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It’s like losing control of everything!

It’s like losing control of everything! | After the Heartbreak
It’s like losing control of everything!

Imagine this. You’re juggling a dozen or more brightly coloured balls, keeping them carefully spaced apart and all in the air at the same time. It’s not easy but you are well practiced and so your hands grab each ball at exactly the right time to grasp it, and flick it on it’s way before the next one comes around.

And then…. they all fall to the ground at exactly the same time. Crash!!!

What if this was your life, and all the balls are the various aspects of your life that you keep in motion. Confidently and with the expectation of somebody who has managed their own life for a long time, you know what is going to happen next.

And then your partner/soul-mate/love of your life….dies. Crash!!!

Optical illusion graphic with the words Out of Control

You’ve lost control. Nothing is how it is supposed to be. You want it to go back to the way it was, but you don’t know how….and deep down, there is a dawning awareness that nothing will ever be the same again. What used to be your anticipated future is now a terrifying void and you feel like you are slipping.

In a panic, you haphazardly focus on small things around you that need to be ‘made right’, wildly seeking to make some sense of this terrifying new place by attempting to gain a level of control – even if it is just the minutia of your life.

Or maybe I’m just describing what the shock and grief felt like for me. ..maybe it’s different for everyone.

When I think back to those early days after my husband Norbert was killed in the accident, I think I was acting like an insane person! I’ve done a lot of thinking about it though, and I believe that as I am a control-freaky kinda person who needs to straighten crooked pictures on a wall, 😀 losing my husband so suddenly was a super-extreme version of taking away every skerrick of control that I had. Quite honestly, I lost it there for a while.

I recently asked dear friends Linda and Brian to write down what it was like to support me in those early days (in the green boxes below). As I don’t remember much of those early times, reading their words was somewhat confronting to say the least!

Hi, I’m Linda. The events of that fateful day will forever be burned in my heart and brain. It all started when I received a phone call from the Police, who told me that our friend Norbert had been killed in an accident. The Police asked if I could come and be with Marlene as she had asked for me to go around – the answer was a no-brainer.

I admit, I thought it would involve lots of hugs and tears – but that was just the tip of the iceberg!

I had asked the Police to bring Linda to my house, and they seemed very relieved to be able to do just that! I live 1000’s of kilometres away from family so there was nobody to call for immediate support, and the Police were not allowed to leave me alone after delivering that shell-shock of news. One of the pair grabbed the car keys and said “I’ll go and get your friend.”

I was shaking when the Police delivered Linda, but she held me tight in the biggest hug. It gets weird after that though.

Marlene became focussed on a hair appointment she had for the next day and was pedantic about it until I had cancelled it. Marlene also wanted me to ring Norbert’s future employer to let them know what had happened. Boy, that was a hard call to make.

I read this part of the account and though “Woah….it sounds like I was some sort of Dictator, telling my friend what to do!” It’s only now that I wonder if it was my mind’s response to the HUUUGE thing that had happened, and whether my subconscious sought to regain a level of control….which could only happen by focusing on the trivial stuff. I couldn’t change the nightmare.

In his book A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis described his experience after the death of his wife. He wrote, “An odd by-product of my loss is that I’m aware of being an embarrassment to everyone I meet…” He also wrote ” “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear. ” He was right.

I’ve addressed this seeming insanity in a previous post called Grief can make you insane – temporarily. It is actually called the ‘Going Crazy Syndrome’ in the psychiatric profession, which I think is a pretty accurate name. 😕

Perhaps the most isolating and frightening part of your grief journey is the sense of disorganization, confusion, searching and yearning that often comes with the loss…This dimension of grief may cause the “going crazy” syndrome. In grief, thoughts and behaviors are different from what you normally experience.”

Center for Loss

I realised that besides the hugs and emotional aspect of support, there has to be understanding to allow Marlene to retain control while helping accordingly. Marlene’s life had been turned upside down in a matter of minutes. Events had happened beyond her control and she needed to be able to deal with the small things that she could control, no matter how trivial they seemed to us.

