Recently, the husband of a dear friend was killed when a tree limb fell on him while he was working in his yard. A freak and random accident, it has left my friend stunned and so very, very sad.
I’ve written many times in this blog about grief, and how it bounces in and out and around our lives, and sometimes lands in the most unexpected places at the most inopportune times (like there’s ever a good time for loss). But you know grief. It doesn’t wait for an appointment.
Sudden loss can feel like an ambush. It barges in and takes over everything, and the accompanying emotions crawl inside us, infiltrate and define our most tender feelings, and they never really leave, even when we don’t feel them as acutely anymore. Time goes by and we go about our lives, not thinking about grief, perhaps even (foolishly) thinking we’ve conquered it, feeling like we’re so over ____________ (fill in your loss), and then WHAM! We find ourselves in a friend’s kitchen, helplessly hugging her as she cries desperately in her own mourning, grieving a loss that, while uniquely hers, feels very, very familiar. The emotions from our own day of loss flood back, perhaps not as strong, but it is grief’s way of reminding us that it never, ever goes away.
There are times, too, when grief is more subtle. It refuses to readily identify itself. Your life, by all accounts, is fine, you’re holding it together, and you even dared to be happy and smile again. Then, seemingly out of nowhere, you wake up one morning with an overwhelming sense of dread and sadness, feeling like you can’t pull the blanket off from around your head. You wander around dazed for a while – a day, a week, a month, longer – unable to put your finger on the culprit because, you know, that death/loss was so long ago and you’re, like, totally over it, so it must be something else.
But it’s not.
I write this to remind us that grief is not something we ever finish. And honestly, I don’t think it’s supposed to end.
I’m not saying we should feel miserable all the time or constantly remind ourselves of what we’ve lost in our lives. But loss and grief are inevitable for each one of us, and instead of trying to drink it away, drug it away, fuck it away, eat it away, or work it away, why not we use the hell out of it and grow empathy where perhaps there wasn’t any? Even if someone’s loss isn’t exactly the same as ours, understanding that the experience of loss is overarching and universal can train us to be more understanding, kind, helpful, and – when warranted – involved in bringing change to what is wrong.
Grief can strengthen us and, sadly, destroy us, but there’s no in between. The thing is, though, that even when we think it’s destroying us, it just might be strengthening us, teaching us more about ourselves than we ever wanted to know. This is not to say that what brought us to grieve is somehow a good thing. Personally, I’d rather my (and my friend’s) husband was alive, or the baby I miscarried had been born, or that the things I lost in the fire hadn’t burned, or that my brother’s memory was intact, or that any of the other losses I’ve experienced in my life hadn’t happened. But all of these losses make up my real life. Subsequently, grief, too, is a part of my real life, and I want grief to have meaning and a purpose, even if that purpose is simply to listen to a friend who is hurting.
P.S. We witnessed a simple and bittersweet lesson in grief recently when a female orca whale carried her dead baby on her back for 17 days before finally letting it go. She didn’t adhere to some cultural agenda that said you get a few days to grieve and then you’re supposed to get on with your life. She grieved in her own way, and so should we.