8 Things Grief Taught Me
April 1, 2019
Grief: deep and poignant distress caused by or as if by bereavement. -Webster’s Dictionary
Everyone experiences sadness. It is as commonplace as joy or happiness. Even falling into depression isn’t all that unique anymore. If there’s one thing Mental Health Awareness Week taught me, it is that many struggle with the darker emotions.
Grief is a dark emotion, but the intensity, depth and the longevity of its experience sets it apart.
This past year, I have been grappling with living with grief. The experience is distinct. It is different from the difficult moments I’ve lived through in the past. At times, I’ve found myself amazed at how painless those past experiences were in comparison. How silly and indulgent it now seems to me that I once felt the need to mourn a breakup or the end of a shitty friendship. How small those things seem when viewed from this new perspective that I’ve been gifted.
If there is a silver lining to the grieving process, it’s that with great pain comes an abundance of knowledge. A knowing you could acquire no other way than by going through this excruciating experience.
The cause of my suffering is not important. At least not for the sake of this article. Still in the thick of my experience, I hold it precious. I protect it like a newborn infant. It’s something only to be shared with those who understand the fragility of each moment I pass through.
What is important, and worth sharing with others, is what I’ve learned from my experience with grief so far.
If there is a silver lining to the grieving process, it’s that with great pain comes an abundance of knowledge. A knowing you could acquire no other way than by going through this excruciating experience. And while I know that I can only share so much with you if you have not met grief on your own yet, I hope I can give you some insights that you’ll find useful now or in the future should you find yourself or a loved one deep in mourning.
Like I said, I’m still on my journey. I’m sure that shortly after this is published, I’ll learn something new. But as of this very moment, here is what grief has taught me so far.
8 Things I’ve Learned from Living with Grief
The following are some of the lessons I’ve learned during my time of grieving.
Grief shows you how strong you are (not)
I’ve always thought of myself as a robust person. As a sexual assault survivor, I pride myself on my ability to use traumatizing experiences to better myself. Living with panic disorder has been tough, but overcoming it? Exhilarating. I thought I was strong. My experience with grief has shown me how soft I am.
Grieving has served as a mirror of sorts. Except what it reflects back is your most vulnerable self. It reminds you that you are not made of impermeable emotional armor. For me, that reflection looks a lot like my childhood self. The little girl who existed long before joyful, authenticity got traded in for a more reserved, protective shell.
I value my vulnerability. Some of my best traits are housed in my softness: compassion, loyalty, creativity. But grief has dispelled any false beliefs in my unbreakable strength.
Relationships aren’t always what they seem
Family, friends, lovers: you are guaranteed to be shocked by who shows up for you and who doesn’t as you go through your grieving process. People you thought you were closest to may even be the most callous and cruel. Your mourning will either bring out the best or the worst in those around you. Your social circle is likely to change drastically.
Our society doesn’t deal with tragedy or the resulting emotions well. Sending thoughts and prayers from a distance is one thing. But coming face to face with someone in the grip of mourning requires accepting the possibility that you too may one day be in the same position. Not many people can handle it that well or at all.
I’ve noticed three distinct reactions people have:
Complete avoidance: People just want to have fun and be happy, and the best way to do that is to put a whole lot of distance between themselves and anything that might disrupt the good vibes. These friends might offer a pat on the back or an, “I’m so sorry.” But, as quickly as the sentiment leaves their lips, they are back to business as usual. This makes interacting with them really awkward because in order to be around them, you have to act like nothing is wrong. Resentment inevitably builds (see extreme emotions below).
Judgment: I realize this reaction comes from a place of fear and ignorance, but it is the one reaction that I found most shocking. People want to believe that somehow, they could avoid experiencing your pain by doing something differently or better. They may not say it or even acknowledge it themselves, but you will feel it.
Judgment comes through in the little things people say, the things they don’t say, the way they avert their eyes and the faces they make. There are plenty of “tells” and they are all biting. In many ways, this is the reaction I find most harmful. Grief itself makes you question everything about yourself: your life, the past, the future…everything you’ve ever believed. Doubt is a slippery slope that leads to dangerous places when you are at your most vulnerable.
Dismissiveness: Life is not a half-hour sitcom or even a feature-length movie. Issues aren’t neatly resolved within a certain amount of time. There are those people who show up initially or listen intently at first only to quickly transform into the, “Get over it!” type who expects you to go back to your fun-loving self. These individuals are similar to the friends who show up for the baby shower and birth but disappear as soon as the doldrums of child-rearing set in.
Grief defines your relationships with others in ways you never expected it too. Those closest to you may let you down. People who you hardly know may be there with you every step of the way. Near strangers may be the only ones to answer your call for help, and lovers may disappear.
Boundaries are necessary
You may lose friends and your connections with loved ones as you navigate your way through mourning. To avoid this, setting boundaries is necessary. If a loved one makes you feel worse when you are around them, set boundaries on the amount of time you spend together or what you can do or talk about with one and other. Those who really love you will respect your wishes.
The best kind of friend says nothing
You might think you want answers. How could this have happened? Why? What did I do wrong? What could I have done better?
The best friend to have when you are in this stage is the one who says nothing. It’s startling to me, how good it was to hear a loved one say, “I don’t know. I can’t imagine what you are going through, but I’m here for you.” Or, “I’m so sorry, I know you are in so much pain. I love you.” Or, “Don’t you dare apologize for crying, it’s ok. I’m not going anywhere.”
No advice, no suggestions, no, “If I were you…” or, “I feel/This makes me feel…”
There’s nothing quite as soothing as having someone sit next to you (or on the other end of the phone) quietly with the unsaid promise of permanence, while you sob, rant, and completely fall apart again and again.
You are truly your own best friend (or not)
No one can hold, share or save you from your pain when you are grieving. And believe me, you’ll yearn for that white knight in shining armor. Even if there are others close to you who are grieving over the same thing you are, their perspective will differ from yours. Your grief is uniquely your own.
You will find yourself feeling so alone at times, you will wonder whether you can bare it. This is when being able to be there for yourself is crucial. No one knows how to ease your suffering
Hold your own hand, hug yourself, pay attention to the things you are saying to yourself in your head. Look in the mirror and have long, honest, loving conversations. It’s on you to be your own best friend.
Remember: if you are not actively being your own best friend, you are likely being your own worst enemy.
You really do not know what others are going through
I look at each person I encounter differently now. While grieving I’ve had more people ask things of me, turn to me for help, take their problems out on me—you know, the usual stuff we all do to each other. And I’ve wondered how differently they would treat me if they knew the giant, gaping wound I was barely
Would you treat someone differently if you knew that the minute they shut the door to the bathroom or drove off in their car they broke down and cried?
Your emotions have surprising extremes
I have been shocked by the range and intensity of my emotions. I have felt the gut-wrenching sadness. The kind that feels and sounds as though your stomach is in your mouth when you cry. I have felt rage so strong I wanted to burn the world down. Even the moments of happiness that have somehow made their way to me, resulted in laughter that brought me to tears.
A word of advice: don’t make important decisions while experiencing any kind of extreme emotion.
Grief changes you
There’s no returning to your “life before grief”. Perhaps that’s why some say it never leaves you. Your suffering changes your relationships with those around you. It ends some, distances others, and creates strong bonds with unexpected and new people. Your journey will alter how you see yourself and how you treat yourself.
Your relationship with yourself will never be the same either. It may be better, or it may be worse. Some use their pain as an excuse to nosedive into substance abuse and destroy their relationships with others, others use it to make changes that they knew they needed before things fell apart. Either way, sometime well into my journey I began to see myself differently, and I know that there is no going back.