So, we listened and talked about what Marlene needed to make happen.

And so began an almost daily ritual of ‘meetings’. I am only now realising the depth of support that I needed at that time.

My husband Brian listed everything, and by talking and listening, ascertained which things Marlene felt were the most important and which jobs could be addressed quickly.

Brian then went about fixing what he could, discussing progress with Marlene on a daily basis, adding and deleting jobs as required. We found it important to keep Marlene in the loop continually as she could be quite pedantic about what she wanted done (and when).

Haven’t I got some amazing friends! I shudder to think of myself as that pedantic person, completely fixated on getting some control back in my life by getting other people to ‘make it right’. But perhaps this is a normal part of dealing with grief – I only know that it helped me enormously.

It was like somebody was helping me to find those scattered coloured balls, and put them back into some sort of order. Life was never going to be ‘normal’ again for me (in the way that it was), but by gaining some control over the small things in my life, it somehow helped me come to terms with the fact that this was my ‘new normal’….and I was in charge.

We acted as gate keepers (as requested by Marlene) for a few days, making sure that people from the media were kept at bay, and passing on information on Marlene’s behalf to whoever required it.

If there is one truth it is that everyone’s experience of grief is different, and unfortunately mine had to play out in a public arena.

The day after Norbert died (Read: The Day My Heart Broke) I answered a knock at the door to find a News reporter pushing a microphone toward me, and a guy with a massive TV camera standing behind her. They jostled forward and the reporter mumbled quickly ” Ms Manto? Would you like to make a statement?” Luckily Brian was with me at the time, and he hurried them off.

The accident was all over the news, even interstate, and there was nothing I could do about it. I had also lost control of my privacy.

We found doing little things often worked wonders.

I had noticed that Marlene was reluctant to go out, but I felt she needed a variation from the constant rounds of dealing with Funeral Directors and sorting out the myriad of official things that needed to be attended to….so I packed a picnic (included everything) and took it to her house! We had a picnic in her kitchen.

I remember this ‘picnic’ in my kitchen. 🙂 Linda brought everything in a basket but then she said “You can make the tea“…..thus ensuring that I still felt like I was doing something productive and positive, and wasn’t ‘helpless’. Insightful actions like that gave me a measure of control over the little things happening in my life.

It is important that people supporting grieving friends realise they must mean what they say. It is no good saying “call if you need anything”, as it won’t happen. You must offer definite plans, not vague suggestions of ‘catching up later’, or saying “if you want a coffee just give me a call”.

We need to stop saying 'let me know if you need anything'

After the funeral, so many people said “Call me if you need anything.” (I must admit I used to be one of those people and I mentally kick myself now 😠 ). They didn’t realise that this would entail:

  1. Pinpointing a particular need in a quagmire of desperate need
  2. Figuring out the specific thing that would make all the difference
  3. Identifying somebody who could help with that need…and then…
  4. Making the monumental effort to find the number and pick up the phone.

All of this is waaaaaay beyond the capacity of a grieving mind!

Read: 5 Ways to Support Someone who is Grieving

If I can make a suggestion for anyone who finds themselves in a similar situation as me (Linda) – the main thing is to listen, put aside your own preconceived ideas and just be open to what is required. Hugs are very necessary both at the time and on a continual basis, but the most important thing we found was to listen to what Marlene wanted, take notes if necessary and act on her needs.

As the days…and then weeks….and then months passed, Brian’s To Do list got shorter as he ticked off all my ‘demands’. Slowly, I began to pick up the responsibility for making things happen…learning how to do things around the house that Norbert used to do….asking a friend to “Show me how to use this b*&^@y watchmacallit.”

A euphoric moment was when I finally learned how to mow the lawn with the ride-on mower. Oh…the thrill!!! I could have continued to pay somebody to do it, but it was better that I was shown how to do it myself. I had such a feeling of power… this was MY show now, and I was in control! Woohoo!

I truly believe that everything Brian and Linda did for me gave me back the sense of control that I sorely needed. They began by doing everything for me but then over time, one by one they handed back the coloured balls so I could learn to ‘juggle my own life’ again.

