As I write this, it’s April 20, 2022. It’s been a little over six months since my mom died and a bit over a month since we lost our beloved dog, Dagny. This past year hasn’t been easy and the past six months have been the most challenging of my entire life. I want to continue the grief conversation today. After sharing how I was feeling after my mom died, many of you encouraged me to keep writing about grief as time goes on, so that’s what I’m doing here. I think it’s worthwhile to talk about the hard stuff too, including these five surprising side effects of grief I didn’t expect.
5 Surprising side effects of grief I didn’t expect
I had planned to write a blog post with an update at the 6-month mark of my mom’s death on April 4. Writing has always been cathartic for me. But unfortunately, with Dagny passing away on March 5, it’s just too soon to write any type of grief update.
I’m not out of the fog and am by no means on the other side of this. It actually feels heavier than it did. And despite being fully functional, I’m also fully sad. I’m not “better” in any sense of the word. I replay so much of the past six months in my head.
Anyway, I want to share this with you because it’s my reality now and I want to be real with you. Grief is now part of my story, part of me, so neglecting it here on my blog wouldn’t feel right. I hope that by sharing, it might help you in some way. Maybe you’re a highly sensitive person, too, working through grief. Please know you aren’t alone.
I know it’ll be a release for me to write this, so with that…. let’s go.
1. Anticipatory grief can be just as excruciating as regular grief.
In my mom’s case, things started going downhill over the summer and we knew she wouldn’t make it out of this cancer recurrence. The good thing is, even up until pretty much the day before she passed away, she didn’t realize she wouldn’t make it. Knowing you’re going to lose someone you love — the anticipatory grief — is just as difficult as the grief process after the actual loss. I sat with that for years knowing what was going to happen. It was always hanging over my head.
Not even a week after my mom died when I was still in the U.S., Tom hesitantly delivered the news that Dagny had a cardiac emergency and had gone into heart failure. It hit me like a brick. We knew it was coming, but I’d hoped I’d have more space between that and losing my mom. I was in public at the time and broke down in the middle of a shopping mall. Caring for Dagny consumed us in her final months and the grief for my mom had to wait, so I put it on a shelf to be dealt with later.
The holidays were especially hard this year. My mom’s birthday was December 23, mine was December 31, and smack in between was Christmas. It was the first holiday season without my mom and we knew it would be the last one with Dagny.
As her heart got weaker and weaker, Tom and I were filled with dread knowing we were going to lose her and it killed us seeing her struggle. There were several emergency calls to our amazing vet’s cell phone at midnight. It’s actually bringing me to tears as I write this to think about how kind her veterinary team was over the years and especially at the end.
Anyway, we knew Dagny wouldn’t pull through because that’s not how MVD goes. Living with anticipatory grief once again was the hardest five months of my life. Navigating it so soon after the death of my mom is something I wouldn’t even wish on my worst enemy.
I don’t want to dwell on the details because I replay everything in my mind more than enough for all of us, but Dagny was like our child and such a comfort to me after my mom died. Dagny was by my side ever since I moved to France and the loss hits so deep. The hole in my heart after my mom died has become a crater and words can’t even express what the loss feels like.
That said, at the time to lose my mom and to have my dog go into heart failure a few days later felt like really bad timing… a cruel joke even. I was so angry. And sad.
But after a few months when we knew Dagny’s time was really running out, I reframed the whole situation. I realized that Dagny’s heart failure timing was a gift. Her little body held on as long as it could before heart failure and I an so grateful I was able to visit my mom in her final months. I rested easier knowing Dagny was OK and with my in-laws (and being treated like a queen, might I add). Her condition didn’t worsen until right after my mom died, as I was preparing to leave the US and go back home to France.
I don’t know what I would have done if Dagny had gone into heart failure over the summer instead as my mom was on her deathbed. It would have ben an excruciating decision to leave her in France, knowing her heart wouldn’t hold on for long, to go be with my family. A real lose-lose situation.
So that’s all to say despite the emotional rollercoaster of it all, I’m grateful things worked out the way they did in terms of timing if both loved ones had to die in the end. The timing was actually a gift even though I didn’t see it that way at first.
2. Cumulative grief is no joke.
If you’ve been following me here and on YouTube, you may have pieced together that it’s not just my mom and Dagny’s deaths that have turned my world upside down. My family has been dealing with my mom’s cancer for several years and Dagny’s health hadn’t been great either. Since the pandemic started, two other loved ones have passed away. So it’s been…. a lot.
I’m not letting any of this define me, but when you have one thing after the other, the effects of cumulative grief catch up with you. It can feel like a literal punch to the gut. The body keeps score, which leads me to….
3. The physical side effects of grief.
This is the most unexpected, SHOCKING (yes, I’m putting that in caps because I was blindsided) part of grief. Long story short, after my mom passed away, I had some physical symptoms of grief that you’d expect. I was ready for those. You know the ones. You feel tired. You don’t have much energy. Maybe you feel sick to your stomach, have trouble sleeping, crazy emotional, you know, the normal stuff.
