By: Adam Mathews, Ph.D., LMFT, Executive Director
I remember sitting in the courtyard of the hospital after my son had died just a few minutes after he had been born. I tried to make all the necessary phone calls and arrangements as I fought back the tears and emotions threatening to overwhelm me. Several months later, I was walking with a trusted friend who was kindly asking me about how I was and the same depth of emotion was right there, ready to crush me again. A year later, I went back to the same courtyard and discovered the pain of the loss of my son was waiting for me. Even now, 15 years later, I can feel the ever-present grief of that profound loss. Grief always seemed to be there and early on after his death, I did not really understand why.
I did not understand grief before I lost my son. I had lost loved ones before, but they were expected losses in some way. Beloved grandparents who lived full lives where I knew the loss was coming. Those losses still hurt and I missed them terribly, but this one was different.
This grief threatened to crush me and bring my world to a standstill.
This grief was present with me every single day.
This grief rarely left my mind and never left my heart.
I struggled to face a world without my son. I wrestled to make sense of the loss. And the grief seemed to upend every facet of life.
I’ve heard common themes from others, both personally and professionally, who have experienced loss. We rebel against the idea of this new reality, not wanting to live in a world without the person we lost.
So we do whatever we can to avoid this new reality. We numb ourselves to the pain of the loss with anything that does the trick. We numb with food, work, alcohol, and sex, just to name a few. We get angry at all the things and people who go on living as if everything is the same when we know the world is fundamentally altered and broken. Sometimes it feels like this avoiding/numbing/anger cycle is the work of grief. But more often than not, we are also just using the cycle to avoid the painful process of moving through the grief.
Part of the avoidance is motivated by our lack of understanding around grief. It’s messy and unwieldy. Grief is hard to wrap our minds around. Grieving can feel scary, as the emotions of grief can feel as overwhelming as the loss itself. But the only way to deal with grief is to move through it, to embrace it, difficulty and all.
Understanding grief can be helpful, even if understanding it does not lessen the difficulty. Understanding can help build the courage necessary to face our grief and begin to move through it.
Here are a few things I did not understand about grief before I went through it.
- Grief is different for everyone. No one grieves the same way and there is no right or wrong way to grieve. Some people want tons of people around them and want to discuss their grief over and over. Some people are more withdrawn in their grief and open up to just a few select people, a few moments at a time. Some grieve openly and show their emotions more than others who might be more stoic. Some throw themselves back into a routine, some need more time. Grief comes in many forms. More important than the way we grieve is making space for grief, however it may show up. Grief may show up as silence and solitude or it may show up as a deep conversation with a friend. But when it shows up, it’s important to acknowledge it rather than avoid it or numb from it.
- Grief stays with us. One of the hardest things to understand about grieving is that the goal is not to rid ourselves of grief. Over time, grief shows up in a multitude of different ways. Trying to “get rid” of grief is a losing battle. We will always miss the ones we lost. But as we move through grief, we can begin to transform our grief, to make a place for it, and learn how to move through moments of grief, rather than lose ourselves to them.
- Grief comes in waves. At first, grief comes in relentless waves, one after another, knocking you off your feet. The waves of grief can feel like they come out of nowhere, as we are triggered by seemingly unrelated moments. But over time, you learn to stand and the waves do not knock you down every single time. In this way, if you allow it to, grief begins to make you stronger. Eventually, the waves come less often, are less intense, and do not last quite as long. The challenge is to begin to see the wave coming, dive into it, and pop back up the other side.
- Grief is a teacher. I rebel the most at this idea of grief being a teacher. It can feel as if it somehow justifies the loss if I learn from it. Nothing will make the loss of my son ok. Nothing will make the loss of your loved one ok. But we can also learn from grief even as we acknowledge the loss will never be ok. My biggest lesson from grief is how I cannot control the future or what happens to the people I love. At first, this insight was deeply depressing to me. But I have also found freedom in it. Grief taught me how to be present and how to appreciate the moment I am currently in. The lessons for you may be different, but they are there for us when we can take them.
- Finally, grief is complicated. As I said earlier, it is messy. It does not conform to any firm pattern or process. There are no steps to grieving. It rears its ugly head at the most inopportune times and you will be wrecked more than you thought you would. The next day a moment you thought would be hard passes without a thought and you find your grief has transformed in some magical way you can’t quite explain. It’s not what we expect and as hard as we feared it would be.
The last thing I’ll say about grief is this: You can move through it. You can survive it. It may not feel like it now. It may not feel like it next month or even 6 months from now. But you are strong enough to endure the journey grief has for you.
The weight of grief you carry is there because the loss you endured matters. Your terrible loss matters. The person you lost matters. And therefore, the work of grief matters.
The work of grief is essentially about honoring the loss and beginning to move toward acceptance of the new reality you now live in. That work is tough and terrible and noble and valuable all at the same time.
Courage to you as you face this hard work of grief. Nothing will be the same again, nor should it be. But as we understand grief, and lean into it, we can come out the other side.
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