I generally think of grief in association with the loss of a loved one. But grief isn’t always about death; sometimes it’s about a different kind of loss and that loss can be actual or anticipated. Grief and sadness are quite physical as well as emotional. I came across something I once wrote to describe my experience of grief. I’m not sure when I wrote it or even why I wrote it except that I do find writing sometimes helps me heal. Here goes:
I feel like I am wading through water up to my knees, every step is slow and uncertain, and my balance is off. I can’t go fast, I can’t get out of the water but I also can’t allow myself to fall. I have on a long skirt that becomes entangled around my ankles further obstructing my progress. The sadness I feel grips my stomach; my middle feels tight and twisted like it wants to escape from me. I want to escape from me too. I think for the first time, I understand the meaning of ‘gut wrenching.’ Sometimes my breath comes in spurts as though I have been startled or frightened. I understand that I don’t have any choice except to keep moving forward.
My mind goes over and over the situation but there is no viable solution. Sadness isn’t about solving something, it’s about sitting with something, being in the room with what I cannot change or alter or influence. I can’t escape it but I can find moments of distraction that briefly take me away. They don’t last long but they offer my mind some needed rest, a chance to focus ever so slightly on something other than myself. The doorbell rings, a friend calls, I can’t find my keys. The interruptions may be very small, very short, but I need them; it’s a kind of lifeline that forces me to briefly let go of my grief.
While I don’t want to be alone with my thoughts neither do I want to engage with others because I cannot concentrate, respond the way I normally do or offer sympathy where it is due. I simply cannot. I am too consumed with my own grief, with my sadness. I have no sympathy or empathy. My sadness isn’t about anyone else; it is all about me and only me. I’m ashamed to confess how self-centered I am.
All attempts towards perspective are thwarted as my rational brain tries desperately to override my self indulgence. I tell myself I am not the only one suffering; I am not suffering as much as many others, I am not alone, it isn’t personal, things happen, I’ll get better. I don’t listen to my rational brain. I know my rational brain is right but ‘right’ isn’t what I am seeking. Being right changes nothing. I return to my suffering. I scream at my rational self; You don’t know anything! Shut-up! Go away!
Everything I do takes on weight. The laundry is heavier, the water in the shower beats down on me like never before, my shoes feel like army boots. I turn away from my cat who wants to sit on my lap; I tell her she is too heavy, I am unjustly annoyed with her. She senses my sadness and is only trying to offer comfort but I don’t want comfort. I feel shame and guilt for rejecting all gestures of kindness but I continue to reject them anyway. No one can feel sorry enough for me.
The mail has piled up, phone messages go unanswered, the laundry basket overflows but I have no energy for anything. People ask me how I am doing and I say, “Fine.” What else can I say? Nothing I tell them will come close to the truth; better to just put an end to the conversation about how I am doing. I feel alone in my suffering even if others are suffering the same loss. I envision my grief as an internal wound that cannot be shared or traded. It’s like losing a child or a pet or a spouse; no one can simply drop by a substitute (a different child, a new pet, a stand-in spouse) and make it all OK.
The question is this, will it ever go away? Will I forever wake up in the middle of the night unable to escape the thoughts that haunt me, the fears, the pain in my throat? Will time make it melt away? Can a person be sad forever? I look at my face and feel that I have suddenly aged, my skin is sagging, my eyes look puffy, the lines are pulling my lips towards my soft jaws. No make-up. My hair is thinning and lifeless. I can’t stand to look at myself. I am drawn to the morose. I feel like someone newly diagnosed with an incurable disease who can’t stop reading all the morbid statistics, sucking up every detail of how the disease will destroy them. I almost relish wallowing in my misery.
The loss isn’t just about what was, it is about what was to be. The future is part of the present; it is where I am going, what I will be, what I will accomplish. It’s like a garden. I have a vision of my garden, how it will grow, how it will look, how it will smell. The garden isn’t a stagnant thing that is only in the present; it has a future and I am part of that future. I want that future.
But in my heart I know that sadness, like all wounds, will eventually become a scar, a reminder of a wound but no longer a wound. It is how the human brain adjusts so that we can resume whatever life we have. It won’t be the same; we have a scar. When we touch it, it won’t feel completely normal. It will be somewhat numb and tingle and it won’t be pretty. It won’t disappear. We are forever changed and that isn’t all bad. Some scars make us stronger, more empathetic, perhaps kinder. Some scars remind us that we are human, we suffer and, when we make others suffer, we scar them too. Eventually I will reach out, stop isolating and stop wallowing. I will begin to hear my inner, rational voice. Nothing is ever all bad even when it seems so.