Neurodiverse Grieving

This week I had to euthanize one of my cats. She’d been with us for nearly 20 years; she came in as a stray that refused to leave the porch. She was stubborn until the end, but it was clear that her various physical problems, particularly a cheek infection of some sort, had overwhelmed her.

This is the first loss of this nature I’ve experienced since declaring myself autistic. This declaration has allowed me to approach my grieving process in a different, more positive way.

I’ve long thought my grieving process is “broken”: I tend to get emotionless and mechanical. When my father died, I told HR at my workplace that I wanted a few days off, and why, but to not broadcast it to anyone. It’s so common in workplaces for companies to send out mass emails announcing such deaths, and then there’s the deluge of sympathy, and I did not want that.

I don’t generally care for the “Oh, I’m so sorry for your loss” sentiments. From friends, okay, I’ll take them but I don’t really need them. From strangers and co-workers, they feel so insincere. I struggle in offering them to others as well, but I have come to know that it’s part of the script, part of the social expectations.

When I get, “Oh, I’m so sorry for your loss” from someone who doesn’t know me well enough to know that I turn into Spock when I’m truly grieving, I feel like I need to mask up and go along with the tears. I don’t want to be caught at as the cold-hearted robot I feel like.

I used to attribute my emotional shutdown as CPTSD, a self-defense response from living with emotionally volatile parents. In general, my emotional outbursts as a child were a source of potential danger: Fire that met with potential fire from both of my parents.

But that was then, this is now.

I have two early memories experiencing loss. One involved my childhood cat, Ferocious. She had been missing for a few days, and one day on the way home from school I found a bag behind the bushes in front of the house. I picked it up, and my instincts knew from the way the weight shifted that I didn’t want to look in the bag. But I looked, and I was duly traumatized.

Later, I found out that someone had told my parents that my cat’s body was by the side of a road nearby, having been hit by a car. They collected the body and put it there because they were going for a walk. They figured they’d intercept me and have “the talk” and didn’t expect me to find the bag.

I remember feeling shamed by my parents for being upset with them. Couldn’t they enjoy their walk? They acknowledged they’d made a mistake, but it was just a cat, after all.

The other memory was when one of my father’s parishioners died. He was a retired Principal (albeit not mine), and I held felt affinity with him. He had treated me with a level of respect that I wasn’t used to. I believe he was the one who owned the first Rubik’s Cube I’d ever seen. My father said I’d solved it in twenty minutes, but I don’t remember that.

The next day, at school, I was sad and crying, doing “normal” grieving stuff, albeit probably excessive for someone I’d met a few times and felt some closeness to, but not an immediate family member. A school counseling parapro was called in to have a chat with me to make sure I was okay, and I couldn’t explain to her why I was as upset as I was.

Since then, I’ve experienced losses that have cut much deeper, and my standard reaction is to shut down and not feel like I’m feeling at all. I’ve been feeling pathological, even sociopathic, but now I believe I’m just autistic.

Yesterday, feeling that detached “meh, what’s the big deal, my cat of twenty years who was completely bonded to me just died, what’s for lunch?” emotion, I did a search on autism and grief and found Autistic Grief is Not Like Neurotypical Grief by Karla Fisher. This article resonates with my own experiences with grief: In the moment, feeling fairly “business as usual” but then having a crash days or weeks down the line.

Is the experience there 100% my own? No, not at all. Is it similar enough to reinforce that I’m not broken, I’m autistic? Yes. This passage stood out: “The thing that probably helped me more than any other thing during my struggles was the realization that what was happening to me was sensory processing failure versus just going insane.”

Meanwhile, this is a perfect description of how I grieve (from the article linked above):

ASD Grief Things to Think About

  1. May or may not cry or overtly show emotions. Alternatively, emotions may be delayed or very extreme when they do come.
  2. Grieving will very possibly manifest itself via increased ASD
    symptoms (increased sensory processing issues, shutdowns, meltdowns,
    decreased social abilities, etc.).
  3. May be unable to articulate what is wrong or talk about feelings.
  4. Increased desire to be alone to work things out (this is opposite of most NTs who will feel better by sharing how they feel).
  5. May not relate to many emotional or relational concepts designed by NTs.”

It is so reassuring to know that a lifetime of emotional reactions that I’ve been taught are problematic or reflections of mental illness are in fact fairly typical behaviors of an autistic brain.

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