How We Grieve
It is not only the most difficult thing to know oneself, but the most inconvenient one, too.
–H. W. Shaw
The two-sided coin for relationships when you live overseas is that you get to meet a lot of wonderful people, but you find that they rotate in and out of your life more so than happens for the average person living in America. For the most part I have been the one staying, with others going. Years ago, however, dear friends and I were preparing to return to the United States at the same time and even planned to stay for the same amount of time in the US: three years. Having someone travelling such a parallel path was a rarity, and this provided an interesting and unintended “emotional” laboratory as my friend Anne and I reacted so differently to the upcoming return to the US.
As the months went by and the move became more imminent, I cried during some of our conversations, while Anne never shed a tear (I am not just being dramatic in my retelling; she literally never cried, in stark contrast to the Tissue Queen, aka me—so I noticed). Anne and her family were leaving a few days before I would and had invited a Chinese friend and me over for dinner the last night in their home. Xiao W. (a guy in his mid-20’s) and I could not stop the tears. I am sure you are getting the picture that this was a really fun meal—as Anne commented sarcastically.
What struck me is that Anne again did not cry. I knew she would miss me—well, I thought she would miss me. I certainly hoped she would miss me, and that our friendship had impacted her in some way that would lead her to grieve that we would not be a part of one another’s daily lives for a while. Was it too much to ask for one small tear? Just one?
And then we parted ways. I returned to Colorado and she with her family went to Connecticut. I had a fairly smooth transition and moved on to “the next thing” without too much trouble. Anne, however, had a bit of a rougher go.
That is when I first became aware that there are “pre-grievers” and there are “post-grievers.” It is not that some do not grieve—we all do, but the timing of grief can be disarmingly different. I was a pre-griever, so by the time I left that phase of my life, I had pretty well mourned what was coming to an end and had created (unbeknownst to me) the space for the next thing. Anne is a post-griever. Her grieving process did not start until after she had left China, and she had the challenge of mourning China in Connecticut, surrounded by people who were happy to be with her and her family.
Both approaches have wonderful parts that make the other side jealous—and some real downsides.
Pre-grievers are able to say good-bye to people and places in person and are able to move on to the next thing. Their grief is also understandable to those around them—the on-lookers to the process can knowingly nod, hand a tissue, and think with understanding, “You will be leaving soon and you will miss me so much. Of course you’re sad. Who wouldn’t be?” The downside of being wired this way is that the last weeks and months are more of an emotional roller-coaster for those (especially post-grievers) around them.
Because post-grievers do not start the grieving process until after a change has occurred, they get to end the phase they are in more emotionally together. One benefit of this style is that they are more able to focus and get things done. The downside is that when they do enter the grieving process they are often surrounded by the new environment filled with people who do not fully understand what it is that is being grieved and who are not able to identify with the grief very well.
It is easy to see how this can get even messier when a pre-griever is in relationship with a post-griever. Friends of mine were preparing to send their first child off to college, and they each responded to the upcoming transition in their family very differently. Understanding that the husband is a pre-griever and that the wife a post-griever helped to make sense of their different reactions. It was not that the wife would not miss their daughter, or that the husband was having troubles letting her go, or that either one of them was wrong in the way they were grieving. It can get complicated, however, when your grieving cycles are more than a little bit out-of-sync. As with other preferences, it is tempting to judge the other’s style: You don’t care as much as I do! Can’t you show a little emotion? Why can’t you hold it together more? How can you pack up our whole life so calmly? Why can’t you do one thing without talking about how much you’ll miss this or that?
People are rarely entirely a pre- or post-griever; most of us find ourselves with strong leanings toward one, mixed with forays into the other style. As you look back over transitions you have gone through, what memories float to the surface that might point to one or the other?
I now understand why I was a basket case the last day of school every year. I sobbed like a fool in the girls’ bathroom with other pre-grievers. What were we going to do with those long, boring summer days, and who wouldn’t want to stay in fourth grade FOREVER?! Yes, part of this was pre- and adolescent-girl drama; however, because I am a pre-griever, the next day I was up and at ‘em, filling my days with the wonders of summer vacation.
I also recall my mom walking in on me crying one day and wondering what was wrong. I was just thinking about how sad I would be when my cat Patches would die…many years in the future, it turned out! There were clear signs that I was a pre-griever long before I could even name, let alone explain, what was going on. Likewise there are probably experiences you have had that point to being a pre-or post- griever.
Question to consider: Thinking back, are you more prone to distance yourself from those close to you before a transition or after it? Do you cry, become short of patience or irritable, or feel paralyzed before or after an event? What changes would you suggest?
About the author
Hi, I'm Amy and I've recently relocated back to the US after 18 years in China. In 1992 when I first visited China I had the extensive Chinese vocabulary of hello, thank you, and watermelon. And some days that's really all we need. I'm enjoying live sports that don't involve me huddling around my computer in the wee hours of the morning! I blog at The Messy Middle (and live there too) and would love to hear from you (http://messymiddle.com). You can follow me on Twitter at http://twitter.com/amyinbj.View all articles by: Amy Young
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