How To Grieve

“You care so much you feel as though you will bleed to death with the pain of it.” 

-J.K. Rowling

 

I have been to the doctor a dozen times since the first time my heart broke in two. Lab tests and ultrasounds relentlessly search for the hint of anything wrong—my thyroid and hormone levels gone wacky; that pesty little cyst that took up residence inside of me.

 

With accuracy, my doctor can describe the state of my physical health. A crushed soul, leaking from pain, remains hidden from every diagnostic. 

 

That pain is called grief. Grief is that companion you never wanted. After you lose something you deeply love, it is like that annoying childhood cousin at a family picnic--everywhere you turn, he is there.  He sneaks into bed with you at night and jumps in the shower with you in the morning. On your drive to work, he sits in the passenger seat, playing with your radio knobs until he finds every sad song that will make you cry.

 

We often think we only grieve the loss of a person. Actually, we grieve the loss of anything we loved deeply.

A dream.

A job.

A home.

A marriage.

A relationship.

A pregnancy.

Health.

Feeling of security.

Financial stability.

Youth and beauty.

 

If any loss feels like it crushed a part of who we are, then we must learn how to grieve its departure and arise from it strong and healthy.

 

I know what grief looks like. In the beginning it is quite obvious. We wear it, daily, on the outside.

Puffy eyes.

Cheeks stained red from salty tears that burn the skin.

Wet pillow cases as you lay curled up in bed.

Empty ice cream containers consumed in an attempt to numb the pain.

Hollowness in your eyes from staring too long at the distant horizon—hoping something you love may just reappear.

 

Months pass, and then it is nearly impossible to find the external marks of grief even when the internal bleeding continues. Our one-time companions in our grief, along with their sympathy and condolences, move on. They no longer remember that relentless cousin riding piggy back on your life. You, however, feel its weight daily.

 

You start to worry: “Shouldn’t I be over this by now? I must be crazy or weak.”

 

One day you rise determined to move on. The following day, resolve wanes and you start to fear. How can you live without something you treasured so much? If you allow yourself to heal, it might completely disappear.

 

As a culture, we are obsessed with being one of the strong souls. When the process seems too long and painful, we bury it deep. Every attempt is made to move on quickly so we can be the stable pillar for our family and work place.  No one, including ourselves, knows what to do with that cousin that uninvitingly pops in at the most inconvenient moments. And believe me! No one wants to see you ugly cry.

Photo courtesy Nick Puccini's facetime chat

Photo courtesy Nick Puccini's facetime chat

 

We bury the pain and believe that once it is hidden under a pile of dirt, we can move on.

 

Our sadness may have been successfully buried, but it was never buried dead. It remains alive underground, and one day will emerge.

 

It can emerge years later as anger, depression, avoidance of intimacy, cowardice, anxiety, the inability to be vulnerable, or a complete lack of direction and purpose. 

 

We can’t bury our cousin alive. We must learn to live with that rascal. Wrestle with it. Talk to it. Heal.

 

Brene Brown, well respected psychological researcher, wrote this:

"Our silence about grief serves no one. We can’t heal if we can’t grieve; we can’t forgive if we can’t grieve. We run from grief because loss scares us, yet our hearts reach toward grief because the broken parts want to mend. C. S. Lewis wrote, 'No one ever told me that grief felt so like fear.' We can’t rise strong when we’re on the run."

 

Four years ago, at a low point in my depression {you can read more about my journey with depression here}, my husband’s life coach sat at our long, wooden dining table in Tallinn, Estonia. He asked me a simple question.

 

“Olivia. What things have you lost in life that you really cared about? I’ve heard it said that depression is often a result of unresolved grief.”

 

That day started my own personal journey. I realized I had a habit of toughening up and powering through loss. It seemed natural to grieve during the loss of my wonderful Grandma Grace. Now I am in the process of grieving other things I always deemed too simple to get emotional about. 

 

There is the loss of what I always thought my life would be {even though what I currently have is good; I still need to acknowledge that I loved the other dream too}.

The loss of my ability to perform.

The loss of education dreams.

The loss of beauty as I age.

The loss of some freedoms.

 

I can hear some of you already advising me to not get hung up on grieving such shallow things.

 

I agree with you, but I can no longer bury the truth. The truth is…for some reason, to me--they mattered. I must learn to say goodbye and accept they are gone, because everything within me wants to finally mend.

 

Six months ago, I scheduled a skype appointment with one of my favorite people on the planet--my therapist in Akron, Ohio, USA. It felt as if grief filled every corner of my mind and heart’s limited free space. That unrelenting cousin had made me so incredibly tired.

 

She advised me: "In counseling, we are taught that there are five steps in the grieving process. They don’t have to be experienced in order, and some don’t even experience them all, but it will help you understand the journey.

 

  • Denial: This cannot be happening to me.

  • Anger: Why is this happening? Who is to blame?

  • Bargaining: Please make this not happen, and in return I will ______.

  • Depression: I am too sad to do anything.

