Grief is defined as: deep sorrow, especially that caused by someone’s death. While it’s easy to understand the grief ignited by the death of a loved one, no one tells you that you will also grieve the loss of things: such as jobs, opportunities, relationships, and perhaps the most elusive - what could have been. I have had close friends pass away, but I first acknowledged the darkest places within grief when I decided I wanted to end my marriage.
My transition from married woman to single mother has taken years. Coming to terms with the fact that I wanted to end my marriage and start a new life has been a scary revelation wrought with anxiety. Major and minor life transitions have a tendency to cause emotions to flare up and conflict. When we are in transition we are changing, and with that change likely comes an end to something; a real or perceived loss - a death of its own kind. While the excitement of something new can be a positive, even happy distraction from the sadness we feel when something is lost, we can’t ignore the grief that is also present.
We resist unpleasant emotions because they make us feel vulnerable. Many people still associate vulnerability with weakness and are uncomfortable with it. Again, our society doesn’t teach us how to accept and work through emotions like loneliness, anger, sadness, anxiety, or grief. When we are faced with these powerful emotions, we are often caught off guard and unprepared. We attempt to control our emotions by suppressing them. This energy becomes trapped it in our body, and only causes more anxiety and confusion, and can even lead to illness.
When I began to visualize a new life for myself, I felt anxious resistance from the grief I was experiencing. A part of me didn’t want to change or move forward. It seemed too hard. I felt chained to my past, my mistakes, what could have been, along with paralyzing fear of the future; but I didn’t want to stay stuck. I realized that I had to grieve what I felt I was losing before I would be free to move forward.
The intuitive knowing that my marriage was over was present for longer than I’d like to admit. When I thought about telling my daughter, packing my things, telling friends and family - shame, fear and grief took over. I grieved losing my husband and friend of 11 years, even though I knew he was not the partner I needed. I was ashamed, and grieved that I would carry the stigma and label of “divorced”. I grieved what I thought were “lost years” and was afraid that I would never find love again.
Perhaps the biggest loss I grieved was the fact that I would most likely not have any more children. Although I wasn’t the happiest pregnant woman around, I had always hoped for one more; a sibling for my daughter. When I first confronted this notion I was 33. I knew that my path of healing would be a long one. While biologically more children were possible, I couldn’t place any timeline on myself to find another partner with this desire in mind. I had to grieve this as a loss and accept that my future would look very different from what I previously hoped.
The grief I felt for these losses triggered greater anxiety of the future. I was clinging to my past and the expectations I had for life. I was resisting. I wasn’t sure I was strong enough, or that I was making the right choice, but there came an “Ah-ha!” moment when I just knew. I knew I could trust my feelings. I knew I was making the right choice for my future. I had found renewed trust in God’s plan for me, and faith in divine timing. For the first time, I was excited for a beautifully uncertain future to unfold on its own.
Right now, we are all feeling more anxious than ever. Before COVID-19, we were happily going about our lives as planned – working as usual, running carpool, planning our next vacation, and looking forward to upcoming concerts, parties, and annual celebrations with friends and family. This deadly virus that has threatened our health, job security, education, and reality as we know it. The impact of this virus on individuals and communities has been staggering. We’ve lost loved ones, jobs, businesses, trust in our government, pieces of our sanity, and our sense of security for the future. We are all grieving something, yet again, our grief is hardly being acknowledged.
We can’t avoid or ignore the intensity of our grief for all things lost during this pandemic – that isn’t the answer. As a nation and culture, we have ignored too much already. We can’t skip over the tough parts. We have to grieve our losses, move through and release all the tough emotions before we can move forward into a brighter and equitable future for the good of humanity.
My rumble with grief throughout my divorce seems like small potatoes compared to the tall order of adversity faced during this pandemic – but I’ve learned a thing or two. Make no mistake, grief is a highly subjective emotion. There is no road map, but learning to recognize and understand our own experiences with grief allows us to have greater empathy for each other. From my grieving heart to yours, here is what I have learned about coping with and processing grief:
1. Grief is real. Recognize it, say its name, feel it.
It feels like hitting a wall.A wall of sadness and depression.For the longest time I thought it was just that – sadness, and depression.It was my therapist who first told me that what I was feeling was actually grief.I had never truly identified with my grief for any of my previous hardships.I just thought I felt sad.Sadness is part of it, but the various depths of loss that accompany it are what make it so challenging.
