So many books, articles, blogs, and talks have been written and given on the subject of grief.
Why then, is it impossible to understand until you are experiencing it? The definition of grief by Merriam Webster – deep and poignant distress caused by or as if by bereavement; a cause of such suffering – doesn’t provide much clarity if what you are experiencing feels…different. Maybe you feel relief after watching your loved one suffer a long, hard battle with Alzheimer’s and their death brings peace. Maybe you feel anger that the parent who died should have been around another 20 years, while the other parent is still around against all odds. Maybe you feel closer to and more grateful for your faith as a result of losing your loved one. Relief, anger, gratitude, and faithfulness are a wide range of just a handful of experiences. It can be this range of experiences, and our natural instinct to compare, that often leads to more of the suffering of grief rather than the loss of the loved one.
This range of experiences, and presentations, of grief is clearly and cleverly summed up by John Trotter in his post at A Life Overseas:
“People grieve differently, even if they’re in the same family. Some people grieve in giant waves. Some don’t. Some people show ALL.THEIR.GRIEF. Some don’t. Some people are vocal and some aren’t. Some extroverts want the crowds to know all about it. Some introverts don’t. The danger here is that you expect others to grieve the right way (read: your way), and instead of allowing them their own grief process, you try to stuff them into your box and they end up resentful or detached, finding solace far away from you.”
You may be saying to yourself, “EXACTLY! That is exactly what they do.” The inconvenient and unexpected truth, however, is that this goes both ways. You may feel that you are not being allowed to grieve the way you need and feel resentful about that. And it may be hard to imagine that the person who makes you feel this way is feeling the exact same way about you. What a sad result of your shared grief.
The unexpected-ness of grief and the journey we all have taken or will eventually, can kick us right out of the neatly organized 5, 7, 12 stages of grief which make for great self-help books. While the stages are useful parameters for the majority of experiences, it can be that one thing you feel or don’t feel that takes you by surprise. Or that person you thought would be by your side through all of life’s trials going MIA that surprises the heck out of you. One person I spoke to about their grief journey shared that, “the biggest surprise was the people that stepped in to get me through. The ones I thought would be there, were not. The ones I never dreamed would be there…were.” Another shared an unexpected “solace most from people who had not experienced grief of their own. But the ability to sit with my grief, near me, but not overbearing, not trying to be anything other than present.”
The unexpected-ness can take any form: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual. It can also add to or alleviate some of the suffering along our journey. After losing my dad in a quick 8-week turn with pancreatic cancer, I felt mentally and emotionally contained as I returned to work, managed his estate, jumped back into life. It wasn’t until 9 months later, when the estate was finally closed, that a cloud of apathy settled in. Quite an unexpected feeling just as I was thinking that I had “gotten over it” yet it seemed my grief journey was just on pause until I had the time and energy to allow it to present in the way it would for me. I spoke to someone whose unexpected-ness came by grieving with and for her mother as she was dying. She shared, “it was a profound time with my mom during the dying phase. When sitting with her she would go in and out of consciousness. She would go somewhere else, see other things, talk to other people, and then come back and share that with me. Her ability to share that with me helped me feel relieved about losing her. It helped me grieve the loss of her before her death. She was able to tell me that she was not afraid to die.”
Sometimes the unexpected-ness comes by way of well-intentioned (mostly) people. It may be unexpected to see who shows up at your door with a Totinos Party Pizza and Oreos. It may be unexpected to see who does not. It may be unexpected who sends a heartfelt DM to your Instagram account when they learn of your loss. It may be unexpected who can’t seem to find the words to even acknowledge your loss. It may be unexpected that the silent presence of someone can feel better than the tone-deaf or insensitive comments from another.
One great resource for understanding more about grief in general – your own or someone else’s – is www.grief.com. And their site includes this helpful, if not relatable, guide of Do’s and Don’ts.
Whether your grief comes from an unexpected loss or after a long-expected passing, the journey is yours. No one can walk your path for you, but you can take solace in the shared experience of losing a loved one. We all have or will eventually and by going through it, and navigating the unexpected, we are that much better prepared to provide a safe space for others that are with us on this journey or will be joining us eventually. And we can meet them in their unexpected-ness for a long, quiet hug or a loud, snotty cry or with a cheesy, enchilada casserole.
Time is finite. Love is eternal. Forgiveness is everything.
By, Laura Olson