“No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.” ~ C.S. Lewis
Grief is uncomfortable. It makes us uncomfortable when we have it. It makes others around us uncomfortable. It’s why friends sometimes turn away in the face of our grief or drip useless platitudes (“everything happens for a reason”) in our ears or suggest that we “should be over it” by now. All you know is that your heart is broken. It hurts. You’ve got butterflies in your stomach or scorching heartburn. You want people to go away. You fear being alone. Sometimes you feel like your head is wrapped in a blanket. Sometimes all you can do is cry.
Grief is a natural and normal reaction to loss of any kind. If you’ve found yourself here, you’ve experienced a deep and traumatic loss. Unfortunately, grief is a neglected and misunderstood process. “Grief is the conflicting feelings caused by the end of or change in a familiar pattern of behavior," The Grief Recovery Handbook tells us. What might those conflicting feelings look like for you right now? Well, you may feel relief at the realization that you are not crazy and have not been imagining that something has been wrong all this time, and horrified that you have lost your sense of safety or trust in someone you counted on. The familiarity of your relationship is gone, your partner has been replaced by a stranger and yet, you are in your home with the same things around you. It feels unreal.
Most of what people tell us in the wake of a loss, in an effort to comfort us or help us “recover” can be accurate but leave us feeling empty, shamed and isolated. We feel unheard and our pain goes unacknowledged. Much of what we have been taught about grief doesn’t help us process it.
Some of the myths about grief include this idea of stages and that we must all go through all of them in a certain order. False. The stages of grief were developed around people dealing with a fatal diagnosis with a disease. These same stages, while helpful, do not apply in all situations. You may have denial (this can’t be happening) or you may go straight to this happened, now what?
Another myth is that some losses are impossible to recover from, that you will “never get over it.” Also false. Many of your thoughts and feelings will be painful post-betrayal. However, not forgetting is not the same as not getting over it.
Yet another unhelpful notion associated with grief is the idea of closure. A divorce brings closure but it does not help you become emotionally complete. It doesn’t resolve all the painful events that may have led to the divorce. Having all the gory details of your partner’s affair will not necessarily help you feel better. You need some answers, yes. But none of those answers bring closure. Rather they help you understand where you are and may help point the direction you need to go in order to become emotionally complete with the person who hurt you.
Another word I don’t like? Survivor. It means we are identified by the event or circumstances that harmed us and we are not free to leave those circumstances behind. Survivor is an identity built out of pain. No thanks.
Some of the ways we are taught to deal with grief are not helpful. We are told often in childhood “don’t cry,” “don’t feel bad,” “if you are going to cry, go to your room.” We are taught that we are faulty for feeling bad. We are taught that we must grieve alone. We are taught we need to leave people alone to cry. We are taught to replace the loss (don’t be sad we can get a new puppy, you can still have more kids etc.). Time heals all wounds; nope. As we discussed recently, it’s what you do with the time that matters. Something is not going to magically change unless we DO something about it. We are also told that we must “be strong for others.” What does this even mean? Does it mean not show your grief? It’s confusing because it is undoable. It’s one of those pieces of conventional wisdom that gets passed around but that has no foundation. We are told to keep busy, to distract ourselves from our pain, to make more days go by. But being busy in no way helps us complete our pain. It’s exhausting. We are taught to compare our grief and feel shame about it (well at least I don’t have it as bad as Sally. She’s been divorced 15 times and all her exes cheated on her.) Your grief is legitimate, even if you are sad about the loss of your child’s goldfish. Someone else having it worse does not in any way make or require you to feel better or not sad. And then there are the people all around us who want us to be “fine” and put on our happy face so they don’t have to be uncomfortable any more.
One of the other things we do is try to apply short-term pain relievers and think they will provide long-term relief, such as food, alcohol/drugs, anger, exercise, isolation, sex, workaholism, retail therapy, escape into fantasy (tv, movies books). These things probably sound familiar and are not necessarily dangerous until they are done for the wrong reasons. The danger is because they do provide some short-term relief but are not addressing the root of the loss and are not helping you process your grief.
So, if all these things we’ve been taught about grief keep us stuck, what are we to do? Honestly, I don’t have a clear and easy answer. I’ve been passing through more grief lately myself. As I come to terms with just how short-lived my soon to be ex’s epiphany was and that he’s already doing the alcoholic’s spiral again, I find myself grieving the end of my marriage for a second (or third?) time. It is made even more real because I’m the one choosing this time and I’m letting go of the fantasy that he will ever step up and be a person who deserves me. I’m sad about it because despite everything, I still care about him. I remember him and us and our hopes and dreams, from long ago. I’m grieving the loss of those things. And it saddens me for my children, who may yet have more to rumble with. It’s another kind of loss.
But processing our grief requires that we be honest with ourselves about what has and is happening. That we make space in our days for feeling sad or whatever comes up. That we sit with grief rather than resist it. Invite it in. “Hey grief, I see you. What do you have for me today? What business can we wrap up? What can we let go of?” We need to think about what happened in our past that is causing this to hurt so much now and how do we get complete with that hurt. Do we write a letter that we don’t send? Do we have a conversation with someone? Do we reach out for comfort and support? Do we cry even if people are looking?
We all will recover in different ways but some of my new rules are:
Don’t grieve alone.
Feel my feelings.
Don’t compare grief.
Take responsibility for my healing.
I don’t have to be strong for others (not even my kids). I just need to be real.
Avoid short-term pain relievers.
Speak my grief.
“…our silence about grief serves no one. We can’t heal if we don’t grieve; we can’t forgive if we don’t grieve. We run from grief because loss scares us, yet our hearts reach toward grief because the broken parts want to mend.” ~ Brene Brown