My father died on Easter Sunday 2010. Six months later my long-term relationship hit the buffers. I found myself in a car-crash of intense sadness and anxiety with few air bags to cushion to blows.
The doctor wrote me a few sick notes. I took time off work. I went back to work. I found I could hold presence for an hour but then I needed a break and a cry. I lost sleep. I lost weight.
At some point I wrote a reminder-to-self of what grief was like and what helped me. I have waited until now to write about this because I didn’t feel ready. But is one ever ready? While we can recover from grief, the experience of loss never ends. I will always miss my father. I continue to feel I failed my children.
Grief is messy. People write about ‘stages‘ of grief. This understanding can be really helpful. The lived reality is that grief is a mess of feelings – sadness, anxiety, anger, hope, emptiness, aching – with no predictable trajectory.
Learn to be ok not to be ok. Learn to roll with the unpredictability of grief. Learn to meet and hold the painful sensations of this body with self-compassionate silence. Learn to find moments in which you can relax and practise trust.
Find ways to process your grief. When things were at their worst I would skip work and squirrel myself away – in the library, on a park bench, in the toilet, on the train – and write 750 words. Writing became a commitment to myself. I learnt that being honest to the page allowed me not only to discharge difficult feelings but also to make important decisions and to find myself.
Prayer is no substitute for friends, counsellors and medical advice. Choose the people who you know will be able to listen to you without getting too caught up in the story itself, people you can trust, people who will support you, people who will encourage and challenge you gently (or robustly) when you feel like giving in or running away.
In the midst of grief, your relationship to the world changes. You feel different in your skin.
So much of how you identify is composed of the relationships you have with people and to things. To lose relationship through death or desertion is to be a different person. You are no longer so sure of who you are.
Attend to and allow this uncertainty. You can’t hold onto the old you, and you cannot run ahead to the you that is coming into being. Learn to dwell in the gap.
Grief is exhausting. There is enormous tiredness, your body aches, your concentration lapses.
Don’t fight this. Rest. Go to the doctor. Explain what has happened to you. Explain that you need some time off. Get her to write you a sick note. Take a break from time to time to cry. Let your friends take care of you.
God seems different, perhaps distant, or dark. You may think that God has abandoned you.
You learn that God does not protect you from life’s hurts. You learn that God is different from what you thought – that previously you were following a god, not God – or you jettison God. It is fine to discard old gods, but not to take leave of God entirely.
You learn to accept vulnerability as inescapable. You learn to see that everyone suffers, and that you are God, grieving.
Practice gratitude for what you have, for who you are, for your friends, for this moment. Make a list, every day, for what you are grateful.
Other, older griefs are remembered, relived, grieved again.
… if something hurts me, the hurts I suffered back then come back to me, and when I feel guilty, the feelings of guilt return; if I yearn for something today, or feel homesick, I feel the yearnings and homesickness from back then. The geological layers of our lives rest so tightly one on top of the other that we always come up against earlier events in later ones, not as a matter that has been fully formed and pushed aside, but absolutely present and alive. I understand this. Nevertheless, I sometimes find it hard to bear. Schlink, The Reader, pp.215-6)
You learn that this is not a mistake. It is an opportunity to practise forgiveness and compassion towards yourself, and to clear out more detritus.
Watch out for the gremlins of desolation.
- “My father has died. All people die. I will die. There is nothing new under the sun. Life is not worth living. There is no hope.”
- “My marriage has broken up. I have chalked up another failure. I am a failure. There is no hope for me. There is no point in trying, or trying something new.”
- “That loss happened years ago. Why am I still sad, still stuck? There’s something wrong with me.”
Accept difficult truths; but do not turn a difficult truth into negative thinking.
- Do not turn the truth that we all die into a belief that life is without hope.
- Do not turn the truth that you cannot find a meaning into a belief that the world is without meaning.
- Do not turn the truth that you have failed into a belief that you are a failure.
- Do not allow the truth that you feel (and are) inadequate to the task of life undermine the truth that you are enough.
There is hope. Life has meaning. You are enough.
Grief never ends. Just when you think it is all over, you have bad days and weeks again, . There is more sadness to be embraced, another level of self-loathing to dissolve, more forgiveness to be extended.
Grief, loss, hurt and failure are inevitable. (Even changes you wish for and embrace with delight come with a dose of grief.) Each involves a dismantling. You are going to feel lost and empty. You have to allow for a reconstruction that you can’t project-manage. In the end, life takes on new meaning – changed, lost for sure, but also new.
Life without vulnerability is not life. We wish it otherwise. Some think that God made a mistake or is punishing them; or it is the influence of evil. It is so tempting to find someone to blame.
But, as Brené Brown says:
Blame is simply the discharging of pain and discomfort. We blame when we’re uncomfortable and experiencing pain—when we’re vulnerable, angry, hurt, in shame, grieving. There’s nothing productive about blame, and it often involves shaming someone or just being mean. Daring Greatly, p.195
And, there’s no use asking ‘Why me?’ No one else one escapes: why should you?
Loss invites us to connect with a deeper reality to life. Everything is fragile, vulnerable, undefended, temporary, subject to change and finitude. Learn to live with this.