While I still worked out regularly, I noticed I was maybe doing 70-80% of what I physically felt capable of in terms of being able to push myself in the weeks after losing my mom. Normal. Expected.
In the immediate aftermath, my dad and I were even catching ourselves doing silly absentminded things like driving past the supermarket by accident, putting our pants on backwards, and even driving through a red light. Our minds were elsewhere. The cognitive issues were real.
But the physical side effects of grief that I just mentioned were child’s play compared to what hit me after Dagny passed on. I felt like the other shoe had dropped and everything hit me then. In addition to everything I mentioned, the biggest physical symptom I experienced, which actually scared me, was that my heart rate when working out was MUCH higher than normal.
I’ve been working out with a heart rate monitor since college so I know my heart rate zones and where I should be in terms of numbers for various effort levels. Thirty seconds into a simple strength warmup where I’d touch my toes and do knee lifts, my heart rate would be up 30-40 beats/minute higher than usual, a number that would take me at least until a few minutes after the warmup to achieve. And I was tired at that point. Tired, as in using all my willpower to get through an easy 20-minute workout.
My capacity to push myself was about 50% of what it normally was. Maybe less. So I listened to my body and scaled back.
That went on for weeks. My VO2 max was noticeably down too. Heart rate was wayyyyy too high for my effort levels. I experienced such an emotional shock with this cumulative grief that of course my body compensated for the punch to the nervous system. I thought I broke my heart and was scared I’d never be able to work out the way I did. Exercise has been my saving grace over the years so I was seriously worried I’d lose that too.
We planned on contacting a cardiologist to check things out (better safe than sorry, you know, even if doctors can be rude as hell) if things didn’t improve in another week. Luckily, my heart rate while exercising got back to normal after a month or so. I probably feel I’m at about a 90% level in terms of what I know I can physically do. I’m relieved to say the least because that was crazy stressful.
4. People act weird.
This includes people I’ve never met who have left rude, tone-deaf, and even cruel comments on YouTube after I’ve opened up. It also includes people I know in real life. People who knew my mom too who have said zip. Zilch.
The category that hurts the most is people I considered friends who have pretty much dropped off the face of the earth. I’m talking about people who knew my mom and Dagny were sick, who I’d speak to regularly, at least a couple of times a month (not people I barely talk to). They knew about the losses, but beyond a quick message or text expressing their condolences, I haven’t heard from them again.
It’s been six months since I lost my mom. I’m not a Debbie Downer, am not going to cry on you, and would love to hear about your life. Anything to distract me is great. It’s like they don’t know grief isn’t contagious. For the record, I reached out several times too (not a one sided thing) to let them know it’s OK to be in touch and the replies never came.
Anyway, the past six months have shown me who is worth my time and who isn’t. There are people you’re friendly with and people you’re friends with and this whole experience has made that distinction clear. It’s hard, though, to learn that people you considered friends really aren’t. They’d disappear or at least become really distant at at time when you need them the most. Anyone can send a 5-second text from the toilet or before they go to bed. Even a small effort counts for a lot.
It’s also taught me a lesson on how I’ll interact with people in the future when they go through a loss. I know what feels good on the receiving end and what doesn’t.
5. People can be SO kind.
I want to end this on a positive note and balance out #4. Despite it all, I still try to find the silver lining. You can count on me for that. 😉
Between so many heartfelt messages from my readers and YouTube subscribers to even a woman I know on Instagram (yet haven’t met in person) who bought an actual star and named it after Dagny — with coordinates in the sky, a certificate and everything — I can’t stress enough what all of that has meant to me. No, kind words and thoughts can’t bring our loved ones back but they have made me feel less alone, have softened the blow, and made me feel supported. That has meant everything to me and contiunes to count for SO MUCH.
Finally, I want to re-recommend Megan Devine’s book “It’s OK That You’re Not OK.” It’s been a lifesaver and there’s so much to identify with in pretty much every chapter. She lost her husband in a tragic accident and understands grief better than any author I’ve ever read. Her words really resonated with me and her podcast called Refuge in Grief is fab too. If you’ve lost someone recently (or are anticipating it) or someone you know has, I really cannot recommend her book enough. It’s extremely validating in so many ways and will put into words what you just quite can’t wrap your mind around yet.
I will get through this. I know that…. even if right now mentally/emotionally I’m nowhere near that point yet. One day at a time. Resilience is a beautiful thing and I look forward to carrying the grief well and making it out of the fog…. until then, be well. Thank you, as always, for being here, and especially for reading this one.
P.S. Staying active on the blog and YouTube has really helped me, so if you haven’t checked out my videos in a while, I’d love it if you’d give ’em a look!
P.P.S. My favorite workout apps are Peloton and Les Mills+ (formerly Les Mills On Demand). Both have been immensely helpful to me in working through my grief. I did a full review of Les Mills+ here and you can get a free 30-day trial here.
P.P.P.S. Did you know I’m making a diamond from my mom’s ashes?