Brian and Linda finished their piece of writing with some wise words for anyone who finds themselves supporting a grief-stricken friend or family member. I can attest to the fact that they are EXPERTS in the field of grief support because I am no longer feeling crazy, and I no longer freak out when little things go awry. I also no longer throw orders around! 😁

Talking about Norbert is important, about what he had done in life, what he and Marlene had done and what memories we shared. Also important is talking about the accident that took Norbert’s life, listening and commenting without breaking down ….all necessary, sometimes not easy though.  

Remember that the person grieving is still a person. Where before they were one part of a duo, now they are single. Ask them to join you for dinner or an outing, either at a restaurant or at your home. They are still the same person whose company you enjoyed before.

I often felt I could have done more, and I realise that this support is for as long as Marlene wants it. A deep friendship has developed between Marlene, Brian and I as we continue on this journey.

Let me finish with a question. Do you think I suffered these ‘out of control’ feelings because it is in my personality to be a bit of a control-freak? Or is this a common reaction? I don’t know the answer to that. I know it’s normal to feel crazy…..but out of control?

Please drop a comment into the Comment box below, as I’d genuinely like to hear about the experience of others.

Marlene is an Australian widow who has written about all the good, bad and ugly stuff that happened after her husband Norbert died tragically. Marlene responds to all comments.

  • Kim Melin says:

    Marlene once again you nailed it! It is exactly how I felt almost identical. And doing those little everyday things
    As you say gives you back a control that was taken from you. Losing the love of your life and best friend is the hardest test I have ever had. I don’t know how to get over it or if you are suppose to? I want to cherish the joy of
    our times spent and know how lucky I am, but struggle to come to grips with the reality and the memories. Early crazy days still, but today I took my first box of old tools from the garage to a men’s shed, yeah a beginning. Ailene has been my Linda and guardian angel and just letting me talk and have that extra glass of wine has helped. Meeting you was my highlight at Airlie Beach would love to have had that drink. As I told my friend I am still a couple and no where near able to move on. It was ok and not a mistake although it felt like it. It clarified that I am still in the middle of grief and have a long way to go.

    • Marlene says:

      Lovely to hear from you Kim. You’re doing well….just one foot in front of the other at this stage. [hug] I’ve learned a lot about grieving over the last couple of years, and you don’t ever ‘get over it’. That isn’t as bad as it sounds though. ‘Getting over it’ implies that you eventually stop missing that person so much….which implies that you stop loving them! No way! So it’s a good thing that you have them with you in your heart, for the rest of your life. Over time though, those waves of grief (you know…the ones that clutch at you so you can’t breathe) begin to diminish and don’t come as often. The memories begin to soften and become more bearable. It gets easier to cope with life. Keep going Kim…’ll never get over this but you will begin to enjoy life again.

  • Jacquene Cranna says:

    For me it is “Just what happened!” I felt like I am in a different space. A huge space. By myself. My close support, mainly my mum and sister in law, have helped me reconnect, simply by letting me be me, taking me out into the world when I was ready and being available when I need to talk or cry.
    I couldn’t handle being around others. I didn’t want them in my house, I certainly didn’t want them to help tidy, and I could not face going out for coffee. I just wanted to scream “leave me alone!” I can’t imagine what it would be be like having a camera in your face!

    • Marlene says:

      Hi Jacquene and thanks for your comment. I am constantly amazed at how differently people react to this kind of trauma in their lives. Some start acting like wind-up toys and need to be out and socialising as a way to combat the loneliness…..and others need to curl up in their cave and lick their wounds without people around. The best way to deal with grief is YOUR way. Whatever works for you, is the right way. I’m so glad that you have your mum and sister-in-law to help you through this awful time. Hang in there. [big hug]

  • Jacquene Cranna says:

    There are definitely times where I still just want to curl up and hide. And yes, I’m part of a couple. I’m married.

    • Marlene says:

      Of course you are! He may not be around on an everyday basis, but you are still connected emotionally. He still loves you and you love him. He may have left this physical world but he won’t leave your heart.

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