Good Grief

We experience grief all the time, even if we’re not always the best at recognizing it.

There are times of intense grief, as with the loss of a loved one. There are less acute but nonetheless painful periods of grief, such as when you leave a job or a relationship falls apart. And then there’s the persistent, underlying grief we all know — grief for the day’s news stories, grief for the effects of climate change, grief for the dreams we once had that may never be realized, grief for our younger bodies and past abilities, grief for friends, family and neighbors who are facing their own hardships.

Instead of accepting that grief is part of life — that it’s the inevitable flip side of love — we tell ourselves there’s something wrong with the sadness we carry. Where we could create stillness and listen to our hearts, we create noise and ignore what we’re feeling. We push those heavy feelings aside in favor of drinking alcohol or eating comfort food or distracting ourselves with plans.

I know, because I do all these things. It’s been 19 months since Jamie passed away, which is somehow both an incredibly long and short time. I’ve adopted some healthy habits since then — long walks, weekly therapy, journaling, connecting with other young widows, and spending time in nature have all helped me during some of my darkest moments.

But at some point, I inevitably forget about the healthy approaches and fall back into the overdrinking and overeating and overextending myself socially. (Hi, dumb brain!) Thankfully, I’ve gotten better at realizing how drained those things make me feel. While it seems like all the booze and junk food and socializing should fill me up, I’m left feeling empty.

Jamie and I, kayaking Crystal River in Florida just a few months before he died. (Photo by John Flanagan)

It’s hard to acknowledge and accept when we’re grieving. There’s an unspoken pressure to move on, to reconnect with life, to adopt a “good vibes only” attitude.

While ignoring grief is bad, trying to outsmart it can be worse. I believed (and, let’s be honest, still sometimes believe) that my sadness over Jamie’s death was something I could fix. I wanted to conquer the problem and return to my former self. I scoured books and online support groups for tips on the most efficient ways to heal. I went on dates because it was the next logical step, not because I was ready. I hosted parties and went out in public just to prove I was doing ok. I made lists of all the things I lost, and came up with elaborate plans to find them again.

Spoiler alert: It didn’t work. When we fight grief instead of honoring it, we’re our most miserable. Or, at least, I am. I eventually had to come to the hard truth that I’ll never return to the life I once knew. There’s a new path ahead of me now, one that looks a lot different, but still holds its own dreams and happiness.

I recently read The Wild Edge of Sorrow, a book by Francis Weller. It helped me to understand that not only do we grieve all the time (a strangely comforting thought!), but that grief is good for us.

“Sorrow is a sustained note in the song of being alive,” Weller wrote. “To be human is to know loss in its many forms. This should not be seen as a depressing truth. Acknowledging this reality enables us to find our way into the grace that lies hidden in sorrow. We are most alive at the threshold between loss and revelation; every loss ultimately opens the way for a new encounter.”

Damn. I think I read that passage a half-dozen times before moving on in the book. When I’m mired in grief and wanting to ignore or fight the sadness, that kind of wisdom is exactly what I need to hear.

I’ll never “get over” the loss of Jamie, but I will be able to handle it better with time. I already am. The work I do now — accepting, honoring and making space for grief — will benefit me throughout my life. It’s a long process and it’s not easy, but I have to trust that it’s worth it.

We can never protect ourselves from bad things happening. We can’t (and shouldn’t) push sadness away. But we can be more accepting of ourselves and our feelings in those moments. Bad shit happens. Grief happens. Sadness happens. It’s all part of life. Good things happen, too. So does joy and love and happiness. They’re also part of life. By opening our hearts and accepting the tough moments, we allow ourselves to also experience the wondrously light times.

Allow yourself to feel the things you’re feeling. There’s a lot of beauty in doing just that.

This essay was first published on September 12, 2018, in my weekly newsletter, My Sweet Dumb Brain.