It seems to take two years for the mind to catch up with changes to the body. (It can also take two years to catch up with significant changes to relationships.)
This is not a hard and fast rule – it can take longer or be quicker, in some circumstances.
I work with people whose bodies are changing. When I ask them how they feel about the way they were one year ago, they generally tell me they are still struggling with those changes. If I ask how they would feel if they were as they were two years ago, they say something like ‘Oh, that would be fine!’ It seems that the changes within the last two years are still being processed; they haven’t yet become normal, expected.
This question can give a measure of someone’s personal ‘grieving time’; how long it takes them to get used to a significant change.
They may have to cope with another change within that time.
People can feel that they are permanently in a grieving process, when in fact they are having a series of discrete, different changes, each of which is taking about two years to be processed.
Within two years of any significant change, people can sometimes forget the change; their automatic reactions match the reality of two years earlier; they expect things to be as they were two years ago. This means they can get frustrated and brought up short whenever their body doesn’t behave as it did. They suddenly have to remember the loss. If the loss is a painful one, it can hurt a lot, on and off, in the first two years.
After two years, people can feel they are a different person. What they became two years ago has now become normal.
Within two years of one leg stopping working normally, you may have to think before you step into a boat; you may have to consciously remember which leg to use. After two years, your body will automatically use the safer leg. You won’t have to think about it.
The feelings change too. Frustration, anger, blame, fear, anxiety, persecutory guilt are more likely in the beginning. The early fears are often unrealistically frightening. The only way to deal with them may seem to be to deny that anything has changed.
This state can then alternate with an acute awareness of the most painful aspects of the change.
In the early days after the change, when you forget it, your body probably won’t remember either; so it seems you are denying the change. Later, your body, your brain really knows the change is there, so you behave in the knowledge of the change, even if you don’t consciously think about it.
Sadness, sorrow, grief, apologetic guilt are all more likely later on.
Attempts to deal with practical aspects of the change may also come and go. In the first few months people may have all of the problems and none of the solutions; by the end of two years they have usually found some kind of ‘solutions’ – and become able to bear using them, even though they are not perfect.
Later on, the pain of the loss seems to get overlaid with new experiences. It may still return, just as painfully, later, but it can spend longer being buried, or it can feel more like an ache than a sharp knife in the heart or the guts. Aspects of life in the new normality can be enjoyed again – if you are the kind of person who can enjoy life.
Watching someone else going through a grieving process is hard.
You may want to break through their denial, because you can see they have a problem which could be solved.
They may just want to howl and cry – and this is painful to watch.
They may hide their grief from you – and this can feel like a barrier between you.
They may just want you to share their grief, and not try to make it better.
You may assume they are blaming you, or asking you for something, when all they want is you to know how they feel.
They may not be able to tell you how they feel if you always apologise or defend yourself from an imagined accusation.
They may turn to someone else who doesn’t feel so personally responsible, and this feels doubly hard. It can also feel like a relief, even if it is a threat to your relationship.
They may blame you unreasonably – perhaps instead of blaming themselves. They may blame themselves – and this is hard to watch too. They may turn against someone else you care about – parents, doctors, children. They may turn against someone you don’t like either, but this still doesn’t seem fair, even if you want to join in the blame.
People generally expect to recover more quickly than they do, from a loss or a change.