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  • bethhewett

Falling into the Rabbit Hole of Grief

Grief can lead us into a rabbit hole of pain. More precisely, what we see around us that reminds us of our loved ones can send us into the rabbit hole, and it can be hard to get ourselves back out again.

As I’ve described before, there are both primary and secondary losses in grief. Primary losses include deaths of loved ones (or people we know as friends or work colleagues), relationships (like friendships, divorces), transitions (from a home, full-time parenting, job, or career), and ambiguous losses (like moral injuries and involuntary estrangements). Secondary losses are the ripple effects of the primary loss. For example, in a divorce, there’s not only the primary loss of the marriage, but also the secondary loss of the marriage vows that signified hope in a lasting love and the loss of a shared home, children, pets, and valued things. Even when such a loss is welcomed for various reasons, grief often exists.

I offer these definitions because, as much as the ongoing grief of a primary loss, a secondary loss can keep emerging years after the initial grief event, leading us into a rabbit hole. Here are examples connected to my grief experiences. 

People who know me have seen how I’ve grieved the death of my mother. We had years when we weren’t quite buddies, but we ended the final ten years of her life as the best of friends. Given our mutual love, there have been many opportunities for secondary losses to emerge when I’ve been in situations that are like ones we experienced together. For one, I can’t go to the hospital in which she had her final major surgery without feeling a hollow in the pit of my stomach that gradually grows into nausea. For another, I can’t go past people smoking without remembering how hard it was for her to try to quit the habit. One day, in her quest to hide her continued smoking from me, I found her smoking on her patio in a smock and plastic shower cap, believing that covering up would keep me from smelling the stale smoke; she never expected that I would let myself into the condo to pick up mail at that time (in fairness, I did ring the doorbell, but she was outdoors . . .). 😊

So, like these incidents, when I drove by a furniture store from which she purchased her dining room suite for her condo, I saw that the store was going out of business. That led me to think about how many choices she had in the dining room set she bought, how thrilled with its solid features and obvious quality, how many chairs she purchased in hopes of entertaining, how I needed to empty the china cabinet when she died, and how I tried to find the right people to offer her “lovelies” to, the items she most cherished. And I remembered how I needed to give that dining room suite to a relative for free in order to pay back another family’s member’s debt, a painful memory because the dining set was part of my inheritance. 

All those thoughts—with connecting and fleeting emotions—came from driving by a store going out of business. That’s what I mean by the rabbit hole of grief. It took mere seconds to review the series of events, but the feelings of emptiness and loss stuck with me for many minutes, causing my husband to wonder what I was thinking. As I told him, running down the list thought by thought, I began to let the sadness go. But when I was earlier in grief, I wouldn’t have been able to let it go so quickly; I would have been in that rabbit hole, running to and fro through the different bunny tunnels, searching for my mother and the times we had in the past.

The rabbit hole of secondary loss can cause feeling of grief to reemerge, and it’s up to us to figure out how we want to handle that reemergence. Do we want to go down in the rabbit hole and stick around, chasing bunnies and looking for the carrots of love all day long? Or do we want to take a peek down the hole, spot the rabbit, say hello, and continue with the day?

Acknowledging grief is always important. And knowing the signals that differentiate secondary loss from the primary loss is also important to learning how to live in the present even when the past beckons us.

A rabbit hole can take up minutes, hours, or days—as those of us who peruse the internet know from lost time in others’ writing, memes, and videos. In truth, so many rabbit holes of secondary loss beckon us that we could live in them instead of the present with the people and things that remain alive as we continue to live without those who have died (or what is gone, as with a marriage or friendship).

How long do you tend to stay in a rabbit hole? Is there anything you want to change about that?

As with any issues surrounding grief, I think that intentionality is what helps us to change how long we stay in the rabbit hole. It’s easy to fall into the hole and it’s tempting to stay in it, but climbing out quickly is possible. A good way to do this with intention is to have a family member, friend, or other grief supporter lined up to listen when you are in the hole, helping you find ways to get back out. You can talk it through like I did with my husband in my furniture store example, write yourself out using a journal entry, or act it out using exercise (I get out of some rabbit holes by talking to myself when I walk or swim). 

Rabbit holes are dark, dirty, and filled with rotten food and (to be delicate) poop. They’re easy to go into, but they’re not the place to stay.

By the way, for those who celebrate it, happy Easter, the day of rebirth and bunnies.


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