Recently, a follower of my blog reached out after reading It’s Not Always Depression. I was touched by how much this reader said the book helped during a time of intense grief and invited her to share her experience. Below are words by “Rae.”
I lost five members of my family over these past four years. In rapid succession: my father, my mother in law, my mother, my kid brother (on my birthday) and my father in law. And in between those deaths the company for which I worked restructured and I lost my job.
Others have written about grief far more eloquently than I ever could. Didion wrote: “Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it…We do not expect the shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind.” C.S. Lewis wrote, “No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” I’d add that grief and the grief overload of multiple losses is a violent attack on who we've been and how we've seen ourselves in the world.
Loss creates a cauldron of emotions.
I write professionally but words failed me until fairly recently. I’ve been overwhelmed by storms of strong emotions the likes of which I’ve never felt before and scarcely understood. It is said that until you experience great loss you can’t possibly imagine what it feels like. I get that now. One loss is hell enough. Multiple losses are profoundly disassembling. And the anxiety I experienced was debilitating.
So much of who I thought I was became a question. With each loss, my identity became vaguer.
Who am I now if not a daughter, older sister, daughter-in-law, professional, leader? How do I process each lost relationship? Who do I grieve today? Or in this minute, hour, afternoon? What about all those birthdays, death anniversaries, mother’s days, father’s days, holidays? How do I comfort others impacted by these deaths when I barely have enough to get through this moment myself? How is it that each successive loss builds on the previous losses in an unbearable assault on body, mind, and spirit? And what do I do to help myself heal, live again and learn something from the unrelenting pain?
It’s been and continues to be a painful path, yet I am feeling somewhat better recently. Different from before all this happened but better, nevertheless. How? Time alone does not improve things necessarily. As some wise humans have said, you have to do the work. I’ve been learning new things from all these losses:
1) Feel: Grieve each relationship with all you’ve got as soon as you are able. Grief will not be denied, and postponing makes it worse. Each loss is different and the more ambiguous the relationship the harder it will be to mourn (an entirely separate topic). You may not feel you can bear it, but you learn you actually are and can. The key is surrendering to all the emotions that visit.
2) Acknowledge: Know that grief takes far longer to process than anyone tells you and is highly individual to you and the nature of the relationship you lost. Learn to be kind to and patient with yourself. Understand you may be, for the time being, lost. Try not to panic as you find your way through, though it’s sometimes hard not to. As Hilary and others have urged: breathe deeply.
3) Love: Embrace the people and things you love. Turn to loved ones but know they are not grief professionals. Know when to back off on excessive leaning. Be prepared to lose some relationships that simply cannot sustain the strain of grief. Embrace healthy longtime passions and be open to new ones to help you heal. Drop interests that no longer soothe. Create some kind of structure to your life. Care for your body. Grief is hard on the physical you, often in surprising and persistently uncomfortable ways.
4) Learn: Get educated about emotions and grief. I have a growing library on these topics. Grief masquerades as many different feelings. Borrowing language from Hilary’s book, in the acute phase of my grief I felt it primarily in the realm of my defenses and inhibitory emotions -- especially anxiety and shame. I learned that anxiety is a very common though previously under-appreciated companion of grief. It took some time before I could bear the intense core emotions Hilary writes about so eloquently, especially fear, anger, sadness and disgust.
I am not through these losses. I no longer expect that to happen with any speed. Meantime I am living my life side by side with my grief as I begin a new chapter. Family relationships and friendships have deepened and become closer. I make music and meditate. I go to the theater a lot. I got a new haircut. I’m starting a business. I laugh again. I am more present.
I am still myself. And I am becoming a different version of who I once was.
Thank you, Hilary, for the opportunity to share my experience.
As I read about your experience, I sensed my own fear of losing the people I love and need. My body trembles and I see myself alone. That fear is always there, and it visits me from time to time, especially when a loved one is sick or travels to a far-away place. I know my turn for unspeakable loss will eventually come, like it comes for all people who dare to love. Rae, your story offers a little light on an otherwise dark and scary path. I and others will be grateful to read and re-read your words when we need. Thank you.
With gratitude and big warm virtual healing hugs to you and all who are suffering from unbearable losses,
(To protect confidentiality, the writer’s name and identifying information have been changed.)