Gilats pens a hard-won guide to overcoming overwhelming grief.
It is one thing to grieve and ultimately recover, but it is another to live in a chronic state of acute grief for nearly 20 years,” writes Andrea Gilats in her book, After Effects: A Memoir of Complicated Grief (University of Minnesota Press, 2022).
Within a day or two of her husband’s death in 1998, Gilats said she found herself “totally unprepared to go on without him.” Consumed by a feeling of overwhelming loss, she did not realize that her grief would continue for two decades. Gilats was suffering from a condition that is now recognized by mental health professionals as complicated grief or prolonged grief disorder.
She and her husband, Thomas Dayton, had been married for 20 years, living all of that time in the Macalester-Groveland neighborhood. Though grief at the death of a loved one is natural and even healthy, Gilats said she was debilitated for more than a decade, feeling desolate and alienated, isolating herself from friends and family, struggling at work and yearning for her husband.
Dayton lived for only five months after his diagnosis with cancer. During his illness, Gilats came to accept the notion that he would die, but that did not help when she found herself without him. For two years after his death, she wrote him letters daily, some only a few sentences long, others more lengthy, telling about that day’s events or what she was thinking and feeling. She saved the letters, but was unable to read any of them for 19 years.
Studies have shown that most people who grieve are able to move on within a year or so. However, about one in seven who have suffered the loss of a loved one experience complicated grief. For Gilats, just functioning day to day was exhausting and excruciating.
“Grief doesn’t show,” she said. “There are no bandages, no bruises, no medical diagnoses.” Nevertheless, she made sure of it, hiding her agony from co-workers, family and friends. But that only added to her devastation. At home, she slept and ate poorly, smoked heavily and developed a number of debilitating physical ailments.
Two years ago, the World Health Organization gave an official title to Gilats’ condition—prolonged grief disorder. The condition manifests itself in a number of symptoms, including the refusal to believe a loved one has died, the hope that the person will return, and the suicidal desire to reunite with the deceased. Gilats said she experienced all of those symptoms and more.
The healing begins
Nine years after her husband’s death, she finally moved out of the bungalow they had shared to a condominium near downtown Saint Paul. That, she said, was the beginning of her release. Unlike the dark interior of the house she had left, the condo had large windows and was filled with natural light. When a nearby exercise studio opened, she joined and began working with a trainer. Eventually, she signed up for a yoga class and immediately felt “like a duck in water,” she said.
A program director at the University of Minnesota for 30 years, Gilats had been a writer, artist and teacher. She had also developed educational programs for older adults. Interested in learning as it related to aging, she decided to become a yoga instructor, and at age 65 began offering yoga classes for other older adults, an activity she continued for eight years.
“Yoga became my path for healing,” she said. “The transformation from looking inward to looking outward happened when I was teaching yoga.”
That healing did not begin for Gilats until after more than 10 years of suffering from the grief of losing her husband. Today, she said, “I’m not the same. Tom’s death and my grief experience have changed me. Grief becomes a fixed part of one’s character. I think I’d be happier if Tom were still here with me, but that isn’t to say I’m not happy. Being in a marriage with him was not my only pathway to happiness.”
Letters to her husband led to memoir
Gilats was finally able to go back and read the 754 letters she wrote to her husband in the first two years of widowhood. “They were my way of sharing my day-to-day life with him,” she said. “Looking back on it, I think it’s possible that my daily letter writing habit may have saved my life.”
As she read the letters, she realized that sharing her story might help others who suffer from complicated grief. The result, After Effects: A Memoir of Complicated Grief, encompasses 20 years of her life.
“So even though it begins with inconsolable sadness, it concludes with a sense of hard-won hope,” Gilats said. “Though our grief remains with us all our lives, it eventually moderates and softens. Writing After Effects helped me understand that even complicated grief need not prevent us from experiencing joy in living.”
After Effects may be purchased from several local booksellers. For more information, visit andreagilats.com.
— Janet Lunder Hanafin
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