  • Acceptance: I am at peace with what happened.

 

If you are experiencing any of these emotions following a loss, it is helpful to know that your reaction is natural and that you will heal with time. On average, they say this takes about two years; but differs from person to person.

 

Don’t hold it in. There is nothing wrong with letting yourself feel these emotions. It is also important you process them with someone you trust--preferably someone who has also experienced grief. Little by little you move from thinking about it every second of every day, to a few times a day, and then one day you will wake up and notice that some days go by when you don’t think about it all. You are healing, but slowly. Don't give up hope. The end of grief will come.”

 

I guess our soul is not that different from our bodies after all.

 

Eighteen months ago, I jumped off a wooden box at Crossfit. I landed with all of my weight on my right ankle, twisted towards the floor. I felt a crack resonate through my tendons so loudly that our trainer even heard it. I remember crawling to the box, writhing in pain and tearless {I had to appear strong somehow}.

 

The ER doctor confirmed via Xrays that it was a very bad sprain. I begged him to let me get back to exercise in a few weeks. He looked at me, clicked his tongue, and replied in a thick Russian accent.

“Weeks? This is a bad one. I say months.”

 

I was determined that I could heal quicker. Within three days, my stubborn soul was back at Crossfit; pushing myself to do as much as I could. I secretly gained pride when my classmates “ooed and awed” as I removed my ankle brace to reveal my new natural sock consisting of black and purple bruises. I was one of the strong ones.

 

I kept exercising, but I was not healed. When I tried to run or jump, pain would shoot through my ankle. Months passed, and although no one could see the pain, it felt like my muscles were still limping on the inside. I started to believe that the pain would never go away. I had lost the health of that ankle; true recovery was not possible.

 

Finally I stopped fighting my inner ego and injury. I allowed myself to start the process of recovery. My sports therapist gave me exercises. Weekly visits to hot yoga allowed me to stretch the ankle to its max in deep heat.

 

One day, nearly nine months after the accident, without even really noticing it, the limp was gone.

 

The pain has disappeared, but the ankle is forever changed. It does not forget that it endured an incredibly painful tendon rupture and loss. When there is a sudden change in weather or humidity, that ankle starts to swell with a muted inner pain.

 

No matter how strong or stubborn I try to be, I still have a fear of those stupid wooden boxes at Crossfit. I’ve made myself learn to jump them again, but some days are better than others. Last week, I went to jump, felt the fear grip me, and landed square on the hard wooden edges with my shins. Bruises returned as a sign that I still bear a scar of fear.

 

When we surrender to the process of healing, our souls can learn to dance again. They may never be completely the same. On certain days, it may just have to be good enough to feel a little bit of the pain and dance with a limp. But we will dance.

 

I have my own personal “Liv Theory” that has not been researched or verified. It is this: one of the final signs of healing from grief is the ability to dream again.

 

We finally start to envision the possible future without that person.

We let go of our old goals, and begin to plan real adventures we can still accomplish with the life and circumstances we currently have.

We dream that maybe, just maybe, we can find a friendship or love that wonderful once more.

 

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love  and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable. – C.S. Lewis

 

We were given the awesome privilege to love someone or something. We still miss them like crazy, but instead of growing into a hard fossil that once knew life, we allow ourselves to experience grief.

We acknowledge the love and pain.

We let go of all guilt.

We forgive ourselves.

We wrestle that steering wheel out of the greasy hands of that cousin, turn the radio to an upbeat song that makes us softly smile, and drive into a future that is both beautiful and bittersweet.

Photo courtesy of Heather Edwards - Book:  Bittersweet  by Shauna Niequest

Photo courtesy of Heather Edwards - Book: Bittersweet by Shauna Niequest

*********************************************************  Liv's Bonus Tips for Grief

  • Tip #1: The Healer of the Heart

I love the words of Fyodor Dostoyevsky in Crime and Punishment:

“The darker the night, the brighter the stars, 

The deeper the grief, the closer is God!” 

Although I am still in the process of grieving some things, I am sure of one thing: I would never want to walk through this process without God.

Why do I need God? We have doctors who heal our bodies, but who can heal the inner person? God is the one healer of the true heart and soul--teaching me to mend, regain innocence and truly forgive the unforgivable.

I feel Him whisper to my spirit: Just keep your eyes on me. See me. I know what you feel. I hurt with you, and I will lead you home.

So, simply, every day I choose to see Him and hold on to His love above all else.

If you don’t believe in God, perhaps saying the above just discounted all the great things I wrote before. Let me explain. You can read why I believe something so unbelievable HERE.

  • Tip #2:

Complicated Grief

Sometimes you try everything, give time for healing, but still are so overcome with sadness. This is called "complicated grief," and may require some outside help to overcome. If you have been living with sadness far too long and it inhibits your life, please see your doctor or a mental health professional. Your life is worth living, and you must be able to dream again. Here is an article by one of America's best hospitals, the Mayo Clinic, about the symptoms of complicated grief. 

 

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