If you've ever experienced the loss of a loved one you've also experienced the different stages of grief, even if you can't name them.
Grief is like one of those giant wrecking balls they use to knock down buildings. When it hits you feel yourself crumbling and are powerless to stop it. Something new and more beautiful may grow up in its place but right now you're surrounded by a dust cloud of hurt. Shortly after my mother died, I experienced what I call the Grocery Store Effect. I say grocery store because that is where it happened for me. It could just as easily occur in Target or Home Depot, perhaps even driving your car.
I'd forgotten about the Grocery Store Effect until recently. After my father's funeral was over, the casserole dishes were returned, friends had gone back to work and the world reminded me that in the big scheme of things my loss was nothing more than a speck of sand on the beach of life, I realized the time had come for me to get back to some kind of normalcy. It is different for everybody, but I dare say mundane chores, like doing the laundry and going to the grocery store are the beginning steps we all have to take whether we like it or not. These chores are easy and so routine a zombie could do them. And, let's face it, when a loved one dies, you're going to feel like a zombie for awhile.
Here's how it works.
Once you decide you can not face another meal of stale Saltines, or milk that is long past its don't-drink-this-or you'll-be-sorry date or the bananas from a two week old fruit basket are a questionable shade of black, going to the grocery store becomes just one more thing you have to get through as quickly as possible so you can get back home where you feel safe. Safe is the cocoon you've made for yourself littered with wadded up tissues and other detritus of mourning - Hallmark cards, old photos and a sweat drenched copy of the eulogy you gave.
Not caring how you look, you grab the first thing you see on the top of the clothes heap in the corner of your room. Regardless if it's wrinkled, soiled or inside out you put it on. You brush your teeth out of a habit that just won't quit, but don't bother with your hair. Instead you slap on a ball cap and start the search for your keys.
Getting to the store is as miraculous as finding a dress for the funeral in your size that is on sale. You have no idea how it happened but you take it as a sign that your guardian angel is watching over you. Along with the other shoppers who don't make eye contact or smile even a little, you fight with the carts that are stuck together like the Snickers-smeared playing cards you've been playing Solitaire with. On your second or third try you finally get one out and take it even though the chances are pretty good that one wheel is going to wobble. Who cares you mumble to yourself, you only need a few things.
After fifteen or twenty minutes, as if a hypnotist had just counted to three, snapped his fingers and awakened you from a deep sleep, you become aware of your surroundings. You've been going up and down the aisles looking but not really seeing, throwing things in the rickety cart by rote. But then there you are, standing in front of the Entenmann's bakery items, searching for the cheese filled crumb coffee cake your father liked so much, the one with the layer of cheese all the way through, not just on top, when this song blasts through your fog. That's when you remember for the first time since entering the store that your father (mother, husband, child) died three weeks ago. That's when the tears begin to fall. Right there in the bakery department, or the meat department in front of the county ham slices, or the ice cream freezer when you see rows of neatly stacked Rocky Road ice cream that you'll probably never buy again because your Dad was the only one that liked the marshmallow and nut combo, you stand there crying like the kid who just got smacked for dropping his juice cup for the kazillionth time. Only you aren't making a sound. Your sobs are eerily silent.
The fight or flight part of your brain tries to take over. It begins sending chemical messages for action but your legs pay no attention. Other shoppers begin to walk a wide berth around you. From some little used place in your mind you ask yourself what would Jesus do? You begin to wonder if there is someone watching you go crazy on one of those hidden cameras the store uses to catch shoplifters. How long will it be before they come to help? How will you explain that you were fine until you saw the coffee cake?
Finally, finally you look around and do the only thing you can think of. You pull the ball cap down over your tear-stained face, park your cart and head for the door. Once outside you begin to breathe with some kind of normal rythm. By the time you get to your car your hands have stopped shaking so you decide to risk the drive home. You walk in the back door, throw your purse on the counter and search for the place where you feel comfortable and lost at the same time. You sit in the chair next to your loved one's bed wishing with all you've got left in you that he was there to ask for a bowl of ice cream. And you cry some more.
There are many books written on grief which can be quite helpful. Personally I think that's a little like being on the Titanic and reading a book on water safety. Some things you just have to live through to get to the other side. And trust me, there will be days when you'd rather float away on an iceberg than face another day without your loved one. That said, it never hurts to be forewarned.
Learning to live after loss is different for each of us. You might experience the Grocery Store Effect, or the Car Wash Effect or Lillies Blooming in the Front Yard Effect. They all happen about the same way. You think you're ready to move forward and something happens to remind you of what is gone. There is no known cure for these painful reminders. Yet, ironically, one day in the future you can't even imagine they will be the basis for memories that flood your heart with joy not pain.