Once I learned to recognize it and name it, that’s when the hard part came – feeling it.I didn’t realize how much I was actually holding in to appear as if I was holding it together.Letting your emotional wall completely crumble and the floodgates open is difficult. For a long time, I cried every day.Every morning on my way to work, on the drive home, before bed, when I was in the shower etc. Holding in all my emotions created bodily tension.As I shed more tears, I could feel the tension ease, and a lightness return to my body.Now I recognize that feeling of tension as a signal to get in touch with whatever is bothering me emotionally, feel it, and let it go.
2. Grief has no time limit.
We love to rush ourselves through pain. Those feelings of hurt and despair are not fun emotions. We want to hurry - quick! Get to the other side of this hurdle! It doesn’t work that way. You cannot rush grief. It comes in its own time and attempting to bypass it will only make the hurt last longer. Do not place time limits on how long you or others are allowed to grieve. Each loss is unique and will require a different amount of time. Some losses you will grieve forever. The end of a marriage, or the death of a loved one most likely will leave a scar. The hurt will become less over time, and maybe a little easier to accept. You can still live a happy and fulfilling life, even if you are a little wounded.
3. Grief comes in waves.
Just when you thought you were done feeling sad about something… here comes grief once again.There have been many times during my transition of becoming a single parent where I thought I had dealt with something, only to have the same feelings of sadness, loss, and resentment for a specific situation crop up again.Because there is no time limit on grief, it can feel like rolling hills.There will be peaks - grief at its worst and most intense.There will also be valleys, where grief seems to completely disappear.Learn to recognize grief when it’s on the rise again.
4. Grief teaches us how to love ourselves deeper.
Every day we put extreme pressure on ourselves. We do so much and fulfill so many roles, but rarely give ourselves the credit we deserve. We fall into the comparison trap and feed our negative inner critic. Self-loathing is a cultural norm.
As children we are taught to self-sooth, and when caught in the web of grief it is an ultimate necessity. We return to this primal instinct during times of loss so we don’t drown in our own suffering. Grief and anxiety due to loss bring mental, emotional and sometimes physical pain. Through the grief and healing process, we have an opportunity to reconnect with ourselves, cultivate greater self-compassion, and self-love, and gently meet our own needs. This incredible skill is a gift we can carry beyond healing and benefit from for the rest of our lives.
5. Grief teaches us how to receive.
While grief can help us reconnect with ourselves, we will still need the help of others during any healing process.We are taught that giving is an act of love and to also be self-sufficient.This paradox makes it difficult for so many of us to accept kind giving gestures from others.We feel we need to repay people for every little thing.Many of us have mental blocks around asking for and receiving help, and fear being judged for it.Times of grief teach us that receiving is also an act of love.When you dismiss help from others you are denying them the pleasure of giving.When you can accept those helping hands, you allow yourself to be more vulnerable; for your needs to be seen by friends, family, coworkers, neighbors, and for deeper connections to be formed.
6. With every death comes a rebirth.
One of the only things I remember from couple’s therapy was when the therapist said, if we were going to move forward together the “old” marriage needed to die in order for a new marriage to emerge.Was that even possible?Was it possible to start over after 11 years and build a new relationship with the same person?
My heart answered this question with a hard NO, but I did, and still do believe the words of that therapist - something did need to die.All the lies, the secrets, the avoidance, hiding and lying about who I was to almost everyone…it all needed to stop.In order for ME to be reborn, and start a new life, an authentic one that I could truly be proud of, the old me needed to die.My marriage was part of the “old me”.It needed to die too.
Rebirth, a fresh start that is part of personal growth.Just like our original birth when we came earth side through our mothers, growth is painful, messy, and uncomfortable.We don’t remember our original births, but as I recall giving birth to my daughter, it was the most physical pain I’ve ever experienced.And with that final push came the most beautiful new life.The way is not around the pain, it is through it.
Grief is always associated with some type of death. Whether a literal death of someone you love passing, or the death of old ways. That deep sorrow and pain shouldn’t be ignored. It should be honored. Although uncomfortable and messy, it is possible to befriend grief, and reap loving gifts from it.