Where there is deep grief, there was great love.
I first experienced grief as a young girl, with the loss of a dog who was much more a family member than a pet. I don’t remember how old I was, the season, the way he died, but I do remember the feeling. The feeling of overwhelming sadness, knowing even as a child the permanence of our dog going to heaven. I didn’t have words then for how I was feeling. I didn’t know that was grief taking over my little heart for days on end, and I certainly didn’t realize this was not the last time I would grieve.
Since then, I have grieved many times. When we lose someone or something important, we grieve. We are sad, we feel lonely, we have bad days, worse days, days we would like to detach our heart from our chest so as not to feel. We may encounter anger, sorrow, fear, helplessness, vulnerability, and regret so simultaneously our entire being can barely comprehend the shock and the waves that follow. I have grieved a marriage, friendships, jobs, moments, homes. Of course, the worst of those times is when my sorrow is because of the loss of someone I love. There is nothing comparable to the absolute heartbreak of saying goodbye to our people.
Grief is said to be a five-part process with stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. I think we move in and out of these stages, if we go through them at all. The sorrow that follows loss simplified into stages can be incredibly difficult to relate to, even decades later. Grief is such an individualized reaction. We may experience denial for months, and not move through it until we realize our loved one is missing from a family event. Or years after accepting loss, we may fall back into anger or depression because loss isn’t fair. I have seen the people closest to me grieve parents, siblings, children – all taken well before what felt like their time. Instead they leave us on a timeline we are forced to trust though we don’t understand. There is no handbook for this, no “Grieving for Dummies,” no rules to do it best. We survive, we fluctuate between feeling nothing and feeling everything, and do the best we can.
The bereaved have the additional challenge of unintentional alienation, as the people around them scatter, not sure what to say or how to help. The loneliness already blanketing the grieving is intensified because the discomfort of mourning turns many to a place of avoidance instead of acceptance. The awful words “it will all be ok,” are spoken too often. Ok for who? How do you know? It may never feel ok again.
Since it is unlikely any of us will get out of this life without an experience of grief, it’s important to consider this. Acknowledge loss, don’t hide. Remember the future (“it’s going to be ok”) is the last thing a bereft person can focus on (remember grief = survival mode, there’s no thought of what’s ahead here). And saying to someone, “how are you TODAY,” demonstrates your understanding that grief ebbs and flows and there is no schedule of how a person should or shouldn’t move through their grief.
What is extraordinary about grief is the many examples of human resiliency that follow it. When I see the ones I love face adversity through loss but rise anyways, I am always awe struck by their strength. So many people that have grieved impactful deaths, embrace life even more strongly afterwards, knowing the true meaning of “life is short.” They hold tighter to their loved ones, they make time for adventures, they take risks. They don’t sweat the small stuff because they know it truly is small stuff. They also know what the actual big stuff feels like, so their perception of a misstep as a minor annoyance, not an earth-shattering setback, is most accurate. People who have suffered great loss skip the drama, they know real tragedy and would rather avoid the unnecessary production. They move forward, one step at a time, even on days those steps feel like they are in quicksand, and are the bravest of the brave.
If you have experienced grief, do something for me today. Remember that grief means there was deep love. Grief IS love. It’s the love you want to give and can’t. When you feel tears welling up in your eyes, that is love. When there’s a lump in your throat so big you cannot speak, that is love. When your chest constricts and you feel like you can’t breathe, that is love. Grief is the last bit of love you can give to your person, so embrace it, cherish it, and never, ever feel like you have to move on from it.