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STUG: When Grief Hits Like a Bolt Out of the Blue

grief
Grief is a powerful emotion that's tied up with loss, loneliness, guilt and other feelings that can be suddenly overwhelming at times. johnhain/Needpix

On a recent gray, drizzly afternoon, I found myself with a McMansion-size case of cabin fever and a hankering for the wind in my hair, regardless of the weather. Coronavirus be damned. So I laced up my boots, snapped on my fanny pack containing pandemic essentials, grabbed my raincoat and high-tailed it to a nearby state park.

Moving my body blissfully through the misty rain on a trail I'd hiked a thousand times, I felt high on the sweet endorphin rush of well-being and at one with the great I Am. Where the trail meets the lake, a man was squatted on the shore fishing, and as I put on my face mask to say a muffled, "hello," the sun peeked out, dappling the water with sparkles of light that glinted off the side of his rusty, bobbing bait pail, which I noticed was emblazoned with the fading words, "Old Pal Minnow Bucket."

Then out of nowhere it hit: A roaring freight train of abject sadness crashed into me, leaving the bits of me that weren't pulverized vibrating with heartache, loneliness and a cavernous sense of loss.

Buried under the wreckage of grief, I couldn't breathe. I couldn't think. The landscape around me had morphed into a cacophonous blur. Bawling and completely deflated, I sat down against a tree, feeling utterly suffocated by affliction. After about 30 minutes that felt more like eternity, the amplified sensations subsided, leaving me mentally agitated, physically drained and spiritually bone dry.

What was it that had temporarily knocked me off my feet?

I had been blindsided with a STUG — a sudden (or subsequent) temporary upsurge of grief.

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What Is a STUG?

"A STUG is essentially an overwhelming and almost incapacitating feeling of grief that comes out of nowhere," says Laura Silverman, LCSW and owner of Sweetgrass Integrative Counseling and Therapy in Atlanta, Georgia. "It can occur at any time, including many years after a loss. But it is most experienced during the first year of grief."

Dr. Therese Rando, a psychotherapist and grief counselor, coined the term STUG in the early 1990s. Rando likened the STUG experience after the death of a loved one to waves coming in and out from the ocean — occasionally a tsunami comes along and rips our feet out from under us.

Silverman shares from her own experience. "Five years after the loss of my mother, I found myself sitting on my staircase one night, sobbing, convinced that I had forgotten to say goodbye to my mother. My husband and son had to remind me that I was with her at the end, planned the funeral and did her eulogy. It took several minutes for me to calm down and to recall the events."

"The problem with a STUG," says Silverman, "is that when we are experiencing one, it feels like it is all there is. That it will never end. In that sense it is very scary. A STUG can also leave us feeling completely alone because it is extremely hard to describe to another person how we are feeling. Because a grief attack tends to come out of the blue and is so consuming, it appears to be disproportionate to what is happening in the moment. This can leave people around us baffled and unable to help. STUG is often accompanied with feelings of confusion, loneliness, deep sadness, regret and more. It is often experienced as sobbing, numbness, inability to think and physical pain. It comes with such strength that people often describe it as hitting a wall or having a boulder land on them. Some have described feeling like they are not themselves during a STUG, leaving them feeling untethered from everything they understand about themselves, about their world, and even about their relationship to God or the Universe."

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The Cycle of Grief

A STUG is profoundly linked to the connection or relationship we shared with our deceased love one. So the annual cycle of birthdays, anniversaries, holidays and the change of seasons may magnify our grief. Likewise, retirement, graduations, the birth of a child, weddings — events where our loved one is profoundly absent — may activate painful emotions. Less predictably, our senses may be ignited out of thin air by a particular song, scent, food or film our loved one enjoyed. In my case, I was STUGGED on a random day in the middle of the woods by an old minnow bucket exactly like the one my dad (who died 14 years ago) had that my brother (who died 18 months ago) and I used to play with as kids. Go figure.

"Nothing happens in a vacuum," notes Silverman. "The nature of the relationship we had with the person we are grieving, the nature of their death, and how we were taught to express our feelings all impact our grief experience. All of this combines to create a painful stew of longing, shame, guilt, loneliness and heartbreak. So, a STUG may be driven by many layers of unresolved issues with our loved one. It may be driven by feelings of helplessness at being able to prevent their death or suffering. It can be the result of pent up emotions that had no place to go."

"Powerful feelings experienced during a STUG can leave one feeling completely exhausted and depleted. It is important to take care of the physical self by drinking water, removing oneself from noise and activity, and breathing with special focus on the exhale. Once calm, it may be helpful to talk with someone or simply sit with someone. I encourage clients to find something that sounds, tastes, looks, or feels pleasant and engage with it. That can be as simple as looking at the blue sky, listening to the wind in the trees or drinking a cup of warm tea."

"As unpleasant as a STUG is, it's important to note that it is temporary. It will pass even though it can feel like it is going to go on forever," says Silverman. "The fact that you've had a STUG doesn't necessarily mean that it will recur. What it does mean is that you had one, got through it, and now know you can handle it if it happens again."

We live in disquieting times on many fronts, as millions of people in communities across the globe are coping with a multitude of threadbare emotions, including grief. Silverman says it's important to find a meditative or prayer practice that lends itself to sensing connection to others. "We are not alone. We are connected to every other soul on the planet ... and none of us have lived our lives without experiencing grief and handling hard stuff. If you are reading this article, you made it through. So, you can do hard. You, we, can get through hard times — and this moment in history — together."

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