While it's true that I breathe better with my head elevated (I have allergies and Asthma), my real reason is I hate facing the big empty bed without George in it. Perhaps if I used a twin bed it wouldn't be so bad. I know your association is different, but the point is, we're both left affected by grief so that we can't enjoy our bedrooms the way they were meant.

Why would you need a psychiatrist because you're grieving? That would only be if you had other issues! What would really be of help is a grief counselor, would your insurance cover that? If not, you can usually find someone inexpensive or on a sliding scale, and it can be very helpful to help guide you through this maze of grief, help you deal with residual issues...losing both of your parents so close together cannot be an easy thing to deal with!

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