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The ABC's Of Grief - D is for Desolation and Degrees

Desolation – n. A state of complete emptiness; Anguished misery.

Degree - n.  Any of a series of steps or stages.

Nothing wreaks havoc on the body like grief. Loaded like a ballistic missile, it hits a target and leaves in it’s wake,  a sublethal dose of desolation. This isn’t a normal kind of sadness, it is unique to the grieving process and no matter the noun used to describe it, be it agony, despondency or misery , it is a horrible state of mind. There is no pill for it, no medication that can take it away. This desolation comes with an exhaustion unlike any other. Sleep patterns will be disturbed, life patterns will be off kilter. For the longest time, nothing will work right. The heart is a sensitive organ and the death of a loved one will break it. The death of a child will shatter it.

Picking up the shattered pieces is painstakingly difficult and in the end, the heart will never be fully mended. It will be held together by scabs that will get picked off time and time again until it stops beating. I know this sounds dismal, it is. But this despair, it doesn’t last forever, it just seems like it will. The truth is, if you never go through this awful, initial stage, you can’t ever expect to get through it. I just found notes that I wrote three years after Mack died. The heavy load of sadness that I carried had become a little lighter because I had begun to learn to live with my grief. I had begun to absorb it and it was becoming a part of the person I would be from then on.

There’s no shortcut, no secret passage way through the desolation but it will pass and you will find a way to manage your grief. Of course, not without after effects, there will always be after effects. Here is an example but I live with many. Mack regularly used to come into our bedroom between two and three a.m. I’d wake up when he came in and lift him up to put him in between David and I and we all slept well. It was years before I got back to some kind of a decent sleep pattern and yet I very often wake up in those early hours of the morning. I think I always will.

Learning to live with grief doesn’t happen overnight. Nothing to do with it happens quickly or in great leaps and bounds but rather in small, incremental degrees.  Every baby step and they are baby steps, happens so slowly that you probably won’t be aware of any change until after it happens. When one begins to grieve, it takes a Herculean effort to do the simplest daily tasks. Getting out of bed, eating, showering, starting your day etc., they all become huge, monumental strength sapping efforts. You are so busy trying to live hour to hour that you aren’t even aware of the smallest progress. One day, you’ll just pause and realize that you’ve moved forward a little and that’s good, even if you feel guilty about it.

Moving forward can also be a sad thing. Although it is such an important goal of intense grief, it somehow implies that you must leave something behind. This isn’t true but at the beginning, when it dawns on you that you have begun to head in a forward direction, you are afraid that what may be left behind, is the person who has died. Early on, I felt this way, I was scared that somehow Mack would fade away. It’s an irrational fear and it makes no sense but it is very common in grief. I learned very quickly that this could never happen. Mack is always with me.

Healing happens in small degrees and although we need it to happen, when it begins we almost fight it, I did. What kind of a parent was I if I didn’t spend the rest of my life mourning my son every minute of the day? I remember being on the phone with my mother early one morning, the day after Mack died. I was sobbing, so despondent, so full of sadness. I couldn’t imagine not feeling like that forever. I kept asking her questions. How do you deal with this? How do you learn to live without your child? Unfortunately, my parents had been where I was then because of the death of my older brother Ronnie and now, they had lost their only grandson. My mother listened and in her infinite wisdom, told me that I would always mourn for Mack but months down the road, without even realizing it, I would wake up one day and discover that my stage of intense grief had ended. She told me that the body and mind could not handle being in this state forever, they would shut down because it is just too much to bear. This is no way meant that you stopped grieving, you never do but it meant that at some point, little by little, bit by bit, you stop living your life in limbo and just begin living.

Now, almost seven years later, I don’t feel guilty if I go an hour or three without Mack being foremost in my brain. I welcome the break for it never lasts very long. I am slapped in the face a hundred times a day with the reality that my son is no longer alive so if something distracts me for a little while, I’m okay with it.

As summer is approaching, we are grateful for the slightest surge in the temperature. Each degree brings us closer to the change of a season and after a harsh winter, we welcome it. The same can be said for early grief, each degree that you move forward brings you closer to becoming a person who will learn to manage their grief and live life at the same time. You can’t ask for more than that.

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About the Author

Gail Mendelman lives in Montreal with her husband David Belson and their daughter Ruby. In 2006, she lost her four year old son, Mackenzie Reed Belson (Mack), in a tragic accident. After six years, in 2012, she felt the time was right and created the blog 'Grey Mourning' ( so she could record her thoughts about living life without Mack. She works full time and is the co-founder, along with her husband, of The Mack Belson Foundation (

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